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Colm O’SheaJanuary 12, 2024
Timothée Chalamet stars as Willy Wonka in the movie “Wonka.” Timothée Chalamet stars as Willy Wonka in the movie “Wonka.” (OSV News photo/courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

I grew up in Ireland in the 1980s, with only two TV channels. In this landscape of limited children’s programming, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971), directed by Mel Stuart, was reliably broadcast every Christmas, taking on a quasi-religious quality for my generation.

I always watched with a queasy mix of unease and fascination. Wonka’s factory is grotesque in the classical sense: colorfully overwrought to the point of fever dream. Gene Wilder’s twinkly-eyed Wonka is mesmeric, by turns gleeful, impatient and malevolently indifferent to the suffering of the morally flawed children he’s invited into his private universe, his dangerous Eden. He first materializes faking a limp, pretending to be stern, only to chuck the cane and tumble for his adoring audience. As Wilder said in an interview, from that first moment on we know we can’t fully trust this character.

How did this Wonka, unfazed and insisting that salvation is at hand, become the jaded, suspicious entity we know he will become?

Tim Burton’s 2005 Wonka remake doubled down on the dark qualities of the 1971 version, with Johnny Depp channeling a disturbing Michael Jackson-esque giddiness. But its lurid cartoonishness can’t match Wilder’s conflicted godlike man, capable of poetry and sincere emotion beneath the antics and quips. When I learned that another feature film inspired by the strange chocolatier was in development, I was skeptical it would speak to the deep currents of meaning I found in the original film. To my surprise, “Wonka,” a prequel released in December, is the most explicitly theological treatment of the subject we’ve had—and yet, I left the cinema uncertain that director Paul King had engaged seriously with the implications of his work. 

A theological reading

While not explicitly allegorical like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a book that implores a theological reading almost as much as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.Dahl’s Wonka factory is an inverse of Lewis’s world, where a hostile land frozen in perpetual winter is redeemed by its “true king,” Aslan, a gruff lion who reveals himself to be gentle love incarnate. By contrast, in Dahl’s tale we are presented with a child’s candy paradise, the “king” of which initially seems friendly and playful. But as the story progresses and one gold-ticket-winning child after another gets picked off by the machinery of his factory, we start to question just how benevolent this whimsical magician really is. On the level of morality play, I recall as a child-viewer myself dismissing the kids as deeply flawed, even obscenely spoiled cartoons, and therefore warranting such punishments. Reflecting as an adult, I wonder which is the more pessimistic view of the scenario: that Wonka set up a competition that would lure the most spoiled children or that this is a truly random sampling of humanity and most of it is rotten to the core, albeit in a variety of ways (gluttony, avarice, narcissism, etc.).

Dahl’s biography helps explain why, in painting his “world of pure imagination,” he conceived of an empire governed by threatening and unpredictable forces. His sister died while he was a toddler, followed a few weeks later by his father. His boarding school days involved regular canings from rectors who gave sermons about God’s mercy. He joined the R.A.F. in 1939 to fight Axis forces and witnessed 13 of the 16 men in his flight team get killed. In 1960, his baby son Theo was hit by a taxi, suffering permanent brain damage. (Dahl, with Wonka-like ingenuity, teamed up with a neurosurgeon to create a device to drain the water from Theo’s brain, thereby allowing him, and others suffering from hydrocephalus, to live with the injury.) A year later, he lost his oldest daughter Olivia to measles. His first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, had a severe stroke soon afterward. According to biographer Jeremy Treglown, Neal said that while Dahl’s faith wavered over the years, it was the death of his daughter that snuffed out any belief he had left. Born into a Lutheran family that included high-ranking priests in the Norwegian state religion, by the end of his life Dahl said that he desperately wanted to believe in Christianity, but couldn’t. It is out of this abstract carnage that he conceived Wonka: the magician that promises bliss and freedom but tries his followers with terrifying tests.

Like an Old Testament God, Roald Dahl’s Wonka giveth and he taketh away—part fairy godmother, part gingerbread-house witch.

It is worth noting here the darkness in much of Dahl’s writing, which included salacious short fiction for adults, including those compiled in the book Tales of the Unexpected. His work was admired by Noel Coward, who wrote in his diary, after reading Dahl’s second collection, Someone Like You: “The stories are brilliant and his imagination is fabulous. Unfortunately there is, in all of them, an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness…” Dahl’s other books for children usually involve fighting against an oppressive system: Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and perhaps most notably The Witches, where a British boy and his Norwegian grandmother wage a private war against a secret cabal of witches trying to wipe out all children because they “smell disgusting.” The high witch who leads them sounds suspiciously German.

Wonka, in Dahl’s story (and Stuart’s film/Wilder’s realization), has that streak of cruelty that Coward noted. Like an Old Testament God, he giveth and he taketh away—part fairy godmother, part gingerbread-house witch. He tests poor, long-suffering Charlie to see if the boy will remain dutiful, honest and loving in the face of wrath. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has some overlap with the Book of Job, in that it is a profession of faith of the most difficult kind. Humans fear the faith of Job; it offers no protection from suffering—the superstitious part of us believes this faith might even invite punishment. Job’s God is implacable, capricious, possibly insane. What, then, makes Dahl’s novel hopeful?

In short: Charlie. Even when told it’s too late to win the factory, even when he has been mistreated and spat upon by the lord of the manor who makes it all happen, Charlie does the right thing anyway. In revealing that Wonka was testing Charlie, Dahl offers young readers their reassuring happy ending. But is this really reassurance? What kind of benefactor would play with a starving child’s hopes and dreams in such a cruel way? To say “All’s well that ends well, because Charlie gets the factory” is missing the point. Charlie is dutiful even when the power that held his fate in its hand looked bafflingly cruel. By the story’s end, it looks no less cruel. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a book of hope solely because of Charlie’s undaunted goodness.

