July 8, 2005

Movies and their books -- especially "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Usually people who've seen the film and read the book think the book is better. But lots of people just see the films and feel that's as close as they need to get to the underlying the book. Here's a piece by Caryn James in the NYT about various movies that overwhelm the books they are based on.

Then there's the special case of the film that overshadows the book, where deficiencies in the original book-to-film transition justify remaking the film to tap the aspects of the book the first film missed. Take "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." James is sure to rile a few fans of the 1971 Gene Wilder movie with this:
The Johnny Depp version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (opening next week) comes from Roald Dahl's children's novel about a boy who inherits Willy Wonka's candy factory. The book is not exactly unknown, but there are plenty of people surprised to learn that it is not called "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" like the creaky 1971 film. It's hard to get past that movie's old-Hollywood musical numbers; what child really likes the song "Candyman"?
I was just reading the recent cover story in Entertainment Weekly on the new Depp film (subscription link) which was somewhat more deferential to the old "Wonka" film, even as it reminded us of the ridiculous Gene Wilder complaints about the remake:
Whether or not 1971's Willy Wonka is a great film, or even a good film, is almost beside the point. Neither commercially nor critically successful at the time of its release, Wilder's film only later snowballed into a sort of camp classic. Now, three decades later, it's become a sugarcoated time capsule for a generation known for its nostalgic sweet tooth. On the set of Charlie, virtually everyone is careful to respectfully sing the praises of Wilder and his film, but that didn't stop Wilder from bad-mouthing the new Charlie, telling London's Daily Telegraph recently: ''It's all about money. It's just some people sitting around thinking 'How can we make some more money?' Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?'' Wilder declined to comment for this article.

Depp says he was taken aback when he heard Wilder's remarks. ''Hearing about that was disappointing,'' he says. ''But I can understand where he's coming from, I guess. The one thing I didn't understand was that apparently he was quoted as saying 'Well, they just did this for money.' Well, hey, man, where have you been? When didn't they ever do anything for money? Nobody's ever made a film in the history of cinema where they weren't expecting some return on their dough.''
Hmmm.... I see Wilder very recently retracted his criticism. Good move. He sounded like an idiot. His film just isn't that good. If the new film is great -- as it should be! -- he can't possibly hope to prevail with his contention that his film is so perfect there's no room for a remake. The fact is the 1971 film is rather crappy. Who are the people who love it? That movie always struck me as intended for the pothead/acidhead audience of the day. Then it became a cult film when those people got older and bought VCRs and needed to entertain their kids.


Contributors said...

I love it. Always have. Wilder's delightful in the role. Near-perfect in fact. That childlike menace he brings to it. I've always thought Robert Walker would've been the perfect Wonka.

I think this new film is suffering remake backlash. It seems to be the one everyone's honing in on to say, "enough already!"

I suffered through "Batman Begins" last weekend. There were 11 trailers before it. 10 were remakes, sequels, or old TV shows. 10! The eleventh was a piece of crap called "Stealth." Or, "Blue Thunder" with jets. (Boy, can I can hear that pitch.)

And yes, it's always been done for the money. But they're getting lazy about it. That's the difference. And it's a huge one.

Contributors said...

Oh, and thanks a lot. Now I have "The Candy Man" stuck in my head.

Of course it could be worse. It could be "The Girl From Ipanema."

Uh, oh.

Troy said...

Wilder's mad? Wait 'til the remakes of "Silver Streak" and "The World's Greatest Lover" come out. Now those are moneymakers!

Anonymous said...

Mixed feelings about the original myself. Love Gene Wilder. Not so crazy about most of the music and the shlocky psychedelia.

What I like most about the movie is the openly negative portrayal of every-day children. The story is really just a catalog of all-too-commom bratty behaviors. The kids are awful and Wonka delights in exposing and punishing them. Rather subversive I think, and most delicious!

I'll bet the remake will lack that clear-eyed portrayal. The bad children will be presented not as everyman types, but as uniquely wicked little individuals that eveyone in the audience can watch and think "well that's not ME". Why? Because, vis-a-vis making money, you can't (in this day and age) go around criticizing the people you're looking to make a buck off of.

Matt Barr said...

Little-known fact: They show Willy Wonka to kids with Asperger Syndrome and other mild forms of autism to train them how to recognize facial expressions and their corresponding emotions, because they're so clear and exaggerated in the movie.

Skewed Left said...

