The Hollywood Reporter revealed this week that a Willy Wonka prequel is in the works. This is one of two Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptations coming soon, as Taika Waititi is writing and directing an adaptation of the book and its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, for Netflix. Well, well, well. If it isn’t an excuse for the upsettingly in-depth Wonka essay I’ve been drafting for months!
I take this subject very personally. The dating app Hinge has a list of prompts to include on your profile to stimulate conversation with potential matches, and my most commented-on prompt is “your most irrational fear.” I refuse to match with anyone who disagrees with my answer: Gene Wilder.
The reason for my terror is obviously that I was exposed to the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when I was a bit too young, though I don’t know if I would respond well to it at any age. The boring songs made me restless, the tunnel scene made me want to throw up, and at the center of it all was Wilder’s Wonka, smiling unnervingly or screaming at Charlie or just watching the monstrous children with his watery blue eyes. It was Wonka himself that upset me the most. When Gene Wilder passed away in 2016, I had to take some time away from the internet while everyone shared obituaries and memories. My fear of his face remains visceral.
I maintain that the film is not good, either as a movie or as an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’m obviously biased, Dahl himself agreed with me on both counts. He hated the musical numbers and other additions to his story, like the villainous Slugworth and the Fizzy Lifting Drinks punishment, and he particularly disliked Wilder’s casting as Wonka. Dahl’s friend and biographer Donald Sturrock once explained that the author “felt Wonka was a very British eccentric.” Though several British actors vied for the part, including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and every member of Monty Python, it was Gene Wilder who became Wonka for generations of kids. He turned in a performance that Dahl found “‘pretentious’ and insufficiently ‘gay [in the old-fashioned sense of the word] and bouncy’,” in Sturrock’s telling.
Wilder agreed to take the role on the condition that he could have input in Wonka’s depiction. One character choice has become legendary among actors and movie nerds:
“When I read the script, Mel Stuart asked me what I thought and I said: ‘There’s something missing. When Wonka makes his first appearance and comes out of the factory, I think he should be with a cane and limping. And then I come walking towards them and my cane gets stuck into a brick, and then I start to fall forward and then I do a forward somersault and jump forward and they all cheer. From that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.’ He asked if I wouldn’t do the part if I couldn’t do that. I said yes. And they said, ‘Well OK, it’s in.’ And I really wouldn’t have [done it] because I thought without that setup, the mystery isn’t there.”
“Pretentious” though Dahl may have found the performance, I have to admit that that is the thought process of a dedicated, intelligent actor. I just disagree with it entirely. Willy Wonka, the character, is not defined by untrustworthiness or mystery. He’s just a zany dude who makes chocolate! Wilder seems like a kind man, and I hear that he’s a brilliant comedian, which I can’t confirm because I’m too afraid of his face to explore his filmography extensively. But my vendetta against him was solidified in 2005, when he spoke out against the upcoming Tim Burton adaptation of Dahl’s work: “It’s all about money. It’s just some people sitting around thinking: ‘How can we make some more money?’ Why else would you remake Willy Wonka? I don’t see the point of going back and doing it all over again.”
I was a pedantic 14-year-old back then, and I remain pedantic about this particular pet peeve: a new adaptation of an existing work is not a remake of a previous adaptation. Calling it a remake implies that the prior adaptation was the original piece of art instead of one attempt at translating a text to a new medium. Which answers his question. Why “remake” the film? Because you didn’t do it right the first time!!!
I’ll say it: I prefer the Burton adaptation! Fight me! You think I haven’t argued with people over this? I’ve been defending my position for over 15 years, in college dining halls and on obviously unsuccessful dates, and I’ll never stop, no matter how sexy they make Young Wonka in the prequel. (We’ll get to the prequel.) The 2005 version is as close to the book as you can get, right down to the racism. Most of the dialogue and all of the song lyrics were lifted directly from Dahl’s text. The Buckets are so sweet and the supporting cast is filled with perfect character actors like the always-delightful Missi Pyle. A higher budget allowed Burton to realize some of the more fantastical details. (An animal expert trained a TEAM of SQUIRRELS from BIRTH to crack nuts for Veruca’s scene!!! Real live squirrels!)
