It takes more than 40 minutes for lucky gold ticket winners to arrive at the Wonka factory in Mel Stuart’s 1971 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl’s work was retitled against his wishes to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, slighting its sweet protagonist, and otherwise showing with all too much obviousness where its loyalties lie. The film is not so much about the adventures of a child, but about the indecision and indifference and lunacy of a man, which is also to say, a boss. Still, by the time he shows up—“he” meaning Wonka, a performance defining Gene Wilder in my mind’s eye so completely that no amount of Mel Brooks film viewing can erase it—it does feel a little, well, special. Wonka’s introduction to the world of Stuart’s film lives in relative infamy: he walks with the use of a cane down a purple carpet when suddenly he stumbles, falls into a somersault, and pops up to his feet. Ah! The star has arrived, the film says. Though Wilder meant for the stunt to reveal a truth best considered both before that moment and after: Wonka is a liar.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is not a horror movie, but it is a scary movie. For children of certain generations, it was equal parts foundational and nightmare-inducing. Its script was wrestled away from Dahl and doctored and rewritten by The Omen writer David Seltzer into a punishing experience. I don’t mean that it is unpleasant to watch—weirdly, as an adult, it is a lurid little pleasure—but it carries what we of an annoying generation would call a “bad vibe.”
Dahl was unhappy with it. “He thought it placed too much emphasis on Willy Wonka and not enough on Charlie,” said Liz Attenborough, trustee of the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire in 2005. Indeed, this might be the root of the fear: it isn’t about Charlie; it isn’t about the children at all. It is about the impact, terror, influence, and charm of a certain candyman (and all that he is capable of doing). It’s not even all about Wonka—it is about the myth of a visionary figurehead, a person who spins you a dream of sugar and possibility while leading you, unwittingly, into a punishing, perilous reality.
“Willy Wonka,” wrote Benjamin DeMott in the Times in 1971, “is something of a kid-hating movie; an anthology of spoiled Yanks, Krauts, and others; as played by Gene Wilder, Willy himself is a smiler with a knife.” Is Willy Wonka a kid-hating movie? The question turns in the mind. It is a film whose reputation precedes it, one that many of my peers saw “too young” (and even those who saw it older said that, though not exactly frightening, it doesn’t leave, dare I say, a good taste). The boat scene, Augustus Gloop stuck in the pipe, Violet Beauregarde being rolled away…there are countless images from the film that linger. I’ve always slotted Willy Wonka away with movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Return To Oz—did I watch them in full as a child? Or did I turn them off halfway through? Regardless, no one I know who saw Willy Wonka as a child thought of themselves as in on the joke of it all. They were not laughing with or at. They were recoiling.
Still, I am not sure it is a kid-hating movie. Perhaps because I am thinking about labor more than I ever have before—you always want what you don’t have—but, to me, it hates business and bosses far more than it hates children. The rotten nogoodniks with their golden tickets, and poor sweet Charlie Bucket, are consequences more than anything else.
Far off from the hazy fake world of Wonka, in San Francisco, the workers at the chocolate factory are unionizing, and I am homesick. On a cold day, when the wind is right, the smell of cocoa from the Blommer Chocolate Company drifts from West Chicago all the way downtown to Lake Michigan. It gives the city a brief facade of magic before one has to, say, side-step a pigeon. But don’t get me wrong, unionizing makes me homesick too: our management recognized my work’s union days before I put in my two weeks at the company. Not my first union nor my last. I worked at a local grocery store chain in high school, hoping to save up for the occasional overpriced Hollister shirt and movie tickets, and when I saw a tickable box asking me if I wanted money of mine to go to the union and not to my overpriced henley fund, I brought the sheet to my parents. “You’re gonna want in the union,” they advised. I’ve never since wanted out.
Why would a chocolate company unionize? “We want a more democratic workplace. A lot of other things tie into that: we want more equitable wages, more transparency from management, and a safer workplace, both physically safer and emotionally safer,” said Christine Keating of Dandelion—but Keating could be speaking as any worker in any industry. I will admit that the open-floor office plan in which I once wrote quote-unquote content was relatively safe from physical harm, though about once a week I nearly clotheslined myself walking around with my headphones both on my head and attached to my laptop. But it took a number of years to learn that a workplace was not fundamentally safe.
I don’t know why I thought otherwise. Maybe because people were addicted to calling our job a “family.” A family is not inherently safe, either. Safety is agreed upon through rules and caution, boundaries and protections, and most importantly, compassion. I thought if a job was hard to get, they could treat you however they wanted. I don’t know why this was such a tough lesson to swallow.
If you don’t get Wonka until the halfway point of the film, well, what do you get? You get the kids, you get their parents. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964, and though much was changed between novel to film, the kids and their enablers, sorry, their parents, remain the same. You have rotund Augustus Gloop and his jovial mother, a portrait of West German richness in the post-WWII era. They are greedy but amiable—perfect little capitalist consumers. Everything tastes good, why not have it all?
