The school at which I teach is doing a staged production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory this year and, as I’m involved, I’ve been inundated with a lot of Wonka recently. Seeing as it’s all I can think about and almost all I’ve been watching, I thought, why not compare the two versions of the movie?
People tend to have very strong opinions about these two Wonka movies, and some of mine are almost undoubtedly going to be controversial, but I ask that you hear me out. I think of myself as pretty fair and unbiased when it comes to these movies. I grew up on the 2005 (Johnny Depp) version but have come to love the 1971 (Gene Wilder) version just as much. There are many things I like about both movies and also many things I don’t like about both movies. I have also just read the actual Roald Dahl book for the first time, as well as Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, so I’m quite well-versed on which is most “authentic.”
Let’s start with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) directed by Mel Stuart. Right away we see an inconsistency from the book – the change of the name. Personally, I don’t like how the name change takes the focus away from Charlie, instead implying that Wonka is the main character (the name change was actually made to sell the tie-in candy products). But, thankfully, the movie itself doesn’t go in this direction at all. Charlie is most definitely the main character, and Wonka remains the enigmatic, distant entity he’s supposed to be. A lot is added to Charlie’s life in this version – a dead father, days at school, and a newspaper route, among other things.
While some of these things are certainly nice and add positive elements to the story, I think showing so much of Charlie’s life outside of home and so many (albeit hilariously clever) cutaways takes the focus off of Charlie’s family. We don’t get to know any of his grandparents at all besides Grandpa Joe, and the full plight of the poor Bucket family isn’t fully exhibited on-screen. Both movies failed to show a fairly important turning point in the book; when winter hits, Charlie’s father loses his job, and the entire Bucket family begins to truly starve. In the book, you can physically see Charlie wasting away. This is the reason why he buys two candy bars that he normally never has with the money he finds, and scarfs them down in the way he does. In the 1971 movie you hardly ever see Charlie at home, so the full scope of their suffering but loving little family unit isn’t something we really ever get to experience.
Within the less-than-faithful "Wonkaverse" of this film, Peter Ostrum renders a rather book-accurate Charlie. He may be louder and more energetic than the Charlie of the book, but he understands the character’s genuine goodness and childlike wonder. The spirit of Charlie is very much alive in Peter Ostrum. The characterizations of the other kids in the 1971 cast are pretty great. Veruca (Julie Dawn Cole - Poldark 1977) and her father (Roy Kinnear - Help!, The Three Musketeers) are particularly perfect, I would say even more so than they are in the book. The specific rising middle-class British stereotype they went for with Mr. Salt isn’t present in the book, but suits him incredibly well and makes their relationship that much more entertaining to watch. Veruca is just the right amount of ragingly selfish and hilarious. Violet (Denise Nickerson - Dark Shadows, The Electric Company) and Augustus (Michael Bollner - M.U.G.E.N.) are both strong of course; Augustus doesn’t have much to do in any version with his early exit, but this movie still did what they could to give him and his parents appropriate characterization. The bit of his father eating the microphone is especially great for the Gloops. Mrs. Gloop’s (Ursula Reit) characterization is also well done – indulgent to a fault, while also being an over-worrier. Augustus is a bit flat in my opinion, but all he really has to do is fall into a chocolate river. They may not be on-screen long but they accomplish what they’re there to do. Making Mr. Beauregard (Leonard Stone - Gunsmoke, Dragnet, Mannix) as a car salesman matches Violet’s snarking motormouth, and Denise delivers a whole Violet speech straight out of the book spectacularly. When it comes to the Teavees though, I would say Mike Teavee (Paris Themmen - Star Trek: Voyager) plays too much into just being annoying and doesn’t make himself enough of a smart-alec and genuine jerk. His mother (Nora Denney - Bewitched, Green Acres, Splash) is really great though, and one of the funnier parents to watch at any time during the movie.
