Featuring excerpts from early drafts, movie stills and behind-the-scenes photographs, early illustrations and so much more, Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory is like a wondrous boat ride down that chocolate river, but with journalist Lucy Mangan at the helm. We spoke with Mangan via email about the beloved classic, its lasting impact, candy and (naturally) squirrels.
Looking back 50 years, what do you think is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s greatest contribution to our culture and to children’s literature?
It’s made contributions to the language—a “Golden Ticket” now describes anyone who gets an all-access pass to anything, and “a bit of a Willy Wonka” describes anyone who is crazily innovative and inventive—and it seems to be almost infinitely adaptable. It’s been made into two films, an opera, stage plays, a musical—and now the 1971 film is used a lot for Internet jokes, gifs and memes. Wonka/Wilder’s mercurial nature lends itself to them very well—all his expressions just seem to cry out for captioning!
In terms of children’s literature, I think Dahl showed that you could break with tradition—and that was something he learned on the job, so to speak, because his first (surviving) draft is a relatively formulaic story about Charlie accidentally ending up at Wonka’s house one night, foiling a burglary there and being rewarded with a sweet shop of his own. [You can] let your imagination run wild, and if you did it with enough verve and gusto and confidence, and took your readers with you into a magical world that had its own mad, interior logic, they would follow delightedly wherever you went.
Of all the different ways the book has been honored this year, none has brought so as much attention (and negative attention, at that) than the new Penguin Modern Classics book cover. What is your take on this cover, and what do you think Dahl himself would have thought of it?
I’m not sure how Roald Dahl would have felt, but as a writer who first made his name writing fabulously sinister short stories for adults he might have been sympathetic to the designers’ intentions. Maybe he would have loved the evocation of his other work—the merging of his two writing worlds? I don’t know.
Which is your favorite movie adaptation?
The 1971 movie is my favourite—although I feel bad for saying that, because Dahl hated it. He thought it was sentimental—especially the ending—and that Gene Wilder was completely wrong for the part. (“He played it for subtle, adult laughs,” Dahl said.) He had wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellars for the part, who were more genuine eccentrics in real life. But he had a very bad experience trying to write the script for the film (which was not really his forte), so I think that probably coloured his view of it. I think it captures the anarchic, freewheeling spirit of the book very beautifully and in that way is much more faithful to the book than Tim Burton’s careful, polished retelling of the story in his 2005 film.
I couldn’t believe that the squirrels in Tim Burton’s movie adaptation weren’t computer animated, but were real-life squirrels! What most surprised you when you were researching this book?
I think there was some CGI used with the squirrels, but they certainly had real ones for a lot of it. Mel Stuart in his film in 1971 was defeated by the squirrel scene—he had to change that room into one in which geese laid golden eggs—but by 2005 technology had caught up with Dahl!
I think I was—idiotically—most surprised to see how many drafts he had done. I somehow had always assumed that it had sprung forth fully formed! But there are five surviving drafts, and it’s clear that he destroyed at least one other.
But I think maybe we all do that with books in childhood, assume that they came easily and perfectly, and that they’re just there, for our delectation and delight. But I still think it even now—I subconsciously, or even consciously, assume that every article or book I read just emerged like that, even though I know from my own experience as a journalist and author and from that of friends similarly employed, that it doesn’t happen like that for anyone.
Were there any plot points from the earlier Charlie drafts that you wish had held over for the final product? Which ones? Why or why not?
I don’t think I wish he’d kept any of the earlier stuff—he really did improve the story each time he rewrote it—except some of the other children’s names, Herpes Trout being a particular favourite of mine.
Although I do love the character of Miranda Mary Piker. (“How could anybody like her? / Such a rude and disobedient little kid,” sing the Oompa Loompas.) She’s one of the original 10 characters Dahl wrote in his first draft, the insufferable child of progressive parents who believe in self-expression instead of manners and discipline. When asked if the sugar daffodils she has picked are for her mother, she says “No! I’m to gobble them up all by myself!” “You see,” responds her mother delightedly, “what an interesting child she is!”
You can practically hear the howl of rage and pain from a writer born in 1916 and now writing in the early-mid ’60s as hippies begin to wreck everything. . . . She made it to the penultimate draft, which makes me think Dahl was probably quite fond of her, too.
If you could have a lifetime supply of any kind of Wonka candy, which would you choose?
Whipplescrumptious Fudgemallow Delight bars. Definitely. No question. Nestle actually produced a version to accompany the release of the 2005 film, and it was almost as delicious as in imagination. How often does reality live up to the hype like that? And of course they withdrew it a few months later, before I’d even had a chance to stockpile. I was—I am—bereft.
Sweets are no longer the precious treasures they once were, and now it’s much easier for kids to get their hands on candy than on healthy, wholesome nutrients. Do you think the next generation of young readers will continue to be drawn to Charlie? Why or why not?
I think so. I think the wit, the dizzying pace, the appeal of extreme vice and extreme virtue, the dazzling nature of Wonka and the “naughtiness” of the whole thing will appeal forever, just as it does in older, more traditional fairy tales—which is what, in many ways, Charlie is. The chocolate and the sweets are the icing on the cake—if you’ll pardon the joke, though you probably shouldn’t—and I think children have a basically endless appetite for them actually and metaphorically, so that will always delight, too. Though I agree that the changes in children’s dietary upbringing in the last 50 mean they’ve probably lost a slight edge since the book was first published (which, in the U.K. of course, was in a country that still vividly remembered wartime and postwar rationing).
Find out more about Roald Dahl’s stories and characters, including more about the 50th anniversary of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at www.roalddahl.com, on Facebook or Twitter (use #CharlieAndTheChocolateFactory).