From there, we meet Veruca Salt, the type of character I feel we’re always .01 seconds away from having reclaimed as a #girlboss icon or SHE-EO queen, or however it is fourth-wave feminism has managed to justify economic inequalities between women. She’s a viper, but fuck it, she is funny. Introduced in voiceover, the ever-ringing “I wanted – ” that begins most of Veruca’s sentences, we pan over the underpaid female factory workers at her father’s company, unwrapping Wonka bars as high-speed. Only then do we see Veruca, spinning in her father’s chair. He’s not in charge; she is. Having lost out on the first golden ticket, she barks: “Make them work nights!” Her father can’t commit to that level of cruelty—he’s human, after all—but more than that, he knows it’s incentivization that really makes a workplace hum. “The first girl that finds a golden ticket gets a £1 bonus in her pay pocket.” £1? £1! The factory workers cheer, amp up the velocity. The standard for rights is awful—I want to slip them all a little pamphlet about organization—but for now, the individual will triumph, as does the one factory girl who, mobbed by her coworkers, shrieks that she’s found the ticket.
Violet Beauregarde—there’s the real innocent child. I’m kidding, of course, though most charmed by her and her ceaseless gum-chewing. Her father is a businessman and a politician—the American dream. In Violet’s brief moment to shine on TV, her father steals her thunder, using the opportunity to shill bargains. Though she’s no slouch. When the camera cuts back to her, she shares a factoid about the piece of gum shifting and stretching inside her mouth: it’s been there for three months, which beats the record set by her best friend. “Hi Cornelia, how are you, sweetie?” Violet sneers with a wave at the end of her segment. It may as well be a Housewives introduction.
And then, there’s Mike Teevee, whose sin of being subscribed to too many niche streaming services is enough to condemn him. Just kidding, he is what everyone says video games do to children personified, complaining that his father won’t buy him a gun. (“Not till you’re 12, son!” his father gleefully advises.) Mike, too, is guilty of excess—but again, I struggle to fault the children entirely. Mike’s mother proudly boasts that he’s never once sat at their kitchen table. “You like the killings?” a reporter asks, to which Mike zings, “What do you think life’s all about?”
You can see how Charlie—wimpy, mopesome—stands out among the riffraff. He has a semblance of a moral core. His grandparents all sleep in one big bed! His mother sings the most boring song in the movie about wanting a better life for them all! Though Dahl saw Charlie as the center of it all, the movie implicates him alongside his peers. To me, they are all presented as victims of post-war capitalism and greed. Charlie and his family just so happen to be on the wrong side of it. Listen, I don’t seek to absolve the horrible little buggers of the film or the book. I wouldn’t want to be in a room with any of them, not even Charlie.
What Dahl balked at, apparently, was the man lurking off to the side of each of these children’s 15 minutes of fame: an invented character known as Slugworth, who introduces himself as a competitor of Wonka’s, desperate to acquire the formula for his new candy, Everlasting Gobstoppers. The money Slugworth offers could be a real boon to Charlie and his family—less so the other children, already feasting on what means they have—and so the temptation to betray Wonka, a man Charlie has yet to meet, itches beneath the surface. I can see where Slugworth would distract from what Dahl believed to be a story about inheriting a business through quality of character, but to me, it only reinforces the anti-business sentiment of the film. In order to break even, you have to be willing to be cutthroat.
I got addicted to candy not as a child, but as an adult working at an open-floor office plan new media company. A bowl of Starburst sat at the front desk, and in order to make my daily step count, I’d walk from my desk on one side of the office to the front desk on the other side of the office to get a few Starburst and carry them back to my desk in my warm little hand. This was, on average, about 190 steps. I didn’t feel like a person who was addicted to candy, or sugar, but I did recognize that I was consuming too much of it. In an attempt at self-discipline, I tried to go a week without; four days in, I was in the worst mood of my whole life. I returned, shamefully, to the bowl of Starburst, fishing out the pink ones. When jobs felt novel and special, I used to love going to see the open-floor office plan spaces my friends did their little type-type-typing in, and, more importantly, what snacks were offered free of charge. The worse the job—by which I mean the ones with the greatest psychological toll on my peers—the better the snacks, by far.
Wilder’s performance as Wonka is entrancing and profoundly funny. He appears passive, though devious, watching the children through machinery and candied decorations. He feigns politehood and graciousness. (“What is this, Wonka, some kind of funhouse?” Veruca’s father asks, to which Wonka snipes, “Why? Having fun?”) He is, lest we forget, a liar, and in turn, we have to look to the film itself to see the type of man that Willy Wonka is. And so, in more ways than one, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a movie about how your boss thinks it’s okay to die at work. Obviously it’s not the preferred outcome, but it’s a plenty acceptable one.
Before the children and their chosen guardians enter the chocolate factory, Wonka has them all sign a comically big contract that trails off into unreadable small print at the bottom. “Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous,” he announces, once again lying. The parents balk at the idea of their children signing away…whatever it is they’re signing (a liability contract, it seems, though not one in their favor), but nothing pushes a child towards revolt more than a parent’s hesitation. Veruca Salt snatches the pen in clear defiance of her sniveling father. “Nicely handled, Veruca,” Wonka purrs, “she’s a girl who knows where she’s going.”
