An Audio-Book Review: The Candyman Can?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

By Roald Dahl

Read by James Bolam

Published by Penguin Books, Ltd.


The Story:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to write a review of one of Roald Dahl’s most famous children’s books without comparing it to the two movie adaptations, and I am unable to resist the temptation. So let us start by admitting that neither movie truly captures Dahl’s story completely although each has points in which they are more like the original than the other.

In case you have neither seen the movies nor read the book, it is the story of a boy named, Charlie Bucket. Charlie and his family (two parents and four grandparents) are maybe one step up from being homeless. I say maybe only because by having a home, albeit one too small for the seven people who lived there, you get the impression they are trapped as well as desperately poor. Of course, being homeless is no picnic either, but it is difficult to imagine more dire straits for the Buckets and one has to wonder where the social workers may have been considering the four grandparents were all bed-ridden… Then again, forget the social workers; there are too many of that ilk that would step in high-handedly and break the family up “for their own good” and institutionalize the lot of them. It would also make a lousy story.

Meanwhile, it turns out Charlie and his family live in the shadow of the most famous chocolate factory in the world; Wonka’s (not to be confused with the Nestle-owned company of the same name). By coincidence, after years of being closed to the public, Mister Wonka has decided to grant a factory tour to the holders of five golden tickets which are wrapped up in his candy bars. The candy bars with the winning tickets have been disbursed all over the world and of course the news brings out the paparazzi in a book written before anyone thought of the term.

One by one the fabulous golden tickets are found by four of the worst children stereotypes ever devised and thrust into the world of chocolate… and, you know? That works! After a counterfeit ticket is reported in Russia, Charlie finally finds the missing fifth ticket. Yay…

Charlie and one of his grandfathers, who suddenly is able to get out of bed, join the tour and experience a world of chocolate and candy wonder as one by one the other children get into trouble and are ejected from the tour, although in the book they still get their lifetime supplies of chocolate (or is that more chocolate than they can dream of? That probably amounts to the same thing) and Charlie and Willy get into the glass elevator, pick up all of Charlie’s family and go shooting off into the lesser-known sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

I have read that Mister Dahl was seriously disappointed by the 1971 adaptation directed by Mel Stewart and starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but I am skeptical as to whether Dahl would have been any more pleased by the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp 2005 adaptation. Both movies took liberties with the original story and characters, leaving out some important details from the book and inserting their own “we think this works better” bits. In spite of that, both films are basically consistent with the book although neither quite hits the mark. I think the Stewart/Wilder version more accurately captures the original flavor of Dahls story, while the typical Tim Burton darkness that shades all his movies was completely out of place. Also Wilder portrayed a more accurate Wonka than Depp ever could. The music in the 1971 film was better even if the lyrics of the 2005 movie were closer to Dahl’s – Danny Elfman, normally a talented composer, fell flat on his face in this film, but then, for me the entire production failed to adapt Dahl’s work. I will admit that Dahl’s book was dark, but Burton really has no real sense of when a light touch is needed so all we are left with is his signature darkness. I admire some of Tim Burton’s movies, but unless he suddenly decides to do something different someday, they are all too predictable. When you hear he is directing a movie, you know how the story is going to go and what it is going to look like.

And that may be why I try not to review movies, especially those that are adaptations of famous books…

Okay, away from the movies… The book itself has drawn both great praise and condemnation. In the first edition, the Oompah Loompahs were black pygmies from Africa – a portrayal that was seen as insensitive and racist. In subsequent releases they were white-skinned and golden-haired, although I admit I will always think of them as orange-skinned and green haired. Still, the name Oompah Loompah is preferable to Whipple-Scrumpet, which they were saddled with in the early drafts of the book.

In general, however, I have to side with those who liked the book. Sure, it is a sugary fantasy that at times threatens to leave one in a diabetic coma, but the heart of the story really is not the chocolate, but the characters, both good and bad. The children are all stereotypes, but this is the sort of story where stereotypes are needed. They interact with each other far better than more realistic characters might, because in these stereotypes we see individuals we might normally only observe from a distance. Real people are deeper and have more than one dimension, yes, but if you are walking through a park and see a child misbehaving, you do not see that child as a rounded individual, you see the behavior. In this book we see those behaviors in the same way. We only get to know the bad children for a short time so it works.

So, yes. It is a good book and an entertaining story, especially for kids.

The Audiobook:

I found James Bolam to be an interesting reader to listen to and I thought the included musical interludes between chapters were light and fun. Part of that has to be his British accent, because in spite of the fact that the American edition puts Wonka’s factory in America when Charlie finds a dollar (the British editions have him finding 50 pence), I always saw Charlie’s home town as distinctly British. This is obvious in both movies. Well, okay, the 1971 movie was filmed in Munich, but in spite of Wilder’s decidedly American accent, the location felt British. Burton’s film was actually filmed in England. Being published by Penguin, it should come as no surprise that James Bolam reads the British edition.

Mister Bolam’s reading captures Charlie’s childish voice nicely. He was a bit heavy on the archetypal British schoolboy mannerism, but Charlie is a British schoolboy (in this edition) so I can let that pass. And this is a children’s book so I do not expect deep sophistication. If there is a weakness in his reading is that it is all done with various British accents, so while the chocolate bars were supposedly distributed all over the world, nearly all the characters sound like Brits. The Salts do sound distinctly like Americans as the BBC might portray them although it should be noted that Mister Dahl was careful not to actually name locations anywhere in the books.

This one complaint, however, is not anything that impeded my enjoyment of the reading. So the characters did not sound like those in either movie. That might be just as well. The book is much better than either movie and there is no reason the reader of the book should do anything like the movie makers did.

So, I truly recommend the book to people of any age. It has become a classic and if there are those who find fault with it, well, that is why we have horse races. If we all agreed, the only point of the Kentucky Derby would be to sit around swilling mint julips.

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