I had the whimsically Dahl-esque experience of seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at an advance screening after winning tickets — this is true! — from a raffle at a place called Popalop’s Candy Shop. We’d just moved to North Carolina from Florida a few weeks before, and the entire experience felt magical. When the Oompa-Loompas first began singing, not a completely new song, but the lyrics “Augustus Gloop, Augustus Gloop, that great big greedy nincompoop!,” I was overcome with the delight of remembering the words I’d read in my head over and over.
I’m not saying that the movie is perfect. The hallmarks of late-period Burton decline are there, notably his over-reliance on his beloved collaborators Helena Bonham Carter, Danny Elfman, CGI and Johnny Depp. But I rewatched it recently, and most of those choices make sense for the film he was making! I have no complaints about Bonham Carter’s casting because she doesn’t have to sing in this one. Elfman’s pop approach to the Oompa-Loompas’ songs is terrible, but the score itself is good. CGI is used surprisingly sparingly, something I was shocked to discover now that we’re in the post-Alice and Wonderland phase of Burton’s career. Some factory scenes are your typical Hollywood green screen fabrications, but most of its wondrous rooms are beautifully constructed sets! The Bucket household is comically shabby but cozy. THE SQUIRRELS WERE PRACTICAL (in some shots). And though Depp was always Burton’s muse, in 2005 he was an actually bankable movie star who had turned in such an electrifying performance in a movie adaptation of a kids’ theme park ride that he was nominated for an Academy Award. I can see why both the studio and director were excited to have him onboard.
But Depp’s approach to Wonka is all wrong. It’s really compelling, with really interesting and often very funny line readings, something I was shocked to discover now that we’re in the post-Alice and Wonderland phase of Depp’s career. We get some of the tedious mugging that would become his entire approach to acting within a decade, but I also saw a glimpse of an earlier Burton protagonist, Pee-wee Herman, in his wide-eyed physical comedy.
It’s interesting, but it’s not Willy Wonka. You truly don’t need to take a Method acting approach to a man who creates Everlasting Gobstoppers and rides a sugar boat down a chocolate river! He’s not a sensitive recluse, betrayed by the world like Edward Scissorhands — he’s an eccentric goofball in a top hat whose sentences are generally punctuated with exclamation points and who lives in any child’s dream world. Depp’s performance is creepy and caustic, and his flat modern affectation is often at odds with the the charming British text and even less appealing when script peppers in dumb modern jokes like “Don’t touch that squirrel’s nuts!” Again, my criticism of Wilder’s performance applies: it’s a movie for children. All of the acting school character choices in the world mean nothing to a child expecting to see an exciting storybook character brought to life and seeing an upsetting weirdo instead. I’m sure that there’s a generation of children who are terrified of Johnny Depp because they watched this version at too young an age, though their fear is legitimately valid.
The problem with adapting Roald Dahl is that the tone is hard to nail, because his books had bite but still appealed to children. Adults often misinterpret the thrill of darkness in his books as scary or upsetting. As Manuel Betancourt beautifully wrote in his ranking of Dahl film adaptations, “Dahl’s books never sugarcoated the ills of the world but presented them instead as dastardly evils in need of being faced and vanquished.” Burton, who also produced the 1996 adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, said that it was this quality that drew him to Dahl as a child. “He didn’t speak down to children. He was like an adult writer for children,” he said. “He was clever at being both specific and kind of subversive and off-kilter and kind of leaving you guessing a little bit, and we did try to keep that feeling in what we were trying to do.”
