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children's literature, childhood and culture (and anything else that strikes my fancy).

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Location: pittsburgh, U.S. Outlying Islands

carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening. New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

late-night brainstorm: willy wonka edition

Late last night, right before I fell asleep, I had a sudden revelation about the characterization of Willy Wonka in the new film version. It is this: Wonka here is utterly selfish and self-absorbed, which is, I think, quite a departure from the novel.

For example: upon meeting the five children, Depp's Wonka doesn't ask their names, and when the children introduce themselves, he reacts with revulsion, drawing back from them physically, and disinterest - after one of the girls says "I'm Violet Beauregard," Wonka looks down at her and says "I don't care."

The film hints as well that the demise of the four "bad" kids is premeditated - the children themselves wonder about the Oompa-Loompas' song-and-dance number after Augustus goes up the pipe, suggesting that it all seemed kind of rehearsed or planned. Wonka of course denies this, but in the squirrel room scene, Wonka is clearly scheming for the removal of both Veruca and her father. It's an oddly malicious side - Dahl's Wonka is clearly more concerned for his chocolate than for his guests, and isn't overly distressed at their mishaps, but he also never appears to have plotted out the various events.

The invention of the Wonka childhood backstory also gives the appearance of self-absorption - Wonka, lost in childhood flashbacks, is temporarily mentally absent from the tours. His reaction to Charlie's family and their poverty (he peeks into their bare cupboards) is to strip the family from Charlie, if Charlie wants the factory. In the novel, Wonka responds generously and sympathetically to Charlie and Grandpa Joe's obvious hunger and poverty - the scene where he gives them mugs of chocolate from the river saying "you look like you could use it" is preserved in the Burton film. But Depp's Wonka is not at all moved by the family's plight when directly confronted with it - he must first resolve his own "inner-child" issues.

This is reminiscent of James Kincaid's criticism at the end of his 1998 book Erotic Innocence, where he reprimands adult culture for taking care of itself and its own "inner child" better than it does actual children.

I'm thinking now that the vaguely sinister tone of the film, and focus on industrialization and mechanization, along with this kind of selfishness, really establishes Charlie again as the film's hero while casting Wonka as the corporate mastermind of a chocolate empire (in contrast to the 1971 film, where Wonka clearly takes center stage - the renaming of that film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory says it all).

I'll need to think this through more thoroughly, and I definitely need to see the film again, but there may be more smart stuff - really radically different than Dahl's novel or what one expects from a Chocolate Factory film - than I originally suspected.


Blogger Michele said...

Am I right in recalling that Charlie was the only one of the children who did *not* introduce himself, and that Wonka still knew who he was ? I wondered if Wonka's lack of interest in the children wasn't just self-absorption, but perhaps based on seeing them on the TV news after they won their tickets and feeling that he didn't want much to do with them (I wouldn't have done, in his shoes !) ? It's worth commenting on the very fact that Wonka does notice that Charlie and Grandpa Joe look starved, and so he offers them the chocolate from the river - he's not that nice to any of the other children... And perhaps he did set up the other children, knowing that they wouldn't be able to resist betraying their essential greediness (in various forms) ?

Just some random thoughts...

7:44 AM  

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