Max DeCurtins considers the “authenticity” of adapting children’s books and ponders the labor value of the Oompa Loompas in his re-view of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.


Tim Burton quite possibly may be every nerdy kid’s hero. He’s living proof that being quirky and different, while it may not win you many friends in high school, can in adulthood serve as the foundation for a wildly successful career with many devoted fans. His protagonists often count among their number the outcast, the downtrodden, the different. I’m certainly impressed by Burton, but I think certain of his movies stand a head taller than the rest. Some of Burton’s films feel contrived; others feel almost inexplicably inspired.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though not without its weaknesses, falls squarely on the inspired side of things and counts, I believe, as one of Burton’s best creations. The whole film shimmers with imaginative imagery in the unmistakably bizarre aesthetic that I expect from Burton, which along with Danny Elfman’s score and Johnny Depp in a lead role attracts most viewers. Freddie Highmore gives a wonderfully delicate and honest performance as Charlie Bucket, and the supporting cast turns in what I would call a solid ensemble performance. If anything, Depp’s performance, like his roles in the later Pirates movies, seems the most uneven—at times spot-on and other times deeply forced. What’s clear in the book is that Willy Wonka as a person is deeply eccentric; where Burton differs from Dahl is in his characterization of Willy Wonka’s eccentricity. Dahl’s Wonka generally comes off as sweetly mischievous and a jokester, while Burton’s version of the character seriously makes us wonder if Wonka might secretly be a psychotic serial rapist-murderer of the type usually depicted gruesomely on tiresome shows like Criminal Minds, CSI, Law and Order and NCIS. (Note to the crime show people: How many ways can there be to murder a person? Y’all have twisted imaginations, and it’s time for something else on TV.)

With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it genuinely feels as though Burton has hit on the essence of Roald Dahl’s dark humor. Dahl’s literature for children, as most of us know from reading his books as children ourselves, tends to portray worlds where the natural balance of things is “off”—where children may model virtue better than the adults, or where magical and wild things happen. Already known for adapting Dahl (producing 1996’s James and the Giant Peach), Burton chose to continue his well-known collaborations with Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman, and in this movie the team definitely delivers. Beyond existing solely as a “more authentic” film realization of Dahl’s book (a little more on this later in the re-view), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is as relevant in a time of mind-boggling inequality and conflicting social and technological priorities as any movie we’re likely to see. I don’t remember exactly how I first saw the movie but I do know that at the time I saw it, I subconsciously tallied all the ways in which it differed from the movie I had grown up watching, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971. This is the movie most of us remember, so it deserves a few words.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may bear only a casual relationship to Roald Dahl’s novel, but by my count nobody has won the Internet with memes of Johnny Depp from his turn as the canny candymaker. It has Gene Wilder and a few nice melodies, but that’s about it. Though his name still appears under the screenplay credit, Dahl renounced his prior approval of the movie due to the massive changes to the story made by the producer, David Wolper, and the screenwriter, David Seltzer. The book, as we all know, makes only a brief mention of fizzy lifting drinks (certainly no secretive swig by Charlie and Grandpa Joe), contains only a passing reference to Slugworth, and absolutely never depicts Willy Wonka dressing down Charlie. I long felt that this plot twist, which assumed that Charlie was a sinner just like everybody else—and had him tempted and redeemed—smacked just a little too much of Christian theology, which is possibly the biggest offense Willy Wonka could have committed against Dahl’s story.


