Another one of my own childhood favourites, my battered copy of #35 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has the cover line ‘The best-loved children’s book ever!’ It may even have been true before that boy wizard turned up but looks a little ironic when it’s not even top 10 in its home country.
That said, Charlie is still good fun, and I enjoyed rereading it. It’s a very quick read and suitable for kids just starting to read on their own.
It’s not news that people writing for children tend to try to get a message across, or that they can be very obvious and heavy-handed about it, but I honestly thought Dahl was different. Matilda was a paen to creative naughtiness and Danny involved breaking the law. Charlie, marked down in the list of characters as ‘The hero’ does absolutely nothing heroic. He suffers bravely at the beginning, and then barely speaks as the four so-called horrible, disgusting children, each with their signature vice, is dealt with in a poetically just way.
It’s interesting to see which vices are considered worth punishing and what the punishments are: extreme, cartoon-style violence which – if this were anything like a real world – would physically and mentally scar the children for life.
The attack on TV is particularly interesting as it suggests encouraging kids to read instead. Authors tend to favour reading as an activity for obvious reasons, but it’s an interesting reversal from pre-TV stories where reading – especially novels and fairy tales – is seen as dangerous and lazy.
A delectable world
The strength of the book – and its adaptions – may be the world rather than the characters. Willy Wonka himself isn’t particularly likeable, and Charlie is so invisible that it’s easy to imagine yourself exploring the fabulous factory without an intermediary. Charlie never does anything you wouldn’t do – because he never really does anything at all – leaving the reader free to enjoy the candy.
And the world is undeniably fabulous, packed with wordplay brought to life – from the square sweets which look round to Butterscotch and Buttergin (no Butterbeer though).
Racism and post-publication editing
The Oompa-Loompas in the 1971 film have been called a racist caricature and I was curious to see what they’re like in the book. In my book, they aren’t described as hailing from darkest Africa – although their land is jungled – and the only physical description (apart from size) we get is this: “…beautiful white teeth. His skin was rosy-white, his long hair was golden-brown…”. So, I thought: not racist.
Except that, it seems that this may be due the age of my edition: if I had an earlier one, the Oompa-Loompas might have been black and Dahl changed it for a later edition after, shall we say, feedback. I cite the link for reference and certainly don’t agree with the author, Cassandra Pierce, entirely – for example, she says: “Since Dahl seems to have been writing in [the Victorian] tradition, it is unreasonable to fault him for not realizing the impact it would have on a modern audience” which I think is a poor apology for a very smart person. It is hardly unreasonable to ‘fault’ someone for failing to realise that the rules of their society haven’t changed, however immersed they’ve gotten into another world. For example, no matter how long you’ve been playing GTA for, carjacking is not a legitimate way to get a Ferrari outside the game.
I’m actually glad Dahl changed the book, although I would have preferred he left a note indicating what he’d done and why. Post-publication editing is a big deal now, with blogs and ebooks letting authors change their words after they’ve been read, and it poses a number of challenges for writer and reader. Changing your mind after feedback; admitting you were wrong; changing your behaviour or language when you hurt someone accidentally – all these are good, hard things to do and a better role model for kids than poor Charlie who does nothing but get lucky.