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“Charlie and the Political-Correctness Factory”
Originally published in 1964, Roald Dahl’s famous book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory went through a few incarnations before becoming the part of American popular culture it is today. Probably the most famous form of the story today is its movie version, titled “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which came out in theaters in 1971 and starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Though Dahl is credited with writing the screenplay, much of it was rewritten by a man named David Seltzer. A movie obviously does not qualify as children’s literature; however, many of the major changes between the first edition of the book and the movie were made to avoid controversy. Many critics had previously raised objections to the book, but it was not until after this politically corrected and moral-injected film version was released that Eleanor Cameron produced her famous scathing commentary on Roald Dahl’s original book. Many of the problems she addressed had been changed in the making of the movie. As a result of the changing times, Dahl and his publishers revised the book and published it in a second edition in 1973. The first edition, the one which sparked such attacks, has now faded into oblivion and few readers are aware of this classic work’s troubled beginnings.
Allegations of Racism: African Oompa-Loompas
When the manuscript was given to the publishers, they regarded it as similar to a Victorian novel, a parallel which is suggested by Wonka’s factory’s “huge iron gates” and “smoke belching from its chimneys” as from an English factory during the Industrial Revolution. They ignored the fact that became the main criticism later offered against the book: all of the workers in Willy Wonka’s factory are African pygmies. They work for a wage of cacao beans, sing songs that are almost war chants, and allow themselves to be experimented on like laboratory animals. Dahl says about them, “I created a group of little fantasy creatures…. I saw them as charming creatures, whereas the white kids in the books were… most unpleasant. It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the NAACP and others…. After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them, which is why I revised the book” (Dahl in West, 1988). Had this book actually been written during the Victorian times, slavery would still have been active in America and nobody would have raised this criticism. Since Dahl seems to have been writing in this tradition, it is unreasonable to fault him for not realizing the impact it would have on a modern audience.
Also, there is no indication in the book that the Oompa-Loompas are unhappy with their employment, since Wonka rescued them from near-starvation and provides them with a place to live. In the 1973 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, there are several examples of Wonka’s compassion for his workers1. “I have to keep it warm inside the factory because of the workers!” exclaims Wonka. “My workers are used to an extremely hot climate! They can’t stand the cold! They’d perish if they went outdoors in this [winter] weather!” (Dahl in CCF, p. 69). When they ride the glass elevator for the first time, the pass “A village of Oompa-Loompas, with tiny houses and streets and hundreds of Oompa-Loompa children no more than four inches high playing in the streets….” (142). Wonka tries to make the Oompa-Loompas comfortable by keeping the entire factory at a temperature which would be adverse to keeping chocolate solid, and dedicates a section of his factory to a small village for them. Cameron objects to them being forced into “servitude” and being kept in the factory at all times, but the reason that Wonka employs them instead of local workers is not because they are slaves (he never forces them to come to America with him, and it never says how many cacao beans they get paid in) but because they will live inside his factory. Wonka had fired his white workers because they were spies for other chocolate companies that were stealing his ideas. The Oompa-Loompas are in this way portrayed as more honest than Americans. Despite, or perhaps in response to, Lois Kulb Bouchard’s comment that “a Black man floats away to his death stupidly silent, and no one among his family or friends misses him,” Wonka describes it as “very sad” (122) that one of his volunteers who drank Fizzy Lifting Drinks disappears forever.
In the second book, Wonka describes his previous tests of Wonka-Vite, the age-reducing drug, to Charlie, and says, “One of them actually became minus eighty-seven!…. One can’t allow one’s best friends to wait around as miserable Minuses for eighty-seven years.” “Did you rescue all the Oompa-Loompa Minuses?” asks Charlie. “Every single one of them, my boy! One hundred and thirty-one all told!” (129-33). Wonka braved the horrifying Minusland several times to save them, which supports the statement that they are his “best friends.” Also, in this book, Wonka refers to the Oompa-Loompas in the testing room as “brave volunteer[s],” discounting the notion that they, like lab animals, have no choice but to be used for experimentation (96).