Roald Dahl’s strong turn away from religion followed personal hardships he suffered in war and personal losses he endured in his family; in other words, he lost his faith the hard way. Growing up between the World Wars, Dahl saw the definitive shift of the twentieth century away from the world his parents had known, and towards something unknown and likely quite scary. Despite his lack of religious identification, Dahl’s works still exude a strong moralistic tone. I thus read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a morality play for the twentieth century, window-dressed in a world of candy inspired, apparently, by Cadbury’s influence in Dahl’s grammar school days. While the story doesn’t employ the historical device of morality plays, that of personifying virtues as characters, it does map four out of the five children rather handily to particular Deadly Sins: Augustus Gloop (gluttony), Violet Beauregarde (pride), Veruca Salt (greed), and Mike Teavee (sloth). The fact that the children are enabled or even encouraged by their parents shows that Dahl’s real criticism is reserved for the adults; what parent wouldn’t criticize another for standing idly by while their children get themselves into trouble? For that is, of course, exactly what the bratty children’s parents do; they watch their children get sucked up the chocolate pipe, or get blown up into a blueberry, or thrown in the garbage chute, or zapped into insignificance like so much Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

The moral criticism leveled by Charlie seemed obvious to me ten years ago, but it seems even more so now. Why? Ten years ago, as incredible as it sounds, smartphones did not exist. Now, we live in a time when almost every human, adult and child alike, carries a ridiculously powerful computer—and witness the result. We’ve all seen it: the parents absorbed by their smartphones while their children carry on, either throwing a fit or just straining for attention and interaction. Indeed, op-ed writers now fret over the ubiquity of smartphones and what they do to our social fabric. (Holy shit, I just realized that we’re living “The Game” episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like, not even sort of. Literally.) There hasn’t been, I think, a more relevant time for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As I re-viewed Charlie, I found myself struck by how strongly (perhaps unconsciously) Burton’s reading is suffused throughout with whispers of the Rust Belt. Charlie takes place in a factory town: it might be Youngstown, Ohio; Pontiac, Michigan; Liverpool, England; Gary, Indiana. Brownstones abound along tidy and well-defined city blocks. Charlie’s father worked for a time at a toothpaste factory, and Grandpa Joe once worked for Willy Wonka himself. If we can infer from Grandpa Joe’s history, Willy Wonka presumably employed much of the local population in his factory; with the increasing theft of his intellectual property, a concern of which we are all aware nowadays, he fired all his workers and—what luck—just happened to come across a tribe of people called Oompa Loompas during his travels, who just happened to stand to benefit from leaving their native land and coming to work in Willy Wonka’s factory. Suggestions of slavery aside (the first American edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I own, illustrates the Oompa Loompas as pygmy black people), the fact that Wonka’s closing of the factory probably plunged a lot of hardscrabble, blue-collar factory workers into unemployment and poverty—including Grandpa Joe—goes unmentioned. We get the sense that, whatever town this might be, it probably used to be more economically vibrant than it is now, and the factory is at least partially responsible.

The factory, in Burton’s imagination, is a cathedral: it stretches toward the sky in the manner of a grand Gothic structure, and Elfman’s score characterizes it with the sound of the organ. We frequently see the town from the vantage point of the top of the factory. The organ is not a friendly instrument; forbidding in physical stature and intimidating to play, in our cultural heritage it conjures thoughts of Dracula, scary cobweb-laced castles, and (in more unfortunate circles) the Phantom of the Opera. At the same time, the organ has a long history of glorious music inspiring awe and devotion. In a way, the factory represents a physical manifestation of the organ music that characterizes it; the smokestacks of the factory resemble the tall pipes of an organ. We frequently see the town from the perspective of high atop the factory, and it’s not hard to notice how small, lifeless, and insignificant the town seems by comparison. Burton and Elfman manage to elicit both aspects in their portrayal of Willy Wonka’s factory, a place that awes, commands dedication for its place in the town’s economic history, but also inspires fear.