The bright colors and aesthetic of this movie could have been lifted straight out of Roald Dahl’s book, and nowhere is this more clear than in Wonka himself. Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers) as Wonka is a perfect mix between Sherlock Holmes and Wizard Howl (book versions of course) – exactly as he’s characterized in the book. Well, maybe not quite as mean to the kids as he is in the book, but other than that, all he needs is a black goatee and he is Wonka. He’s mysterious, but dashing and debonair, yet passive-aggressive and definitely crazy, but also jovial, witty and charming. He plays what seems like a mess of contradictions as one cohesive and believable and unforgettable character. (This movie’s Wonka also sings There’s No Knowing Where We’re Going almost word-for-word from the book.) His performance has enhanced the mystique of Wonka as a character even outside the theatrical experience.
Now to get to the heart of the matter – the Tour of the Factory. This movie takes many deviations from the book and in a lot of ways, some people would argue they’re actually improvements, while others would say they’re detriments. Honestly, I’m kind of torn. Let’s explore them and you can decide for yourself which is the better way to tell the story.
One of the first things I have to mention about the tour in this movie is that I’m personally not a fan of the pacing. Let me explain. The group turns to see Augustus drinking from the river. They tell him to stop, he falls in, Charlie sticks a lollipop out and he fumbles it and sinks. There’s no music. The reactions are minimal at best. Augustus gets sucked up the pipe and sent to the fudge room in about a minute. There’s a little Oompa Loompa song and then Mrs. Gloop is sent away…that’s it. They continue on like nothing just happened. We don’t take a moment to pause and let what has happened really sink in. Viewers barely have time to process what we’ve just witnessed before we’re moving again, let alone the other characters on screen; we don’t see what they’re thinking about this, or how it makes them feel. The pace is relentless and most of the kids’ demises are anticlimactic. Veruca’s is particularly frustrating for me because her song is so good, but it never builds to a crescendo before she just falls. Her singing stays very gentle up ‘til the end, and her “scream” as she falls is an abrupt and, well, somewhat toothless ending. Violet’s exit is I think the best for giving the characters a pause to really see the fate she’s brought on herself, but one out of four isn’t a very good score.
Now something you may be surprised to learn is that the Slugworth storyline and the Fizzy Lifting Drinks scenes from the film are not in the book. They were added to this version of the movie to make Charlie more fallible and relatable, where in the book he won because he was so infallible. Slugworth is mentioned in the book as just one of many other candymakers who stole Wonka’s secret recipes, and Wonka does show them the Fizzy Lifting Drinks but Charlie and Grandpa Joe don’t drink any. The Fizzy Lifting Drinks scene in the movie does actually bother me a bit as well – I don’t like to see Grandpa Joe being a bad influence on Charlie. Grandpa Joe is supposed to be Charlie’s moral support, not the devil on his shoulder. He even demands Charlie get his chocolate and asks what rules they could have possibly broken when he’s the one who suggested Charlie drink the Fizzy Lifting Drinks in the first place. (Speaking of breaking the rules, there’s no contract in the book. All the kids still go home with their lifetime supplies of chocolate.) But the value of the Slugworth/Fizzy Lifting Drinks storyline is to show that Charlie’s not perfect, he makes mistakes too. He, unlike the other kids, is able to recognize them, own up to them, and try to make up for what he did. And this, more than anything else, convinces Wonka that Charlie is worthy to inherit the chocolate factory.
Let’s move on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! This version keeps the book’s actual name, first of all, as well as Charlie’s father working at a toothpaste factory. We get to see much more of the Buckets and Charlie’s home-life, as well as all of Grandpa Joe’s stories about Willy Wonka (all of this is pretty much straight from the book, except for the bit that Grandpa Joe used to work at Wonka’s factory – the book never explains how Grandpa Joe knows all he does about Wonka). The scene where Charlie finds the Golden Ticket is just about word-for-word from the book (except they didn’t have Charlie scarf down an entire chocolate bar first. His father did lose his job, but once again the family didn’t starve). Grandpa Joe jumping straight out of bed with a “Yippeeeee!” and dancing about is also just how it happens in the book. Once again, within the context of this 2005 "Wonkaverse," Freddie Highmore (The Good Doctor, The Spiderwick Chronicles), gives us a Charlie that’s quite close to the Charlie from the books. His quiet sweetness and tenderness embody the character Roald Dahl wrote almost exactly.
