Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Better than the Book: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

This movie is one of the two or three musicals that I have watched many times. It’s just a brilliant movie in so many places, Gene Wilder makes it so. That's not a knock on director Mel Stuart or Dahl and David Seltzer's screenplay. I love the way Wonka's dialogue is peppered with so many quotations from songs and plays and whatnot. So shines a good deed in a weary world.

There's a certain comedy that I like to the whole film, from treating a chocolate sweepstakes as the most important thing in the world to the half-office Wonka works in at the end.

I'm just going to be upfront and say that I haven't seen the version with Johnny Depp. Tim Burton is a really good visual stylist, but for me there was no need to see that movie.

No thanks.

The book, titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is not bad. It’s just not as good as the movie. For me, it all comes down to the end, where Charlie outlasts the other kids and wins the favor of Wonka. In Dahl’s book, Wonka turns around soon after Mike TV takes his leave and sees that Charlie is the only one left. He gets excited and declares Charlie the winner.

In the film, Wonka feigns indifference, even scorn because Charlie and Grandpa Joe drank some fizzy lifting drink against Wonka’s interdiction. He gives Charlie every reason to betray him to his enemy, Slugworth, but Charlie keeps true to his promise, thus proving himself worthy of inheriting the chocolate factory. Both book and movie keep Charlie’s character central to his victory, but the movie dramatizes it better. We might say that the book makes Charlie’s lack of action key to his triumph--he doesn’t do anything wrong or exhibit any real defect in his character--but the movie makes his action at the end count. That’s just better storytelling, if you ask me.

Then there are the songs. “There is just no way of knowing, where exactly we are going.” Insane. And "Pure Imagination" is simply perfect. And even in that song, Wonka's oddity shines forth. That part where he plucks a hair from Mike TV's head for no reason at all? It's wonderful. Throughout these "Better than the Book" posts, I've been stressing the effect music can have in making a movie superior to a book. This movie is the exemplary case.  Should Willy Wonka have been on that list of perfect movies a few days ago? Probably.

Willy Wonka is one of my favorite movies, and I enjoy watching it again and again. I can’t say the same for the book. I’ve read it once, and flipped through it again for this post. Maybe I'd be more attached if I'd read it as a kid, which is when I first saw the movie. Nostalgia can do that, make something feel important, seem better than it is. But even if I had read the book first, I would no doubt still think the movie is better.


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