Both Willy Wonka and Charlie feature chocolate factories in their opening credits, but whileWilly Wonka shows us luscious, glimmering close-up footage of melted chocolate, Charlieshows us a wide-angle view of the manufacturing process: synchronized, faceless, unfriendly—accompanied as ever by Elfman’s slightly creepy, distorted mini-vocalizations. The closer we get to the shipping out of the packaged candy bars, the clearer it becomes that the synchronized retraction of the loading conveyors and the departure of the trucks represents the tireless and dehumanized process that keeps products flowing to the masses; the factory is not our friend. We also see perfectly-timed, robotic actions of a more human workforce—that of Mr. Salt’s nut factory—as they unwrap cases of Wonka bars in a high-volume, high-cost search for a Golden Ticket. When one of the women (and yes, they are all women) discovers the prize, a watchful Mr. Salt appears almost immediately to snatch the ticket from her grasp. The power of this scene lies not only in the pregnant visual of Mr. Salt snatching the Golden Ticket from the worker—a literal interpretation of wage theft from labor and the exploitative behavior of the 1%—but also in the irony that those sorts of factory jobs by and large don’t exist anymore, at least not in the United States. They exist, to some extent, in places like China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, countries whose human rights records our government routinely assails. Women’s professional and economic power, represented by Rosie the Riveter, is well-known to have played a major role in American wartime and post-war productivity (Dahl, informed by his experiences in the RAF during the Second World War, would certainly have been aware of the similar phenomenon in Britain). So the scene of Mr. Salt’s female factory workers shelling away tempts us to recall a positive piece of our history. Our present culture invites us, however, to read this scene as deeply flawed: the women aren’t doing skilled jobs, jobs that will lead them to positions of management and C-suite power later in their careers. Dahl only describes Mr. Salt’s method of finding the Golden Ticket for Veruca, which might lead a lesser filmmaker to think “OK, I’ll show a bunch of people unwrapping candy bars, and that will be that,” but Burton manages to make this brief scene full of relevant discomfort.

Earlier in this re-view I promised a (short) discussion of the idea of “Authenticity,” scare quotes and capitalization both very much intentional. Allow me to explain why. The most obvious reason for Charlie to have been made is that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factoryis a relic of a time when much less respect was given to the source material. Wolper, Stuart, et al made a movie that reflected the ethos of its time, and in their zeal to make a movie that they thought would appeal to the widest possible audience, they altered and added material ad nauseam. “Based on the book by” is, as Sam Seaborn of The West Wing put it, “a loophole so big you could race the America’s Cup through it.” With the advent of movie franchises based on ridiculously popular book series—I’m looking at you, Harry Potter andTwilight—the meaning of this phrase has, I would argue, narrowed significantly. The financial and critical success of movies adapted from books now depends as never before on the directors, producers, and screenwriter(s) not taking too many “based on” liberties, for fear of an angry Internet of fans with real and immediate power to affect the performance of the movie at the box office and beyond. Surely aware of this, and above all mindful of Dahl’s disowning of Willy Wonka, Dahl’s estate exercised a significant degree of artistic control over the development of Charlie, and were apparently highly pleased by the choice of Burton to direct the film, and secondary sources seem to indicate that the Dahl estate expressed a great deal of confidence in Burton’s understanding of Dahl’s work.


The irony in all this is of course that Tim Burton fabricated material as much as David Wolper ever did, producing a movie whose level of “Authenticity” relative to its predecessor is, at the very least, open to debate. The book does not contain any backstory on Willy Wonka; certainly it doesn’t mention a controlling, emotionally cold father—though admittedly the late Christopher Lee fits the role perfectly. Moreover, Burton uses this as the principal explanation of Wonka’s character and personality. The implication here is of course that the source material, Dahl’s book, is lacking; Willy Wonka, apparently, does not have sufficient personality to make him into a functional character onscreen, therefore, a backstory is needed. What this does is impose a modern prejudice on a context to which it doesn’t apply; in the study of Western art music, at least, we have spent a large chunk of the twentieth century trying to get out of the business of doing just that, of grappling with the willingness of performers and scholars to dismiss or alter the very stuff of which they claimed to be the vanguard. And yet we cannot slavishly attempt to remove ourselves from the picture. Richard Taruskin, writing in On Letting the Music Speak for Itself, argues that “Authenticity stems from conviction,” which is gained through the lenses of culture and interpretation. Certainly we can all agree that when directors direct a movie, actors act in it, and studios agree to finance the whole operation to the tune of a hundred million dollars or more, they are doing it with conviction. Can we really call Charlie any more “authentic” than Willy Wonka? Perhaps not, at least not in the absolutist sense, but we can marvel at just how well Burton exemplifies Taruskin’s exhortation to performers of all stripes: “Let us indeed try out everything we may learn about in every treatise, every archival document, every picture, every literary description, and the more adventurously the better. But let us not do it in a spirit of dutiful self-denial or with illusions that the more knowledge one garners, the fewer decisions one will have to make.”