If the 1971 film is dark chocolate with salt, “Wonka” (2023) introduces itself as a “confection by Paul King.” 

Interviewed by NPR, King mentioned rereading Dahl’s novel and being struck by the poverty of Charlie: “And at the end, when he inherits the factory and receives the greatest of all imaginable gifts, I was weeping like at the end of A Christmas Carol or something.” King’s allusion to Scrooge seems to fuse Charlie and Wonka into one. Scrooge has two sides: the child starved of love who desperately seeks some worldly compensation (in Scrooge’s case wealth), and also the exacting, stern, dismissive boss who trusts no one. In the end, Scrooge learns to trust his inner child, have fun, and inherits a hidden kingdom. But first he endures a spiritual obstacle course laid out by the various Christmas ghosts. Charlie doesn’t seem to want for love, but he’s poor to the point of literal starvation, and the temptations he faces in the chocolate factory should be greater than for the others. When he passes the final test of duty (returning the gobstopper to Wonka with no thought of reward), Wonka’s jaded god is also renewed. (This, I suspect, is what drives Job’s God to test him too.) Perplexingly, though, the Willy Wonka that King conjures in his prequel contains nothing of the challenging acidity that allowed Charlie to shine so movingly as his foil.

A sugary success story

If the 1971 film is dark chocolate with salt, “Wonka” (2023) introduces itself as a “confection by Paul King.” It’s the origin story of young Wonka as he tries to establish his empire without a penny to his name. There are overt allusions linking him to Christ—but it’s a milquetoast Christ in a sugary success story.

As Wonka, Timothée Chalamet’s thin boyish face and reedy voice (singing songs from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon) convey no threat of any kind. He’s indefatigable, but infinitely meek. He never loses his temper, despite suffering severe injustice from the outset. In a childhood flashback, we learn Wonka had a mother but no father; she induced him into the role of magician/chocolatier and seems quasi-divine, promising to reappear to Wonka once he shares his supernatural gift with the world.

Where is the throughline between young, resilient Willy and the conniving trickster he will become?

Some Christian allusions are pointed, as if filmmakers wished to use the Gospel as a trellis. Wonka arrives as a stranger, aiming to establish his brand as history’s greatest confectioner. He’s thwarted by a cast of characters with inexact parallels to high priests and turncoat apostles. Three Pharisee-like competitors are shocked at his insolence in challenging their authority. This cabal controls the chief of police and has rigged the system in ways that prevent Wonka from speaking directly to the people and performing his miracles. A corrupt churchman, Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson), and 500 chocoholic monks are also implicated in locking out the radical upstart, though they play no active role in the plot and their motives are unclear. Toward the film’s climax, Father Julius confesses that he betrayed his holy office for “30 pieces of chocolate.” But since Julius has no connection to Wonka, how is he (or his clergy) Judas?

Other allusions to Christianity arise throughout. The orphan Noodle, a female surrogate of Charlie, is by Willy’s side as he establishes his underground premises in defiance of the powers that be. We learn that her dad’s name is Zebedee, like the Biblical father of James and John, adding credence to the notion that she and the other workers are ersatz apostles. As Wonka’s covert mission gets underway, his sweets become legend. His chocolate miracles behave much like the wine at Cana, leaving a trail of drunken, euphoric love. It’s a genial bacchanal—the kind we might imagine Christ instigating if we see him as an affable hippie, utterly unconnected to the fearful God of Abraham.

And that’s the basic sticking point of “Wonka”as prequel. Where is the throughline between young, resilient Willy and the conniving trickster he will become? Even his basic attributes are wrong: Where Wilder’s Wonka insists vengefully that Charlie read the “small print” in his contract, King’s young Wonka is mysteriously illiterate and profoundly anti-litigious, falling for a local scam that traps him into indentured servitude with a small cadre of hapless fellow travelers. How did this Wonka, unfazed and insisting that salvation is at hand, become the jaded, suspicious entity we know he will become? How does the loving son become the exacting father?

At one point, Noodle somberly intones, “The greedy beat the needy, every time.” She and the young Wonka are poor, and in that one narrow regard they overlap with Charlie. But missing is Dahl’s trademark talent for looking squarely at the grimmest realities. Young Wonka is never hungry, never tested as little mortal Charlie is. (Noodle suffers by his side, but she isn’t morally tested either.) In their chocolate-making garden of Eden, there’s a tree that bears both flowers and fruit, embodying both the promise of spring and the fulfillment of late summer: no trade-offs are necessary.

This is a film made by happy people to hearten those in the dreary depths of winter. (Co-writers King and Simon Farnaby wrote both “Paddington” films, and their whimsical good-naturedness is note-perfect in those two films.) If I were a child, I’d enjoy “Wonka.” And yet (perhaps it’s my phase of life, or some flaw in my character) I’m repelled by the niceness of this Wonka-Jesus. It lowers Jesus to the level of magician, rather than raising Wonka to a savior.

Confections entertain, but do not satisfy. I’m drawn back to the unsettling weirdness of Wilder’s twisted, testing Wonka. What has haunted me since my childhood is his resonances with the God of Job, creator of nightmares alongside treats and dreams, a deity in league with the satanic tempter Snodgrass who tries to bribe Charlie to steal the Everlasting Gobstopper. The God whom Dahl couldn’t make peace with after all he’d witnessed and suffered. Who could love him, who lays down such wonders side by side with threats and traps, and even rage? Who can fathom the depths of such a being?

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