RETHINKING WILLY WONKA: ENJOYABLE VILLAINY

[NOTE: this post is available in Spanish at https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/]

My brilliant student Pol Vinyeta has written an excellent BA dissertation on one of Roald Dahl’s most popular books with the title “Don’t Trust the Candy Man: A Reading of Willy Wonka’s Enjoyable Villainy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Its Film Adaptations”. Pol chose this topic because it seemed that Matilda (his initial choice) had been dealt with in plenty of academic bibliography but there was a better chance to say something new about Charlie. The idea was to take my own work on villainy, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), and see in which ways Willy Wonka is indeed a villain, or not. We didn’t realize when we started work on the dissertation that Wonka would be constant news because of the fiftieth anniversary of the first film adaptation and the announcement of a third screen version. Serendipity at work, then.

Whereas in my book I took it for granted that the male characters I focused on were downright villains, with no redeeming features whatsoever, Pol concluded in his analysis that Willy Wonka appears to be a case of partial villainy, defined by “certain villainous traits”. In case you are an alien just landed on Earth and never heard of Wonka, allow me to say that in this novel for children Dahl tells the story of how this man –the world’s most renowned and most seclusive chocolatier– chooses an heir for his business among the children selected to visit his fairy-tale, colourful factory. The golden admission ticket is found in one of the myriad chocolate bars for sale, which of course makes Wonka even richer when kids all over the planet start buying his products like crazy. Charlie, a little boy raised in an extremely poor family (location undisclosed), gets lucky and the novel narrates how one by one the other children suffer accidents that result in only Charlie properly finishing the visit. Only then does Wonka disclose his plans for the boy he names his new heir. Among the villainous traits that Pol described are Wonka’s nonchalant cruelty towards the other children, his exploitative treatment of his imported workers the Oompa Loompas, and his sense of entitlement towards Charlie, who is not really given the chance to consider how Wonka appropriates his future. Pol’s thesis is that we do not see Wonka as a downright villain because Dahl uses humour to disguise his worst failings (and I would add because we perceive his rescuing Charlie from poverty as a positive action). Pol has called this villainy that gets away with it ‘enjoyable villainy’ and this is a label that intrigues me.

When one thinks of children’s literature it is quite clear that Lord Voldemort is the most potent villain ever threatening a child. There is some humour in the Harry Potter series, usually connected with the members of the Weasley family, but there is nothing humorous at all about Voldemort. Actor Ralph Fiennes, who played him in the film series, once said that if you take away all the fantasy trappings, Voldemort is an adult man abusing a boy and this is how we need to see him. There is nothing ‘enjoyable’, then, in Rowling’s treatment of this human monster. Perhaps, however, this is exceptional, for villains in children’s fictions are often exaggerated characters and because of that they are sources of humour, even though they may be themselves humourless. Pol mentioned as a case of humourless enjoyable villain the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In less fanciful circumstances, this perpetually cross authoritarian woman might be the stuff of Gothic nightmares but in the context of Lewis Carroll’s hyperexcited fabulation she is laughable. Likewise, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which I strongly recommend), Count Olaf is a source of amusement, even though his relentless persecution of the orphaned Baudelaire siblings is hardly fun for them. If we laugh at Olaf’s ridiculous antics this is only because we hope (and we know) he will lose and the Baudelaires prevail.

The question is that in comparison to either the Red Queen or Count Olaf, or any other villain in children’s fantasy you can think of, Willy Wonka is a very strange character. He is not at all like Olaf in wanting to deprive a child of their means of subsistence but he is not that far from Olaf in his cavalier approach to the safety of the children who visit the factory. Humour in Dahl’s novel is based on the idea that, with Charlie’s exception, the other kids (ages 9 to 10) are insufferable brats: Augustus Gloop is an obese boy who can’t stop eating; Violet Beauregarde is an appallingly rude, gum-chewing, vain girl; Veruca Salt (surely the ugliest name ever for a little girl) is a dreadful spoiled brat, and Mike Teavee is a coach potato who only thinks of watching television. Their unseemly ends (if they end at all, it must be said) are presented by the author as well-deserved punishments and gloated over by Wonka to the consternation of the parents. In fact, the whole point of the book seems to torment these children for a) there is no reason the golden tickets could not have found their way to better children, b) Wonka could have selected his heir in many other ways, c) nice Charlie’s presence among this bunch is that of an odd-man-out. Someone here is a sadist who hates a certain type of child, and I’ve never been sure whether this is Dahl or Wonka. Either way, the message sent is not very encouraging and seems to appeal to the lowest instincts of the young readers rather then attempt any re-education of the insufferable visitors.