I like the original, but I am afflicted with the "nostalgic sweet tooth". The thing that really excites me about this remake is Tim Burton. In anyone else's hands, what's the point? I imagine his approach isn't going to "remake" the original film, or even follow the Dahl book all that closely (although I think I remember the illustrations to be sort of creepy), it will be a new piece of work that stands on it's own. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

I'd love to see Tim Burton "remake" a bunch of old films or make films out of childrens' books that are steeped in fantasy. It may be blasphemous to say, but I'd like to see a Burton version of "The Wizard of Oz".

There is a camp value to this movie, and that can fuel backlash. I went to see Willy Wonka when they still showed old films at the old Pittsburgh Playhouse in the mid-90s, and it was packed to the gills. People were singing, saying the lines, it was an "event", not the scale of Rocky Horror, but still fun for aging GenXers like myself.

Contributors said...

I disagree that it's one of those movies now popular due to "sweet tooth nostalgia." I just don't think it was appreciated at the time. It was too dark for kids and too silly for adults. Now it's appreciated as subversive and in these oh-so sensitive politically correct times, Wonka's mean streak is actually a relief.

Depp simply looks creepy. I think Ann compared him to Michael Jackson. Even after an acquittal... bad choice.

And how do you bad mouth a musical score with the Oompa Loompa song? That's a classic all by itself.

If this remake is successful it should be interesting if they make a movie out of the sequel Dahl wrote to Willy Wonka.

Ann Althouse said...

My kids got "Willie Wonka" on their own when they were young and seemed to like it. I could only bear to look at parts of it, because something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe the style of exaggeration. Maybe Wilder's annoyingness or just plain ugliness. One thing about the difference between the two Wonkas is that Wilder's ugly and Depp is utterly beautiful! Another difference between the two is that Wilder's movie is pre-Michael Jackson and Depp's is post-. And judging from the pictures I've seen of Depp in his Wonka makeup, the filmmakers are quite aware of the resonance with MJ.

Contributors said...

I still remember them playing it on Sunday nights and fuming at the damn football games that always seemed to go into overtime every year it was on. And of course when the game ended we'd hear, "We now join Willy Wonka ALREADY IN PROGRESS." Arghhhh!!!

That may explain why I still hate football.

VCR's and DVD's have taken away "event" viewing. I kind of miss getting excited over "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Ten Commandments" coming on. Used to be a big deal. Now you just pop it in. Not the same.

Brendan said...

Was the 1971 edition a British or American production? I suspect British.

Mawado said...

The candy store clerk sings "Candyman" not the children. The children sing songs like "I WANT IT NOW!"

I like and read your weblog regularly, but 'utterly beautiful' as a description of a living Koons-like porcelain pedophile is a hard sell. How about 'demented'? 'twisted'? 'shocking'?

And isn't that really what the remake is about - fun to shock us fuddy-duddy, sweeet-toothed, nostalgic, suburban boomers 'cause we just don't get art?

Ann Althouse said...

Mawado: Out of makeup, Depp is utterly beautiful. In makeup, he does weird things to himself. Which is fascinating.

CM said...

I love the book and have purposely avoided seeing the movie. I don't want to have my vision of the book destroyed by cheesy songs and a campy movie, and I don't want my impression of the eccentric, but not creepy, Willy Wonka to be Jacksonesque. (Although just from seeing the previews, it may be too late to avoid reimagining Willy Wonka.)

Dave said...

Wasn't Depp on that old show 21 Jump St.?

I remember liking that.

Joseph Angier said...

One thing Caryn James only vaguely alluded to were the times when the movie-makers actually improved on the source book. Of course it's subjective, but off the top of my head I'd include "The Verdict" and "The Shining" on that list. Both times, the filmmakers saw powerful themes that had been given short shrift in the books. In the first, David Mamet and Sidney Lumet turned a so-so legal thriller into a meditation on Irish fatalism (yeah, I know, they're both Jewish). In the second, Kubrick and his writer (Diane Johnson?) added the writer's bloc, plus the word versus image battle between father and son. I read somewhere that Stephen King hated this movie, but as Nicholas Ray once told me (about the author of the book "Thieves Like Us," who'd written the first screenplay draft of what became "They Live By Night"): "He didn't understand his own book!"

Ann Althouse said...

Joseph: That's actually what I thought the article was going to be about when I first set up to blog it. I was going to get people to start listing movies that were better than the book. I think I'll start a separate post on that topic to keep that subject separate.

Harkonnendog said...

Am I the only person who was freaked out watching that movie as a kid?

'There's no earthly way of knowing, where exactly we are going, but we ARE CERTAINLY NOT SHOWING- ANY SIGNS OF SLOWING!!!"

as the sides of the tunnel show distored projections of... what? I guess they are tweaked late 60's porn films-

Great book though. LOVED that.

