In our regular polarising-opinion series, Total Film contributor Paul Bradshaw asks, ‘Is it just me? … or is Charlie And The Chocolate Factory better than Willy Wonka?’
Roald Dahl hated Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, but for some reason everyone else loved it. A teatime favourite in living rooms countrywide, Mel Stuart’s 1971 fantasy is regarded as an untouchable classic.
So when Tim Burton announced that he was going to make Charlie And The Chocolate Factory in 2005, retaining the original title of Dahl’s book and attempting a more faithful adaptation, a generation rolled their eyes, turned their backs and sharpened their pencils.
It was the ’70s vs the ’00s. Wholesome nostalgia vs artificial colouring. Spangles and Black Jacks vs Haribo and Jelly Bellys. The Charlie defenders were too young and hopped-up on e-numbers to fight back, and the Wonka lovers quickly consigned Burton’s film to the same dustbin that held his “reimagining” of Planet Of The Apes. But that’s not fair. It’s not even right.
Try watching Charlie again through the eyes of a child and you might fall in love with the book again. Do the same with Willy and you won’t sleep for a week. Burton’s version might be brash, but Stuart’s is cheap, corny and downright frightening.
Let’s start with Wonka himself. Johnny Depp channelled Michael Jackson into a mix of camp and creepy for his take on Dahl’s eccentric chocolatier. His constant giggling might have grated, but his boyish bravado isn’t far from the Wonka in the book.
But if Depp unnerved, then Gene Wilder terrified as a Worzel Gummidge/Barbra Streisand hybrid. With the face of a sick baby and the eyes of a serial killer, Wilder doesn’t look like someone you’d leave alone with your kids.
Which brings us to Charlie. Little Peter Ostrum (an actor you can now find handing out ‘golden’ subway tickets in a Dunkin’ Donuts infomercial) brought Charlie to life in 1971 but the posh cherub didn’t look like he needed a trip to a chocolate factory. Fast-forward to 2005, and Freddie Highmore’s malnourished urchin really looked like he’d never had his pocket full of sweets.
But it’s when the famous doors swing open that the differences really count. Burton’s wonderland is endlessly imaginative, even on repeat viewings. Stuart’s washed-out factory floor is just a few fake rocks and a bit of astroturf – and his chocolate river looks like shit. Literally.
Burton’s tribe of Oompa-Loompas are just as Dahl described them; but Stuart gives us a nightmarish gang of green-haired, orange-faced clowns. Sure, the original had a few classic songs – but the Loompa’s are the only ones that should be singing them.
Charlie’s highlight is a pack of (real) trained squirrels who check for bad nuts – Willy’s most memorable scene is an acid soaked boat ride that floods the screen with Jodorowskian images of leering eyeballs, beheaded chickens and Wilder screaming like a banshee.
Whichever way you slice it, Stuart’s Willy Wonka just hasn’t aged well – but Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is still as fresh, original and provocative as Dahl’s book. Or is it just me?
Do you agree with Paul's take on the Roald Dahl adaptations? Or do you prefer the earlier version over Burton's vision? Join the debate below!