Then, there is the matter of the Oompa Loompas. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964 when it was till acceptable, it seems, to present Wonka’s tireless workers as tiny exotic indigenes from an unnamed land. In the first pictorial representations the Oompa Loompas were represented as African pygmies. By 1971, when the first adaptation was filmed, this was problematic enough for them to be played by actors in orange make-up and green wigs, though said actors were dwarves. In the 2005 version by Tim Burton Indian-Kenyan actor Deep Roy, also a dwarf, was cast as all the Oompa Loompas, as if they were clones. Why Wonka’s enslaved worked are short, non-white persons has been never satisfactorily explained, though there seems to be a connection with (of course) Snow White’s seven companions and, more directly, with the Munchkins in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. I cannot imagine, however, how this unmistakeably racist aspect of Dahl’s novel is going to be treated in Paul King’s forthcoming third adaptation. Ironically, Dahl wanted Charlie originally to be a black boy, but his editors told him nobody would buy a book for children with that type of protagonist.

Because of Pol’s dissertation, I have recently revisited the 1971 version with Gene Wilder as Wonka and found it a film few contemporary children might enjoy. Reviewing it recently in The Guardian, Guy Lodge calls it “a clunky film that Roald Dahl rightly hated”. Apparently, even though the author appears as sole author of the script, this went through many changes he was never informed about. Dahl wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers to play Wonka and, siding with him, Lodge announces in his subtitle that “The years haven’t been kind to Gene Wilder and his underplayed performance as the sadistic chocolatier in a cheap and poorly made adaptation”. I must say that although Wilder’s creep factor is significant I found Johnny Depp’s 2005 Wonka even creepier with his silly page cut and his ultra-white teeth. Pol claims that Depp’s recent scandals have destroyed his performance to the eyes of adult spectators that would possibly not share this film with their children, and I would agree. Even without the scandals, though, I find very little to enjoy in Burton’s version which, besides, seems to be a forerunner of the current deplorable trend to justify villainy with melodramatic stories of abuse suffered by the villains in childhood (here Wonka’s father was a dentist who did not allow his son to eat sweets). The announced new film, with cute Timothée Chalamet as Wonka goes in that same direction.

For me, proof that Dahl was not sure about what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was about is the fact the failed sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972) does not deal at all with Charlie Bucket’s assumption of his role as Wonka’s heir but with rather nonsensical space adventure on board the magical elevator. Apparently, the original novel was inspired by Dahl’s participation as a schoolboy in the testing of new products by Cadbury in the 1930s, and by its rivalry with the other great English chocolate maker, Rowntree. I think it makes perfect sense that the child Dahl’s fantasy of being able to visit and maybe own the place where the secretive chocolatiers of Cadbury made their product grew into the adult writer’s fantasy about Wonka’s factory. I also believe that this is what made the novel so popular: not Wonka himself, the Oompa Loompas or the brats’ fates, but the idea of the factory (just as Harry Potter appeals to kids mainly because of Hogwarts). Possibly, this is why so many outlets exploit that spirit (it seems that diverse coffee shop chains offer Willy Wonka brews for adults). In my view, though, Dahl did not make the most of his material, not knowing how to establish a relationship between Wonka and too-nice-to-be-true Charlie, and undermining the sense of wonder created by the factory with the ill-treatment the other kids get. I put myself in the shoes of Charlie’s parents and I would be far from charmed by Mr. Wonka’s attentions towards my child, which are pretty much proprietary, and not really clear at all (just consider why Wonka has no children of his own).

Does all this amount nonetheless to a good, solid case of ‘enjoyable villainy’? I think it does, and I thank Pol for teaching me that some villains are only partially so because humour makes their villainous traits acceptable. On the whole, I would have been happier with a less ambiguous characterization for Wonka –one in which, for instance, Charlie accepts the prize but calls him to task for his awful exploitation of the Oompa Loompas who are then given proper contracts. On the other hand, though children are good at enjoying black humour, often present in TV cartoon series, I wonder what exactly they ‘enjoy’ when reading Dahl’s Charlie. In Matilda this little girl’s parents are despicable persons who must be punished and the lesson learned is that whoever neglects a child only deserves disrespect. The girl protagonist is empowered, and so are the little readers. Willy Wonka embodies Dahl’s notion that bad parenting is to blame for badly-behaved children and so parents and brats are one way or another punished by him, but this is done with great cruelty and appears to have no bearing on passive Charlie’s empowerment (except, of course, that he is a naturally good boy and is rewarded for that). We might simply say that Wonka is too flamboyant and too free to bow down to anything, and this is why he is enjoyable despite his villainous traits. Still, I believe something is amiss. The humour, it seems to me, hides the shortcomings of the novel rather than be an integral part of the story of how Charlie met Wonka.

As for the new film, do we really need more villain origin stories? I should think that we don’t. We need new stories, and breaking out of this constant recycling of what talented writers (like Dahl) did in the past as we consider in more depth how their works survive in our day, and the enjoyability of certain villains. Thanks Pol!

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