But Burton’s adaptation doesn’t really leave you guessing, because it feels the need to provide Wonka with a tragic backstory. I don’t really mind it, since Christopher Lee’s menacing dentist Dr. Wilbur Wonka feels like a towering Dahl villain on par with the Trunchbull or the Grand High Witch; I prefer it to the major plot deviation of the 1971 film, where Wonka devises a test for the children to see who would betray him to Slugworth. But I understand that no one was really asking for a Wonka backstory.
And yet. Here we are in 2021, and that’s exactly what we’re getting. Paddington director Paul King is helming Wonka, a prequel that tells the man’s backstory. Some outlets are reporting that Timothée Chalamet and Tom Holland are being considered for the role of young William, though I imagine that’s just to drum up buzz. It does indicate, though, what kind of backstory this will be. A puppy-eyed softboi Wonka will probably have some tragic romance that ends when he must choose his factory over love. At least Holland is actually British and he can play goofy, but I simply don’t need to know if Willy Wonka fucks. The more you try to examine the character of Willy Wonka, the worse things are gonna be! Canonically, this man’s backstory is “obtaining slave labor.” That’s all the book gives us. Plus, a factory owner can’t be a protagonist. In this economy?! Willy Wonka’s modern-day analogue is Jeff Bezos, and the only way that movie has a happy ending is if the Oompa Loompas unionize and/or send Wonka to the guillotine.
Why revisit Willy Wonka, to rephrase Gene Wilder’s question? The answer is that you have a new approach to the text. Burton revisited Willy to make a more faithful adaptation. I would argue that the only reimagining we need is a Wonka that’s genuinely whimsical and doesn’t scare children. But Hollywood doesn’t seem to want to give us that. The character has left the page and become something bigger and darker in the years in which the public has adapted and analyzed him. “Willy Wonka basically murdered a bunch of kids,” someone will tweet and get thousands of likes, because it’s always fun to be an adult who realizes that the media you once consumed made no logical sense because it was a fantasy constructed to amuse children. After decades in the pop culture canon, Wonka is no longer just a character, no longer simply a man, but a chaos demon who lives in our collective subconscious. He should be played, then, by Tim Robinson.
Do I think this would be a good adaptation of Dahl’s work? Oh, no. Not really. Do I think it would be for kids? Truthfully, I don’t know if I could stomach Robinson’s Wonka as an adult. But I’m following this trend to its logical conclusion. Gene Wilder’s Wonka was unknowable, unnerving, with an edge that could seem almost sinister. Johnny Depp’s was bizarre, lonely and sad, oscillating between soft-spoken unease and unexpected buffoonery. If this follows our modern approach to legendary characters like Batman, each new iteration must get darker. Let Tim Robinson scream at naughty children and react with sweaty horror as his tour’s body count creeps higher. Commit to what you’ve wrought, Hollywood!
Of course, this is not my actual pitch for Wonka. I would not like to see it. I have much higher hopes for Waititi’s adaptation than the Wonka prequel, though no casting information has been released since the project was announced. Will he himself play Wonka? That would be fun. He managed to play Adolf Hitler with a level of joy and whimsy appropriate for Wonka, so he could pull it off. I could see him casting Jemaine Clement, though I don’t know that he could perform at the right pitch for children outside of animation. John Mulaney would be extremely fun but too sarcastic. My actual top pick for Wonka would be Sam Richardson, Tim Robinson’s Detroiters co-star who’s similarly energetic but in a much warmer way, even when mocking others’ misery.
Or keep it British, as Dahl intended! Pull in Daniel Radcliffe, who loves oddball roles. It’d be fun to see a tiny little pocket-sized Wonka, barely taller than the children he’s escorting. Or! Try the opposite! Stephen Merchant, towering over the children, bending almost entirely at the waist to speak them on their level. Simon Pegg might bring a kindness that could be appealing, or Nick Frost could bring childlike joy. The world hasn’t gotten a perfect Wonka yet, but I hold out hope. I’ll take anything that helps me forget the first attempt.