Thursday, May 2, 2019

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Delightful kid-lit classic
I recently read Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my nine-year-old son. Published in 1964, this kid-lit classic is still delightfully entertaining to children of today, even those who haven’t seen the movie. For adults, it is one of the more enjoyable chapter books you can read with elementary school kids. This is my son’s favorite book by Dahl, and I would have to agree with him.

Willy Wonka is the world’s greatest chocolate manufacturer and a reclusive genius who sequesters himself inside his giant factory. What goes on inside this secretive compound is a mystery until Wonka announces a contest in which five lucky winners will get to tour his factory and win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. After much anticipation, a poor young boy named Charlie Bucket scores a winning ticket. He and his grandfather get to meet Wonka and tour the factory, along with the four other winners and their parents. This is no ordinary factory, however, but a magical fantasy land and candy lover’s paradise.

While Charlie is the hero of the story and an exemplary behavioral model for children to follow, the other four children are various species of juvenile monster. One is a greedy glutton, one is addicted to bubble gum, another is a gun-toting TV junkie, and then there’s the little rich girl who demands her every whim be satisfied. Dahl doesn’t merely heap all his criticism on these problem children, but saves some of his censure for the parents who indulge them. Through these negative caricatures, the book imparts some good moral lessons to young readers in a very fun and non-preachy manner. Wonka’s workforce, a race of foreigners of unknown origin called the Oompa-Loompas, act as the Greek chorus of the production, reinforcing each lesson in silly poetic song.

As good as this book is, I actually do prefer the movie. That is, the 1971 musical starring Gene Wilder (I haven’t seen the Johnny Depp version). Director Mel Stuart and his team really did a wonderful job with the visuals on that film, going well above and beyond Dahl’s descriptions in the book. The screenwriters made some changes to the story, which Dahl hated, but I actually think are an improvement. For example, in the book Charlie is a relentlessly good boy surrounded by brats. In the film Charlie is not perfect, as few children are. He is tempted to make a mistake by breaking Wonka’s rules, but atones for it with a demonstration of his pureness of heart which sets him apart from the poorly behaved kids. Dahl also disagreed with the casting of Gene Wilder as Wonka, but Wilder’s take on the character is really far more interesting than the Wonka depicted in the book. Dahl primarily defines Wonka by the wonderland that surrounds him, while Wilder brought a manic quality and a scary side to the character that really doesn’t come across in the book.

Children’s literature is not a genre that I personally enjoy particularly, but if all kids’ books were as fun as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I might just be converted. For anyone with young kids, it is an essential addition to your youngster’s bookshelf.
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