As any moviegoer knows, charismatic heroes of the screen often personify what we wish we could be or what we aspire to do. Legendary but believable heroes of film include Atticus Finch, Clarice Starling or Rick Blaine, for example. But when it comes to the films of the last few decades, contemporary leading characters generally leave much to be desired from the Hollywood formulas that produce them. This is especially disappointing given the gloom and doom that has engulfed the United States — and much of the world — over the last several years.
As passé as it might sound, Willy Wonka as portrayed by Gene Wilder in Mel Stuart’s 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” has always stood out to me as one of the most fascinating and inspiring movie characters of all time. While the picture has an air of timelessness from its storybook ambiance, some may view it as dated. I, however, see some striking implications, parallels, and lessons from the film and its characters that reflect the contemporary United States, making it a more relevant morality tale than ever before.
Wilder offers one of the most convincing performances I’ve ever seen as the eccentric chocolatier who remains captivating after multiple viewings, partially because of the line he walks between charisma and ambiguity. Wonka shows a range of temperaments and many sides of himself throughout the film and yet, by the end, we have likely seen just a fraction of the character and we only have a vague idea of who he is. We learn very few facts about him and we never get to see him outside the context of his marvelous factory. It is the lingering, unanswered questions about the mysterious Wonka that keep pulling me back to the film.
The movie is based on Welsh author Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Tim Burton directed a remake in 2005, reincorporating the original book title, though offering a travesty of a film with a horribly miscast Johnny Depp as Wonka. Dahl passed away long before Burton’s film was released, so we cannot know his opinion of the 2005 effort, though he was reportedly greatly displeased with the result of the 1971 adaptation (even though he is credited as the screenwriter). While Stuart’s adaptation was criticized for not closely following the novel, Burton also took his share of creative liberties. The 2005 version lacks the heart of the original with its overproduction and CGI overkill. I was most upset by its insistence on developing a back story for Wonka, unlike the 1971 version where he largely remains an enigma. Notwithstanding literary-cinematic creative differences, Willy Wonka stands on its own as a fine motion picture and, in this essay, I focus on the 1971 film version of Wonka in isolation from other depictions or adaptations.
The story revolves around the reclusive Willy Wonka and his globally popular brand of candy. Wonka has been neither seen nor heard from in years and no one knows how his factory operates, since no one appears to work there. Wonka then unexpectedly announces a contest in which five golden tickets will be randomly distributed in the famous Wonka chocolate bar. Those who find them will be invited to bring a guest to tour Wonka’s factory and win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Various obnoxious kids find the first four tickets until Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), a poor boy living in the same unnamed town as Wonka’s factory, miraculously finds a golden ticket, and brings his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) along to experience the wonders of the factory.
While it is an unusual premise for a fairytale, the film delivers a wonderful, enduring message.
Though Charlie is the story’s protagonist, the film’s focus shifts to Wonka as the key character. But despite playing the titular character and receiving top billing, Wilder does not appear on screen for the first 45 minutes of the film. And while one might assume that a confectioner might have an affinity toward children, we find him to be aloof toward those who annoy him and uncaring toward those who do not heed the rules of the tour (and later meet their own peril in various disturbing but entertaining ways). Wilder plays Wonka so subtly and perfectly through his graceful movements and facial expressions, knowing exactly when to exaggerate the character or convey the utmost sincerity. The way he delivers his lines through his dry sarcasm, his perfectly timed literary quotes and the way he coolly responds to the parents when their foolish children get into serious trouble are highlights of Wilder’s performance.
The guests’ reactions toward Wonka are also telling. Only Charlie and Grandpa Joe show any sort of appreciation or approval of Wonka or his antics, while the others act like they own the place and show disrespect in a variety of ways. Note the suspicion, confusion and disdain the stereotypical businessmen Mr. Beauregarde and Mr. Salt show toward Wonka, as if they are unable to appreciate anything even slightly abnormal (excepting their parenting styles). That these characters are portrayed as earthy, money-conscious pragmatists in contrast to Wonka’s dreamy visionary is precisely one reason why they are so unappealing and why Wonka is so alluring. The infamous tunnel sequence illustrates this distinction when a horrified Mr. Salt exclaims, “You can’t possibly see where you’re going, Wonka!” And Wonka calmly and fearlessly replies, “You’re right. I can’t.” Like a true hero, Wonka remains unfazed by chaos and the unknown.
Further, it is clear from the climactic scene in his office just how savvy and unconventional a businessman Wonka is. No one could confuse Wonka with other cinematic moguls like Gordon Gekko or Daniel Plainview, as he is clearly not in the candy business just for the money. Pure imagination trumps the utilitarian in Wonka’s world. Perhaps the secret behind Wonka’s enormous success is his peculiarity, nonconformity and genuine passion for his work — just consider the nonsense juxtaposed with genius exemplified in the Inventing Room scene.
Beyond the basic moral of the story, what we can glean from examining this classic film in a contemporary political and economic context is that, if anything, we need more people like Willy Wonka, and far fewer people like the rotten children or their rotten parents, who are clearly doing what they do for the wrong reasons — and it shows.
Considered within this framework, those characters are symbolic of how the United States might have gotten so far off track. The four bratty kids who meet their fates in the factory represent the entitled generation with their selfish, demanding ways. Their parents represent the ostensible leaders of society (in both business and political sectors) through their cowardice and inability to set an example for those under them, to distinguish right from wrong and to take responsibility. Charlie and Grandpa Joe symbolize the honest, loyal, hard-working people, often thanklessly serving others, just trying to make a decent living and barely getting by, only to get blown off or pushed around. The Oompa-Loompas are obviously the pundits and social commentators. Whether Dahl was trying to convey this message with his original story is debatable, but characters like Willy Wonka are more useful to contemporary society than some lame superhero, the clichéd criminal with a heart of gold, the underdog athlete or any number of the improbable leading men we’ve seen in the movies countless times.
It’s troubling that our society takes such a strong interest in pure cinematic fantasy and escapism, opting for guns, explosions and special effects over creative and intellectual expansion, especially given the endless problems America is facing. We might need to rethink where we look and what we look for from our “heroes.” Adding to Willy Wonka’s moral, I posit that maybe we Americans, unlike most of his factory guests, should not be so dismissive or critical of creative eccentrics like Wonka. Charlie’s faith and loyalty toward Wonka ended up paying off, after all. And what distinguishes Wonka from most other heroic screen personalities is that he doesn’t represent an ideal; his quirks and curiosities only make him more appealing. One of the most amazing things I find about Wonka is that, allowing for a little suspension of disbelief, he really isn’t that unimaginable as far as what a real person could be; take Steve Jobs or Richard Branson, for example.
In the United States — and the world, really — we are desperately searching for a hero of some kind. Inspiration from the film industry has been sorely lacking in recent years. Wilder’s Wonka is a perfect example of a mentality and philosophy that our country seems to have misplaced. When we as a country feel as lost as we are today, and cannot seem to find our way out of the zany, funhouse-style factory we find ourselves trapped in, it is the Wonkas — the visionaries, the idealists, the innovators — whom we rely on for inspiration and to help guide us out. Otherwise, like Augustus, Violet, Veruca or Mike, we could become victims of our own greed, selfishness, intransigence and excess. Perhaps with the help of another, or even a real-life Willy Wonka, we can relearn the value of a good deed in a weary world.
Charles H. Wade, Ph.D., is a geographer by vocation and a writer/essayist by avocation. A lifelong cinephile, he currently lives in the Cincinnati area.