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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The sixth grade is going to be reading Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next semester, so I thought I'd better read it. After knowing the story so well from two different movies that I've seen several times, it felt weird to go back to the source, and it was almost like--where did this come from?

The book was written in 1964, and contains just the basic shell of what would become the two films (the Tim Burton version, minus the backstory for Willy Wonka, is actually the closer of the two versions). A mysterious candy maker, who has never let anyone into his factory for years, awards five children the opportunity to tour it. Four of them have flaws that clearly got into the craw of Dahl, while one is poor and virtuous and by being so inherits the factory.

We have come to know the bad children and their sins: Augustus Gloop, gluttony; Violet Beauregard, incessanty chewing gum; Veruca Salt; a spoiled brat; Mike Teavee, excessive TV watching. Dahl, who by all accounts was not a cuddly figure, wrote a lot of children's books but comes across as the mean man who lives next door, shaking his fist at "kids today." Only Charlie, pure of heart, with no vices (except a love of candy that may make him diabetic or prone to tooth decay) escapes unscathed. I'm sure if Dahl wrote the book today he would probably make Mike Teavee either a video-game addict or a cellphone gawker or both.

The text is very simple, which is something I'm looking forward to. It's listed as age 7 and up, which might sound too simple for sixth-graders, but almost all of those in my class are below reading grade. The illustrations are by Quentin Blake (who also illustrated The Witches). Most of the kids will also have seen one or both of the films, which helps, since they are resistant to new things.

I'm kind of at a loss what to think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The children are unharmed (well, Mike Teavee has been stretched out to about ten feet tall) and Wonka makes no effort to save them, as is shown in the films. The Oompa Loompas (who as represented by Dahl are more accurately shown in the Burton version) sing long songs detailing the children's core fault, a kind of kicking them when they are down (the songs were also used, in truncated form, in Burton's film). Here's a sample of Veruca Salt's send-off:

"Veruca Salt, the little brute
Has just gone down the garbage chute.
(And as we very rightly thought
That in a case like this we ought
To see the thing completely through,
We've polished off her parents, too!)"

Dahl seems to be a man who buys no social excuses for children's behavior, but does not excuse the parents, who are enablers. It's a fascinating peak into the antideluvian world of child psychology.

So Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can be read as a simple tale of a chocolate maker looking for his heir, or as a more insidious indictment of how modern (in 1964) children were being raised.

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