Dahl’s revision changes the Oompa-Loompas from black-skinned pygmies into knee-high dwarves with “rosy-white” skin and “funny long hair” that is “golden-brown” and changes their origins from Africa to “Loompaland”(Dahl in CCF, pp. 78, 79, 89). The movie avoids this issue altogether by making them green-haired and orange-skinned midgets (although knee-high people would have been hard to portray with 1971 special effects) who are also from Loompaland. There is also no reference to experimentation on Oompa-Loompas. Near the end of the book Willy Wonka says something that Bouchard has cited as “paternalism toward the Black Workers”: “Someone’s got to keep [the factory] going – if only for the sake of the Oompa-Loompas” (172). This line was only slightly changed in the movie to, “Who can I trust to run the factory when I leave and take care of the Oompa-Loompas for me?” (Villa). Without the idea of racism against these orange-skinned fantasy creatures, the line becomes less patronizing and the paternalism becomes almost sentimental. The Oompa-Loompas are small, not simply because they are pygmies or dwarves, but because they are allegorical to children. Since children cannot be called upon to do such demanding work as the running of a factory (Charlie himself has to wait to receive the factory until he is “old enough to run it”(Dahl in CCF, p. 172), Dahl created symbolic figures who parallel children in size. Very few humans in modern times are, as adults, the size of children. Pygmies are the most famous group of these, and they just happen to come from Africa and be black.
“A Poor Philosophy of Life”
In 1988, a librarian in the Boulder, Colorado public library was discovered to have placed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in a locked reference collection (upon discovery it was returned to the general library) because the librarian believed “the book espouses a poor philosophy of life” (Yanosko). The racist descriptions and illustrations being the only things changed in the revision, Dahl obviously stood by everything else he wrote in the book. One frustration many critics shared is that Charlie is the hero because that is his role in the plot, “not because of any positive good of noble qualities, but because he is poor, quiet, and polite” (Merrick). A “phony representation of poverty” “is Charlie’s sole character and being” (Cameron in Rees). However, as some other reviewers respond, this is a feature of many folk and fairy tales. In fact, many heroes in folk tales gather rewards for doing questionable things like the main characters’ stealing in “The Tinder Box” by Andersen, or “Jack and the Beanstalk” by the Brothers Grimm. Ironically, Cameron brings up White’s Charlotte’s Web as an example of “one of the [best] books ever written for children” and goes on to talk about how “Wilbur, the runt pig… never ceases throughout the progress of the story to be anything but naive and ingenuous…. He is always the innocent who is acted upon in order that he shall be saved, rather than the hero who acts independently and with assurance to save himself” (Cameron, 12/72). So E.B. White can get away with a lack of character development for his main character, but Dahl is held to a different standard.
A related criticism is that Dahl’s books are too violent. Reviewers decry the moral system of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as sadistic or extreme. The four “naughty little children” have rather mild vices. However, their vices can be translated into some of the Deadly Sins. Augustus Gloop, “A greedy boy,” is gluttonous; Veruca Salt, “A girl who is spoiled by her parents,” is avaricious. Violet Beauregarde, “A girl who chews gum all day long,” is prideful, because she displays a piece of gum to reporters which she has been chewing for three months in an attempt for the world record and global recognition. Mike Teavee, “A boy who does nothing but watch television,” is slothful; television “rots the senses in the head” and “kills imagination dead.” In contrast, Charlie displays a complete lack of any of these characteristics. He is so poor that he cannot be gluttonous; though he is starving, “he refuses to take any of” his grandparents’ food, so he is hardly greedy (CCF, p. 47). Charlie is often depicted as “nervous” and whispering, which shows his humility (CCF, p. 68). Finally, he actively walks back and forth from school every day. Still, Charlie has no tremendously positive traits, only an absence of negative ones.
