Before it became a blockbuster movie franchise, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was the perfect literary escape for young readers. Kids lived the dream of running around inside a warehouse filled with candy and wacky Seussian machinery, while also providing a sweet comeuppance to ill-mannered hellions.
Originally published January 17, 1964, this classroom staple inspired film adaptations, a Broadway musical, an upcoming animated series from Taiki Waititi, and an unexpected crossover with cartoon cat and mouse duo, Tom and Jerry. This past December, the family-friendly new movie Wonka starring Timothée Chalamet as the eccentric confectioner arrived in theaters, proving interest in this character is as in-demand now as it was 60 years ago.
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory might be as timeless as a heart-shaped box of Valentine’s Day candy, but for some readers, it’s left a sour taste in their mouths.
What is Charlie and The Chocolate Factory Really About?
Five children find golden tickets hidden inside candy bars, allowing them to tour the enigmatic Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and win a lifetime supply of sweets, but only one of these kids is the designated hero - Charlie Bucket (the first page even says so). This beleaguered youth lives with his multigenerational family in a ramshackle home on the edge of town, in perfect view of the enormous factory. Barely able to afford survival, Charlie knows this fortuitous change in luck means feeding his family forever and, alongside 96-year-old Grandpa Joe, ventures on a whirlwind tour with the other children through the unbelievable facility, leading to misfortune for the spoiled children and an unexpected windfall for Charlie.
Dahl based the story on his childhood experiences when he and his British boarding schoolmates were sometimes used as testers for Cadbury chocolates. The future author wished he could impress the namesake chocolatier enough to meet him, and used that idea as the basis for his book. Thankfully, neither Dahl nor his classmates were tortured for the sake of morality lessons during a factory tour.
If you’ve seen the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder, you’d be pleased to know how faithful that adaptation is, removing superfluous sections like the thin chapter about Wonka building a chocolate mansion for a prince to leave space for the Slugworth subplot exclusive to the film. Absent from that silver screen iteration is more of the Bucket family’s misery, including Charlie becoming emaciated after his birthday due to the family’s inability to afford food. Dahl makes sure his readers know how lucky they are to not be poor in an over-the-top way, using extreme poverty to garner sympathy. It’s grim, but at least we know success is around the corner for the young Bucket.
Suffering is a mainstay of Dahl’s virtuous protagonists, and even compared to the precocious Matilda, none are more sugary-sweet than Charlie. He’s the saintly counterpoint to the four other ticket holders, infamous in modern pop culture for their cartoonish negative traits and unfortunate endings (graciously not as traumatizing as other children’s lit from that era). Readers are reminded of the dangers of excess with as much subtlety as a 60-ton block of fudge. Dahl’s typical twisted dark humor regales readers with the tale of winning at life through being as polite as Charlie Bucket. But really, it’s not just about saying your prayers and taking your vitamins against overindulgence. The core message goes beyond moral purity, as Grandpa Joe demonstrates what I think is the true lesson of the book - the importance of being young at heart.
A Change of Character for Dahl
Roald Dahl’s work has perpetually been at the center of controversy, and the author was stiffly opposed to his work being censored for modern tastes. Years after his passing, an edition of his books was altered en masse against Dahl’s posthumous wishes, changing the language regarding race, gender, disability, and other hot-button topics. Even though Dahl never wanted his writing changed, he made one exception to this position when it came to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.
In its first printing, Wonka’s staff the — Oompa-Loompas — were presented as pygmies, a stereotypical overgeneralization of people from Central Africa. The contemporary white zeitgeist of the 60’s wasn’t kind to this group of indigenous people, including media like children’s literature. Dahl’s fictionalized people featured “almost pure black” skin under shiny white teeth, along with loincloths and other descriptions that portrayed these laborers as tropes from 19th century minstrel shows.
The original illustrations by Joseph Schindelman may seem tame, but they provided little doubt that Oompa-Loompas were analogous to harmful stereotypes. Particularly in the UK during this era, where more opportunities were becoming available to people of color, there was anxiety about immigrants taking jobs away from other citizens. This was shown in the book by Wonka firing his employees due to concerns of espionage, replacing them with this tribe of jungle-borne people smuggled across continents in crates to serve their white aristocrat overseer.
Meanwhile in the U.S. during the ‘60s, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and when the reports about a Hollywood Wonka picture came out in 1970, the NAACP complained about the appearance of this diminutive assemblage, alleging the book showed a representation of slavery since these workers were only given food and board instead of money and autonomy. Dahl had a sudden change of heart, rewriting the Oompa-Loompas in his second printing ahead of the film’s release to make them white hippies, redrawn by the original artist and illustrated in later editions by Quentin Blake.
Years after Dahl passed, it was discovered the writer originally wrote Charlie Bucket to be Black, but was advised against it by his agent. An earlier draft of this version titled “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy” has a very different story, ending with Charlie accidentally sealed in a chocolate mold of a boy during his factory tour, delivered Easter Sunday to Wonka’s family for the chocolatier’s son to open. Instead of becoming heir to the empire after Charlie rescues the Wonka family from a robbery, Willy gifts his adolescent savior a store of his own so his friends and family will never go hungry.
This version of the story paints a different picture of race as perceived by Dahl, whose family had to apologize for his antisemitic views in 2020. The subtext is fascinating to analyze when examined through the other antiquated language he refused to reconsider. Colonialism and submissiveness from native people are still present in this book, but the way parents and educators can discuss and frame it from a modern perspective has evolved to a better place.
But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life!
Is Charlie and The Chocolate Factory Okay for Kids To Read?
Few items in Dahl’s books aimed at kids fail to hold up as good reads, although it’s up to the parents to decide whether they want the original or revised texts for their children. Aside from outdated and insensitive language, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is as whimsical as any version of the movie. In some ways, it’s more vivid using your imagination to visualize these uncanny candy-making machines than seeing them onscreen.
The Oompa-Loompa songs are more intense here, including lines about chopping up Augustus Gloop as he is remade into fudge. Grandpa Joe reassures Charlie, “They must be joking. At least, I hope they’re joking. Don’t you?” It’s a stark contrast from the 1971 film, although the 2005 remake incorporates many of the original lyrics into their songs. We feel the worst for Mike Teavee, to whom Dahl devotes five pages of an epic Oompa-Loompa ballad like no other.
If your family has seen any of the movies already, they know what they’re in for, and aside from a few minor changes unused in any of the film adaptations, it’s an easy read that’s likely be one of the first satires your child ever looks at. It’s worth noting – unlike the movies, the losing kids are shown walking out in one piece, surviving but forever changed physically and mentally by the experience. Augustus Gloop is now thin, Violet is a permanent shade of purple, and the Salt family made it out relatively easy compared to the rest – they’re just covered in trash.
The sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, was published a year after the first movie was released in 1972, resuming immediately where the first book ends. While a third was proposed, Dahl never finished it, although the Wonka name appeared in his 1985 book, The Giraffe and The Pelly And Me. Even then, movies and cartoons always return to the original, an endless source of child-like wonder that never ceases to inspire boundless imagination and whimsy from whoever turns its pages.