Ten years after its release, Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems as perceptive as ever. What I missed the first time around is that Burton finds a way to make the sickly humorous aspects of Dahl both subtle and topical. On the surface of things, it’s still a delightful movie, but I realize that the depth is there, too. I’m also less impressed this time by most of the Oompa Loompa musical numbers, but more impressed by the overall non-vocal score. Chief among the concerns for vocal music composition is that the text being sung should be clearly understandable to the listener. Unfortunately a few of the songs, particularly Violet’s song about chewing gum, fail on this and get muddled by the instrumental arrangement. That said, Danny Elfman continues to show his grit as someone who thoroughly knows the ins and outs of his business, as he navigates skillfully between Bollywood and Beatles styles of music. I find it fascinating that journalists who have written about Elfman so frequently use superlatives like “unforgettable” to refer to his scores; it’s hardly accurate (how many of his themes can you hum from memory?), and at the same time it conveniently ignores a general cultural unwillingness to compensate musicians respectably for the production and use of their music. Elfman’s score for Charlie has all the manic touches that make his musical style such a good fit for Burton’s darkly weird aesthetic, includingostinati consisting entirely of the words “Oompa Loompa.” Upon re-view, it’s Elfman’s main themes, not the Oompa Loompa musical numbers, that remind me of the work he did for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has got to be one of the best musical scores I’ve ever heard in my life.

And not only is Charlie perceptive in its realization of Dahl’s book; it’s appropriate to the issues we currently face as a country that must decide what kind of country it would like to be, and what it would like its relationship with other countries to be like. Charlie invokes issues very much relevant to current discourse: socioeconomic inequality, intellectual property, technological disruption, and instant gratification and overindulgence. It doesn’t explore these issues per se, but I think that if you watch closely enough, you’ll begin to see these extra layers everywhere. Definitely re-view this one for yourselves; it’s delectable.


Free-Floating Thoughts


Who blasts through the roof of someone’s home in a glass elevator and then starts rummaging through that person’s cabinets? That’s some fucked up shit.

Star Trek has Trekkies. The Grateful Dead have Deadheads. And Danny Elfman has…Elfmaniacs. Apparently this is actually a thing.

I was disturbed to learn in the process of writing this re-view that Warner Brothers had considered everyone from Christopher Walken to Brad Pitt for the role of Willy Wonka. Brad Pitt…really, Warner Brothers? Really?

Are the Oompa Loompas unionized?

Gene Wilder’s entrance in Willy Wonka is some totally able-ist shit. Stevi Costa, amirite?

How is it even possible that no adults found any of the Golden Tickets? I realize we have to take it as an article of faith for the story that only children happened to find the Golden Tickets, but this is quite possibly the bit of disbelief that proves hardest to suspend. Seeing as I’m about to teach myself statistics in advance of a class on machine learning and data mining, I guess I’ll find out just how ridiculous this bit of the story really is.

Saying that Tim Burton uses his visuals to critique capitalism and conformism is a little like saying that Kim Jong-un is batshit crazy; it speaks for itself. Burton’s visual aesthetic rarely fails to please, and here it almost positively demands to be viewed on a drug trip. I mean, come on—an edible paradise of delights in a riot of highly saturated colors, with a chocolate river and waterfall, and a UFO-looking contraption that extends its alien proboscises downward to suck up the chocolate? There’s a substance other than sucrose at work there, my friends. The visual splendor is all the more astounding considering that Burton used relatively few CGI effects.

The Bucket family subsists on cabbage soup, but after watching this movie several times, I kind of want to make something with a lot of cabbage in it. Is that weird?