His song “Pure Imagination,” sung as the tour group explores an Eden of candy in what I can only describe as the factory’s show floor, is haunting and strange. On the rare close-ups of Wilder’s face, he is unblinking, gazing out at something unseen near the audience. “Anything you want to, do it,” he urges, more to himself than anyone else, miserable, solitary. This is his one plight: it is lonely at the top. But let’s not feel too bad for too long. He is still at the top, overseeing an empire. Lest we forget his band of Oompa-Loompas: “Of course they’re real people,” Wonka insists, before explaining how he liberated his orange-faced helpers from Loompaland. “So I said, ‘Come live with me in peace and safety.’” He is determined to appear benevolent, whimsical. Even as skeptics and detractors appear amidst the children and their kin, Charlie buys into the act hook, line, and sinker. “He’s absolutely bonkers,” Veruca tells him, to which he replies, “And that’s not bad!”
Perhaps the funniest line, and in turn, the most telling in the movie occurs not long after Violet Beauregarde consumes the yet-to-be perfected three-course dinner chewing gum. Every child and adult knows what happens to Violet—it’s in her name, of course—but before she starts to expand, Wonka says, in his most indoor-speaking voice yet, “Stop, don’t,” with utter and profound indifference. He is detached and unflinching, bemused by the danger around him. Perhaps it is not Willy Wonka the movie that is kid-hating, but Willy Wonka himself.
A boss I had years and years ago used to walk around the bays of computers and desks. “Cool place to work, right?” he’d go, passing by before he could get an answer. “We have a lotta fun here,” he’d notice without looking, before disappearing back into his office.
The children succumb to their various poetic punishments. It used to frighten me, but now I, like Wonka, find a sick pleasure in it. They are victims of excess and gluttony. They know no shame until it is too late. Only Charlie, as Wonkapilled as anyone could be, makes it to the very end of the tour. Eyes wide and concerned, he asks Wonka about the status of his peers.
“I promise you they’ll be quite all right. When they leave here, they’ll be completely restored to their normal, terrible, old selves, but maybe they’ll be a little wiser for the wear,” Wonka explains, echoing the sentiments of every HR director I’ve known. Charlie is heartbroken that things end on tepid terms between himself and Wonka—he has been deprived of the kiss from Daddy—only to have Grandpa Joe’s appeal turn Wonka into a red-faced monster. “You lose!” he yells. For a moment, Wonka melts away and it’s all Wilder. His scream—used to great comedic effect in the Brooks canon—pierces the heart.
For a brief moment in the film, Wonka is as he seems. A monster, a bully. Charlie caves, however, returning to Wonka after his tantrum, and apologizes for the attempt at stealing the Gobstopper for Slugworth’s offer. What a reveal! What a twist! Charlie has been good all along, but good to whom, exactly? Together, Wonka and Charlie and Grandpa Joe shoot up into the sky, recalling a certain space travel-affiliated CEO who would rather put a guy on Mars than let his factory workers unionize. “How did you like the chocolate factory, Charlie?” Wonka asks.
Charlie beams. Oh, the chocolate factory? The series of traps and punishments, tunnels and cellars, full of magic and terror? Above all else—a workplace. “I think it’s the most wonderful place in the whole world,” Charlie says. And with that, Wonka hands him the keys and envelops him in an embrace that is just as much a curse.
In spite of everything I am shown––I’m bewitched and bedazzled by the world of Wonka. All of the half-appliances in his office, the buoyant gummy bears hanging on trees, the idea that a piece of gum could hold a three-course dinner. I have purchased in real life(!) Nerds Ropes and Laffy Taffy and, yes, even Ever-Lasting Gobstoppers. The candy addiction didn’t stop when I left the office. It didn’t even really start there. At my first job, an ice cream shop, we’d spend the slow hours licking sample spoons’ worth of salted caramel ice cream or pear sorbet into our mouths. I have seen the ire and resentment and punitive power of management first hand, but the sugar seduces. The unlimited PTO, the snack arrays, the ping pong tables. In the same breath I’ve told someone about calling a lawyer to discuss labor practices and recommended the same workplace’s food. The perks are piled on so thick we forget underneath it’s a job.
And not a “job,” really, but a machine. If I zoom out on Wonka, it’s a movie about children who, more than anything, want to visit a workplace. Losers! Losers one and all, even the nice one. Charlie gets the gift of bosshood (I’m told this is a curse, but don’t think I’ll ever work long enough to know), and the rest of the children have maybe learned to transcend their horrible selves. But probably not. The world is still full of sweets and chews and bars and gummies. When we see a world without those things, it gets hard to keep going. Once a friend who worked for the type of company that had, I kid you not, a LEGO conference room, came to eat lunch with me at my office. “Oh, so it’s just, like, a regular office?” he asked, looking around at the chairs and computers and desks and conference rooms. “God, that makes me sad.”