Ann Althouse said...

Harkennodog: That's why I've convinced it was made to be what we used to call a "head movie."

Robert R. said...

The book is really a horror story for children, isn't it? From the look of the Burton movie, that seems to be the idea, right down to a creepy Willy Wonka.

Ann Althouse said...

Robert: Isn't it kind of like the Old Woman in Hansel and Gretl? She's got candy to lure them, but she's out to kill them. Wonka's a child murderer. I don't know the story enough to know why Charlie is a hero -- I don't think he kills Wonka, the way H&G kill the witch. If he allies himself with Wonka, why is he a hero? Kind of sick.

Harkonnendog said...

Ann, if you're right I completely missed it. I think it is a morality tale in which kids representing the 7 deadly sins for kids- greedy, gluttonous, spoiled, bratty, etc. are punished and the virtuous Charlie is rewarded.
Of course I last read it 25 years ago. I think I'll read it again. Really enjoyed rereading the Narnia books as an adult.

Ann Althouse said...

Harkennodog: That makes it sound as though Wonka represents God. The sinner kids are sent to Hell and Charlie goes to Heaven.

Robert R. said...

I think the main difference between Wonka and the Witch of Hansel & Gretel is that Wonka only sets out to teach a lesson. He gives a metaphorical spanking to some naughty children (the ones with the too permissive parents) and sends them home without dessert while rewarding the good child. (Isn't that sufficient punishment for children, unlike adults in movies like Seven and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.)There's really no profit to Wonka in his actions, except a sense of justice.

Wonka is arguably still a monster, but he's one of those misunderstood lonely monsters of stories like Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast, or Edward Scissorhands.

Ann Althouse said...

Robert: From what I've seen of the 1971 movie, it looked as though the kids were getting killed. Is it true they just end up back home?

Robert R. said...

Ann: It's been a long time since I've seen the original movie, but my recollection is that we're explicitly told that the children get sent home alive. I remember that one child gets turned into a blueberry and we're told that they're going to take her to the pressing room to get the juice out of her. Another child gets shrunk and I recall they say they'll take him to the taffy pulling room to stretch him back out. Ouch. Roald Dahl was a "dark" children's author, but he was still a children's author. Matilda isn't Carrie and Willie Wonka isn't a killer.

Of course, there definitely is a disconnect between what we're shown and what we're told in the earlier film.

Linda Fox said...

I actually enjoyed the original - it had a relatively straightforward, unsentimental view of childhood. The nasty children were a direct product of deficient parents. Willie, although clearly raised in poverty and by eccentrics, is a sweet yound boy without noticeable artifice.

I won't watch this one. Johnny Depp appears to be directly channeling Michael Jackson. Now that I think of it, Depp's best performances are rip-offs of actual people. He doesn't so much invent, as copy. But very, very, well.

Master said...

"The fact is the 1971 film is rather crappy."

"From what I've seen of the 1971 movie."

Unfortunately, yes, you missed the part where it was explained that they weren't being murdered. The Burton film goes the extra distance and specifically shows all of the kids enjoying their maladies as they trod out of the factory. "Wow, I'm super flexible now!" says the ex-blueberry.

There's really nothing wrong with the new version of this story, aside from the hamfistedness and the reliance on special effects to convey the story, which the original couldn't do so well. I thought that the explanation of Wonka's past was not necessary...

... one of the core tenets of the book is that candy doesn't have to have a reason - it should just be enjoyed, yet the Burton film pains to bring closure to everything, especially rationalizing Wonka's condition.

And yes, Charlie does "defeat" Wonka by resolving his hermitic tendencies.

The original movie was the distortion, recalling that and saying that it is better ignores the fact that it severely warps the story. In the original story Wonka lays down an ultimatum that Charlie must abandon his family to live in the factory and Charlie won't due it. In the Wilder film, "the test" is passed via a bizarre indulgence of Charlie with the experimental soda(? not sure, it's been a while) which is out of character of the "meek shall inherit the earth" subtext.

Also, there's a disconnect from the original movie regarding the "hired spies." There are no hired spies in the Burton film, though there are scenes which look like that avenue was explored and edited out.

In short, the book is perfect: it is as subtle and revealing as necessary, a movie version of this story can't help but misappropriate imagery and confuse general "traits of people" and specific "traits of this one bad person."

It is indeed an interesting experience to read the book and take notes and do the same for each movie. In the case of this set, it is clear that with deranged fantasy a book can present "unreality" better. Oompaloompas should never be visualized in context of actual living creatures - especially not as some sort of pygmy.