The other kids are also done well in this movie, although contrary to the previous movie, I would say Veruca (Julie Winter - Dolphin Tale 2) and her father (James Fox - Thoroughly Modern Millie, Downton Abbey, Sherlock Holmes 2009) are actually the weakest of this bunch. Veruca isn’t nearly nasty or savage enough, and her father is quite elegant but just a bit boring. Augustus (Philip Wiegratz - Ruby Red) I would say is a big improvement! His mother (Franziska Troegner - The Country Doctor) is just about on-par, but Augustus himself is much more of a character in this movie – the speech they added about him biting off a piece of the Golden Ticket is something I really love for the character. Violet (Anna Sophia Robb - Bridge to Terabithia) is made into a competitor in almost every part of her life by her mother (Missi Pyle - Galaxy Quest, The Artist) who lives through Violet vicariously. This changes Violet’s personality a lot, but I do think it works for her character. Contrary to the previous movie, Mike (Jordan Fry - Meet the Robinsons) and his dad (Adam Godley - The Umbrella Academy) are my favorite of Charlie’s competitors – across both movies actually. Mike is made into a jerky smart-alec, but also an actual genius who is able to figure out Wonka’s system to buy the exact bar of chocolate he needed to get the Golden Ticket. Instead of just sending himself by television for the sake of being sent by television, he’s outraged at the injustice of Willy Wonka having built a functional (and I use the term loosely) teleportation device, and sends himself through to prove that it works and that the world should have the technology (but also to prove that he’s smarter than Wonka). And Mike’s dad is the only one of any of the parents who recognizes what a monster his son is and tries (albeit halfheartedly) to control him. I think this is a very interesting dynamic and adds a lot to the story.
When Tim Burton is directing a movie, it’s safe to assume Johnny Depp has an 80% chance of being cast as the leading man. And while Depp is as hilarious as he can be in any role he plays (and uses the voice he made for playing Barbie with his daughters; one of my favorite little pieces of knowledge ever!) the Tim Burton vibe and Depp himself just simply aren’t Wonka. We spend an awful lot of time on unnecessary flashbacks to Wonka’s childhood, when we could be spending all that time on getting to know the kids better and seeing them interact with each other more!! This movie already gave us more in that vein in its prologue, so it’s a shame they didn’t go farther with that, and instead make us sit through a relentless slog of traumatized memories of a little boy who wasn’t allowed to eat candy. Every time the picture starts to show some momentum, another memory of young Willy traumatized by his father’s strictness is there to slow things down.
Another staple in Tim Burton’s casts is Helena Bonham Carter (Corpse Bride, Harry Potter, Sweeny Todd, Alice in Wonderland) and is often paired with Depp in many of Burton’s pictures. She crafts her Mrs. Bucket at a caring level that suits Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, bookwise, and supports her fellow actors rather than overpowering any scenes. (Diana Sowle’s version in 1971 might be considered lackluster by some, though like Peter Ostrum she fully inhabits a loving and concerned Mrs. Bucket that fits into that film’s universe. Incidentally, Diana’s solo, “Cheer Up Charlie” was often cut for time over decades of television broadcasts. I’m glad to see that in the age of home video and streaming the full version is restored.)
Part of Willy Wonka’s appeal as a character is that he’s a big question mark. Nobody really knows who he is, or what he’s truly up to. Giving us insight into his past takes away the mystique, which is a large part of why we are drawn to and remember his character as iconic. Also, Wonka being socially awkward and nervous is really not at all what he’s supposed to be. He’s larger-than-life, bombastic, and charming, all things Depp is perfectly capable of giving us – yet his Wonka in this film is none of these things. He does have a leg up on Wilder in a couple of small ways though – he’s much more mean to the kids, exactly like the book Wonka, and many of his best-delivered lines and insults are straight out of the book.
