The Subversive Lessons of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

This post is part of the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

When it comes to the actual text of Roald Dahl’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and its 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka & the Chocolate factory, the lessons in the story are, well—

Kinda problematic.

The story of a reclusive chocolate maker who closes down his factory to keep out spies and then reopens it for five lucky children, it strives to give lessons on how children should behave. Otherwise they are dealt some pretty severe punishments.

Overly-severe, in my opinion.

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I can think of way worse things than being a relentless gum-chewer, or TV-watcher, or overweight. Even the story acknowledges that the obnoxious spoiled child Veruca Salt is the result of poor parenting, yet it still punishes her with a trip down a garbage shoot with the possibility of incineration at the end of it.

Then there’s the Oompa-Loompa problem. Fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss did an epic take-down of the Oompa-Loompa issue in his Good Reads review of the book. They are, let’s face it, enslaved by Wonka. There’s a reason neither film adaptation cast the African pygmies described in the book to play them in the movie.

There’s hypocrisy in the Oompa-Loompa’s songs, where they fat-shame Augustus Gloop while lugging huge sacks of sugar. They sing about how reading books instead of watching TV will help children “go far” like the Oompa-Loompas, who are factory workers virtually imprisoned by Wonka and paid only in cocoa beans.

(FYI, I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. I also read a lot of books. I was so far ahead of the reading level for my age that I didn’t read Charlie & the Chocolate Factory until I was an adult. So there, Roald Dahl.)

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the movie. Willy Wonka is one of the greatest trickster characters in movies. I may hate the way the children are drubbed by the story, but the parents—and society as a whole—also get a delightful and very deserved drubbing.

Still, the lessons in the text really bother me.

The SUBTEXT, however, is a totally different bowl of Everlasting Gobstoppers. There is much that’s wonderful to learn from that.

Here is what I learned:

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My most important writing lesson about mythic structure:

This happened during a period when I had been studying mythic structure. One of the things that bothered me about mythic structure was how to keep stories from seeming all the same. It was a viewing of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that taught me this is a baseless worry.

I think it was Easter Sunday or some other candy/food-based holiday, because those were popular times for TV stations to broadcast Willy Wonka. The station was showing it with commercials. I discovered another station was showing Excalibur, a movie about the Arthur legend. So during commercial breaks, I jumped back and forth from one movie to the other.

In Excalibur, I got to the part where Arthur, a mere squire, is bid by his foster father to find a sword for his foster brother. He sees a sword sticking out of a stone. Thinking nothing of it, he draws the sword from the stone for his brother.

To his shock, this act causes a near riot because there has been a prophesy that the one who draws the sword from the stone is the true king. Terrified, Arthur runs away from the excited throng.

Commercial.

Back to Willy Wonka.

Thinking all the Golden Tickets have been found, Charlie sees some money in the street. He goes to the candy store and buys some chocolate for himself. When he sees the change, he asks for another “for my Grandpa Joe.” As he approaches the newsstand, he sees people excitedly talking about the last Golden Ticket being a fake, and that there is still one out there.

Surreptitiously, Charlie opens the candy bar for Grandpa Joe—and finds the last Golden Ticket. When the crowd realizes he has it, there is almost a riot. Charlie runs away from the excited throng.

I remember sitting up and saying to myself, “OH. MY. GOD. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is the Arthur legend! Charlie is Arthur! Willy Wonka is Merlin! The chocolate factory is Camelot, and Charlie must vanquish the other children to inherit it!”

It was a true epiphany. Are there two movies that seem more unalike than Willy Wonka and Excalibur? Yet they are essentially the same story. I have no idea if Dahl deliberately set out to retell the Arthur legend, or if this is an example of Jung’s “collective unconscious.” Either way, it taught me that there are endless ways to write stories that are both unique and yet familiar to the reader on an unconscious level.

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Always pay VERY close attention to someone asking you to commit a betrayal or crime:

The Slugworth subplot—where Wonka’s rival Mr. Slugworth supposedly tasks each child with getting hold of an Everlasting Gobstopper for him—does not exist in the book. I think it adds a great deal to the movie, mainly because it gives Charlie a character arc that’s missing in the book. Charlie wins in the book solely because he is the last child standing. In the movie, he has a chance to betray Wonka. By not taking it, he proves himself worthy of the chocolate factory.

The best part of the subplot, though, is how the task practically screams it’s a fake. Slugworth (who’s not really Slugworth, but an employee of Wonka’s) whines that the Everlasting Gobstoppers will put him out of business, when in reality, they are more likely to put Wonka out of business.

