Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Analysis: Post-War ConsumerismPosted: December 16, 2011
The Oompa-Loompas on Television:
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
Introduction – I hope that the reader will realize that I am not trying to crush anybody’s childhood memories, but rather trying to see past the glitz and glamor of one of everybody’s favorite movies. Most people equate Willy Wonka with a life of eternal happiness and diabetes, and until quite recently I did as well. But, in fact, the story has a darker side, both in the literal events, and in the way that it can almost come off as a parody on the rose-colored glasses we wear when thinking about our modern, industrial society.
Post-War, Pre-Hippie – As Todd Gitlin writes in his book The Sixties, “affluence” was the key word to the 1950s and early 1960s. “It was assumed to be a national condition, not just a personal standing…in a society that had long since made material production and acquisition its central activities. The boom of 1945 to 1973…was the longest in American history. Starting late in war-blasted Western Europe and Japan, the boom rolled, however unevenly, through the rest of the industrialized world.” The novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964.
In these years, finally breathing after years of war, genocide, and other such horrors, most parents were just glad that the only thing their children had to worry about is which candy to eat and whether or not they will be able to tour the world’s finest chocolate factory. Consequently, we see them indulging their children and letting them go wild in these pursuits, but not Charlie. He’s quite literally on the outside looking in. Nevertheless, his intense desire for chocolate and especially to visit the chocolate factory reflect the pre-hippie ideal of how children should react to the “splendors of affluence.”
But an environment of relative international security is not the only thing that this affluence rests upon.
The Industrial Economy – The novel as well as the film released in 2005 explore the darker side of the manufacturing economy. Interestingly, the manuscript was originally regarded “as similar to a Victorian novel, a parallel which is suggested by Wonka’s “huge iron gates” and “smoke belching from its chimneys” as from an English factory during the Industrial Revolution” (Source). However, the earlier 1971 film chose the non-controversial route and left out these elements.
The three versions’ treatment of Charlie’s father is revealing. The 1971 film omits the fact that his father was a wage-slave in a toothpaste factory and later lost his job when the factory closed down. Instead, it implies that his father is dead and shows his mother working as a laundress to support their large family. This evades the controversy surrounding the Industrial Revolution and its creation of a factory class of citizens, not to mention its other consequences such as urbanization. In the more recent film, his father is shown as losing his job when he was replaced by a machine, only to be redeemed by taking up the occupation of repairing those machines in an uplifting twist not present in the novel.
Whatever the background, Charlie is not able to participate in the materialistic rat race because he is poor. In fact, his family could be described as the system’s victims who happened to have had enough luck to escape the misery of that life. However, this does not stop Charlie from his obsession with emulating the upper class and having a piece of that pie. It’s interesting to note that even after he gains control over the factor, he never uses his position to create jobs; he keeps the Oompa-Loompa system in place.
Inside the Factory –
The multitude would not have bowed their necks to the hard discipline of their new work, if in compensation they had not been liberated from other, more ancient disciplinary restrictions.
-Ancient Rome and Modern America, Guglielmo Ferrero
Let’s face it. Willy Wonka is a reclusive weirdo living with slave-midgets. It’s a well-kept secret that the current novel on the shelves calling itself Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rewrite of the first version. Originally, the workers in his factory, were based on African Pygmies. That’s right, they were small black people from Africa, and were the only ones willing to live inside of his factory all of the time. Furthermore, 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” (Source). However, it would seem that it is not chattel slavery, given Wonka’s concessions to them such as maintaining the factory at a high temperature, and the fact that they seem happy to be there. Naturally, however, the
question arises if they would be happier roaming the free world. Of course we’ll never know because they cannot leave.
The novel was revised after great backlash, and Dahl refashioned them into Oompa-Loompas from Loompaland, who have white skin and wear leaves for clothing, which is still a far cry from the circus act that both films make them out to be. Everything is just so grand in the world of abundance that even factory workers are singing midgets!
This makes Wonka appear like an eccentric narcissist, but the plot thickens. Wonka care little for those in the outside world. He has little sympathy for children and merely stands by as if he were a neutral observer as they destroy themselves while trying to fulfill their dreams through his factory—Violet is turned permanently blue, Mike ends up ten feet tall, etc.
To me this represents the advertising industry and the culture of consumerism. It draws you in with promises that your dreams will come true, and once you are sucked in, you’re spit out as damaged goods. Even Charlie can never leave the factory again, at least not until Willy Wonka dies. The worst part is that it’s a candy factory with no real benefit to society, and indeed probably has a negative effect (diabetes, etc). This is the sinister nature that I think the 2005 movie was trying to portray. Welcome to Hotel California, Charlie.
And what are Wonka’s goals? First and foremost, the whole scheme of the factory tour was a way to create demand for his product. Secondly, he tells Charlie that he needs a child to take over his factory, rather than a adult who would impose his own views and opinions on its operation. In other words, he wants to perpetuate himself. Charlie, then, can have a piece of “the promised land” in turn for servitude. Everybody in Wonka’s world must be controlled by him and they are kept happy by their own isolation and addictions. How very healthy.
Again, this is what happens to us in reality. A good example of this is the first scene in the 1971 film version where we see all the children running out of school and into a candy store while the candy man begins to sing to them as he sells them candy, giving them the old razzle dazzle. Children can be very profitable.
The Children: Augustus is a gluttonous boy who constantly engorges himself on sweets. Veruca is spoiled and as soon as she gets what she wants, she has new demands that must be fulfilled. Mike is lazy and potentially violent. And Violet perhaps more than anybody represents the modern capitalistic spirit—the need to win at irrelevant and meaningless pursuits, such as chewing gum. Meanwhile, Charlie is a humble and unspoiled little boy. On the surface, then, we have the timeless story of a good person in a bad world.
However, while it’s clear that the other parents are creating entitled monsters, Charlie’s own family is filling his head with the heroism of industrial giants (Wonka), and his teacher decides to dismiss class and run to the factory himself when he first heard that Wonka would be permitting some to enter. Once they are in the factory, the parents often behave as children themselves and fail to stop their offspring from signing a contract that none of them can read. There are no positive examples for these children.
It’s interesting, though, that the story can condemn the people that the system produces, but never the underlying system that defines the goals and ends up leading Charlie to emulate the very people that he condemns.
The Contradictory Ending – I cannot be the only one who finds the ending to be contradictory, especially in the 1971 version. First, we hear throughout the film that greed is bad, and that people should be humble, especially in the character Veruca with her “I want it now” song. But then in the final elevator scene, Wonka asks Charlie what happens to the boy who gets everything he ever wanted. He lives happily ever after. Either commercial pleasures make you happy or they don’t! End.