The Tour Through The Factory. Right away we start with something not at all book-accurate, “The Amazing Chocolatier” song. It’s cute, but ultimately unnecessary. Neither movie managed to get the simple act of the characters hanging up their coats right – in the book they just hang them up. No grabbing hangers, but also they aren’t told to just throw their coats on the floor. Now, in spite of the flashbacks, the pacing of this movie is much more to my liking. We truly take time to pause and watch the fate the kids bring on themselves before they’re sent off to their mysterious fates, and there’s reaction time afterwards as well before the group moves on. (Also this movie was able to keep the nut scene from the book for Veruca’s fate, since they had the luxury of CGI.)
There’s not a single lyric in an Oompa Loompa song in this movie that’s not from the book, as well, and I find them very catchy (that’s Danny Elfman for you, though). I would also like to take a moment to mention the boat. In the book, the boat is supposed to be made of pink hard candy. This boat doesn’t really look like that, but at the very least it’s far closer than 1971’s Wonkatania. There is also a moment in this movie where Wonka offers Charlie and Grandpa Joe a sip of chocolate from the chocolate river. This comes from an instance in the book where he gives both of them a large mugful of the stuff because he can see that they’ve been starving.
This movie stays true to the book in yet another way – Charlie never does anything wrong. He wins by being the only one to follow the rules, instead of the only one to apologize. They also give more of a proper ending to the story. As they fly in the Great Glass Elevator, they see the other kids leaving, all changed by what happened to them in the factory. Each character’s fate is taken from the book, except that Augustus is supposed to be squished by the pipe so he’s now terribly skinny and has to hold up his pants as he walks out, and Violet being made more flexible wasn’t mentioned in the book. It was, however, mentioned in the book that the Oompa Loompas messed up stretching Mike in the taffy puller – Wonka grumbles that if they’d done it properly, Mike would be his normal height and would just need to eat a bunch to get his previous weight back. But he decides it’ll be okay for Mike – every basketball team in the world will want him now. The Glass Elevator crashing into the Buckets’ house is also in the final chapter of the book, but this is where the similarities end. In the book, Wonka has nothing against parents or families, and takes Charlie and his family straight to – well, to outer space, but we aren’t talking about the sequel right now. Everything the ending of this movie adds is once again totally unnecessary. I mean it’s nice I guess, but we really didn’t need to spend all that screen time on it. I do like that at the very, very end we get to see one moment of Wonka and Charlie working together on their candy. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator shows what a good team the two really are, and the nod to it here is very nice.
To end, I’d like to quickly talk about Grandpa Joe. Neither Grandpa Joe is truly book accurate. I would say the 1971 Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson - The Subject Was Roses, Fox and the Hound, Poseidon Adventure) is closer, but he’s too loud and bombastic, whereas the 2005 Grandpa Joe (David Kelly - Fawlty Towers, Stardust) isn’t loud and bombastic enough. A true Grandpa Joe is somewhere between the two. Also, the touch of Grandpa Joe giving up his tobacco to buy a Wonka bar for Charlie is nice, but not from the book. I like that they show Grandpa Joe wanting to give up tobacco, but really, with the state their family is in, he should have given it up long ago. I know it’s supposed to do the opposite, but it makes him come off as more selfish to me.
And there we have it! The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of 2005 is far more book-accurate, as the name would imply, but 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory captures the heart and soul of the story much better than its successor. Like I said, there are things I truly enjoy about both. They each have their own pros and cons, but they’re equally watchable, well-made movies. The books are also delightful and it’s a shame more people don’t actually read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator nowadays. I would highly recommend the original printings (1964 and 1972, respectively) for the kids in your life before the new versions – purged for 21st century sensitivities – become all that’s available.