Presumably, the people making “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” recognized Charlie’s lack of character and added the subplot of the character of Slugworth, named in the book but never elaborated on. In the movie, Slugworth acts as a temptation to the children’s financial greed, offering them a large sum of money if they will steal a piece of candy from Wonka’s factory that is currently under development. When Wonka gives the candy to the children, he has them “solemnly swear to keep them for [them]selves and never show them to another living soul as long as [they] all shall live,” and Veruca “crosses her fingers behind her back” (Villa). It is revealed in the end that “Slugworth” is really a man named Mr. Wilkinson, who works for Wonka and “tests” the children to see if they are honest. When Charlie gives his candy back to Wonka, only then does Wonka exclaim, “You won!” (Villa). This is in direct contrast to the book, where as soon as the fourth child is incapacitated, Wonka says, “You mean you’re theonly one left? …That means you’ve won!” The movie script also adds another facet to Charlie’s character by having him and his grandfather “[steal] Fizzy Lifting Drinks.” This makes Charlie more well-rounded by having him make mistakes, but learn from them. Before Charlie gives the candy back to Wonka, Wonka berates Charlie and his grandfather for stealing the drinks, and tells them to leave without their promised “lifetime supply of chocolate” because they “broke the rules” (Villa). Charlie’s grandfather advocates revenge on Wonka by giving Slugworth the candy, but Charlie’s honesty prevails over his sense of injustice, showing that he is deserving of the “grand and glorious jackpot” (Villa). This is imparting a much stronger moral to the story than Dahl gave it to begin with. Dahl wrote a modern fairy tale, a story where the plot is dominant and the characters merely a vehicle for the storyline. To translate this into the medium of film, it was necessary to include character development and maturation (learning from one’s mistakes) to allow the audience to identify with the characters.
The current cultural image of the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is largely dependent on the film. The film became so popular due partly to the skill of Roald Dahl, the story’s author, but also to the film’s creators listening to criticisms of the book and adapting the story to answer the major problems. Such a combination of ideas from people who loved the original story and people who hated it gave rise to a new, more widely appreciable story without losing the flavor of the highly-imaginative original whirlwind tour of the factory.
Bouchard, Lois Kulb, “A New Look at Old Favorites: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’,” in Interracial Books for Children, Vol. III, Nos. 2 & 3, 1970.
Culley, Jonathon, “Roald Dahl – “It’s about Children and It’s for Children’ – But Is It Suitable?” in Children’s literature in education, Vol. 22, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 59-73, as reprinted in CLR Vol. 41, pp. 16-8.
Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, (CCF) Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973
Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Puffin Books, 1988
Howard, Kristine. RoaldDahlFans.com. 2002. Accessed 06/09/02. <https://roalddahlfans.com/books/charoompa.php>
Merrick, Anne, Children’s Literature in Education, quoted in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6, p. 12.
Rees, David, “Dahl’s Chickens: Roald Dahl,” in Children’s literature in education, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 143-54, as reprinted in Children’s Literature Review, Vol. 41, p. 8-9.
Villa, Aaron. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” transcript. 05/10/98. Accessed 06/10/02. <http://www.genewilder.org/Willy_Wonka_Transcription.html>
West, Mark I. Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship in Children’s Literature, Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1988, pp. 71-6, as reprinted in Children’s Literature Review, Vol. 41, p. 4.
Yanosko, Janet. “The Forbidden Library: Challenged and Banned Books.” 05/16/01. Accessed 06/08/02. <http://title.forbiddenlibrary.com/>
1. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a copy of the original edition of the book to use as a comparison, so I cannot be sure these quotes are unchanged from the original. I do not wish to make the same mistake as Jonathon Culley, that is, to take the physical description of the Oompa-Loompas from the revised edition to be in contrast with Cameron’s words, which were published the year before the edition.