The Gobstoppers last forever, so no one would ever need to buy another one. No matter how you look at it, that’s a crummy business model, to sell a product that NEVER needs replacement.

The greed of the children—and their parents—prevents them from seeing what is placed right in front of them by Wonka. It’s Charlie’s naivete that prevents him from seeing it, but his inherent goodness also keeps him from committing betrayal.

As tests of character go, the Everlasting Gobstopper test is both diabolical and brilliant.

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Sometimes the feeling we should tear everything down is justified.

As I said, the movie is a spectacular drubbing of society as a whole. The section where the entire world goes crazy looking for the Golden Tickets is one of my favorites of the whole film.

(My favorite part of that section? When the computer programmer tries to get a computer to tell him the location of the Golden Tickets and it refuses. MACHINES have more ethics in this story than many of the human beings.)

Even though it is totally meant to be satirical, it almost feels like a documentary (especially considering recent events). I’ve no doubt this is EXACTLY how the world would react to this kind of situation.

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The bestest, most scrumdiddlyumptious lesson is the least cynical one in the whole movie:

Willy Wonka is a very cynical movie, especially considering it’s a children’s movie, and probably why people keep loving it well after they become grown-ups. It’s also why Sarcastic Wonka is such a popular meme today.

But the best lesson comes in the last exchange between Wonka and Charlie, after he tells him he has won the chocolate factory and he and his family are saved from a life of poverty:

“But Charlie? Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”

“What happened?”

“He lived happily ever after.”

Now I ask you. How many stories have a character getting everything they always wanted, who had every dream come true—and it’s presented as the worst thing that ever happened to them?

The lesson of those stories is that getting what you want, having your dreams come true, is a bad thing.

Look at 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, for instance. All of Dorothy’s dreams, articulated in the first act, come true. She literally goes over the rainbow. Not only that, she becomes a hero who vanquishes two evil witches, exposes a fraudulent leader, frees an entire society, and makes three of the most amazing friends anyone could ever find.

What’s the lesson of that movie?

Don’t look for anything beyond your own backyard.

As much as I adore The Wizard of Oz, that lesson is so short-sighted, so WRONG.

Willy Wonka, for all its cynicism, teaches us to never stop dreaming, and to expect happiness when our dreams come true. It’s almost subversive. Which seems a very apt lesson for a trickster like Willy Wonka to teach us.

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9 thoughts on “The Subversive Lessons of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

  1. Really enjoyed this! I love the things being discussed in this blogathon, such great lessons not only from the quotes, themes and characters but from how the movies work too, like your eureka plot moment. Thanks for joining in!

  2. Utterly fabulous!

    First of all, when you compared Excalibur to Willy Wonka, I felt like I was hit by a G-force. Brilliant! That never, in a million years, would have occurred to me.

    Secondly, I need to re-read Willy Wonka AND see the movie. I read it as a kid and wasn’t really jazzed about it. I think I would “get” it now.

    Thirdly, to not stop dreaming is subversive, as you said, and it’s a perfect message for this film.

    Thanks so much for joining us. You’ve completely changed the way I view Willy Wonka.

    1. I know, right? I doubt I would ever have made the connection if I hadn’t seen the two movies simultaneously and realized the scenes were so similar. From there, it was easy to connect the dots. 🙂 It definitely opened up not only how I saw Willy Wonka, but many other stories, too.

      Thank you and thanks for hosting the blogathon!

  3. Whoa. I’m a fan of Wonka AND the Arthur legends and I am agog that I didn’t see the similarities. Holy cow. Sure, it could be Jungian coincidence but it doesn’t matter if the screenwriters themselves made the connection- it’s a great example of how universal mythic arcs are. LOVE IT!

    Also? Phenomenal breakdown of the pointlessness of the Gobstopper gambit. It’s so obvious when you look at it from a purely economical perspective, but no one is really going to think about it like that when the story plays out. Genius.

    1. Thank you so much!

      A while back, Gene Wilder did an interview where he said he came up with the idea of having Wonka pretend to fall when he first comes out of the factory. He said it was so you could never be sure about anything that happens afterwards. That may be why I caught on to the pointlessness of the Gobstopper test. (That, and more than 40 years of repeat viewings, lol.)

      1. Was that the interview he did with Alec Baldwin? They re-ran a piece he did one-on-one with Baldwin in 2013 I want to say, just two actors talking craft. It was utterly fascinating. Wilder definitely saw something with that script that no one else did. Thank goodness for that!

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