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Fifty years later, Roald Dahl’s baffling disdain has never trounced the Everlasting Gene Wilder: man, legend, Wonka.
Dahl’s authorship is that of a music maker, a dreamer of dreams. Coupled with Quentin Blake’s eventual illustrations, he sketched worlds of pure imagination, filled with magical children, giant peaches and, in his most notable work, a factory flowing with chocolate, confectionery, Oompa Loompas and bamboozling innovation.
It has seen two adaptations to film: 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory; and 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The latter, brought to gothic life by Tim Burton, is a footnote on the text’s ubiquity. The former, starring the late Wilder as the titular figure, holds as much power in minds as the writer’s words themselves.
A number of stars were considered for the role of Wonka: Monty Python‘s John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin; Fred Astaire; John Pertwee; and at the request of Dahl, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, who reportedly begged for the part. If the performance is to be believed, fate always had Wilder in mind, a turn screaming destiny. The perfect match of character and actor.
Not in the author’s opinion, though. ‘He felt the Gene Wilder casting was wrong,’ Donald Sturrock, a friend of Dahl’s and the author of Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, told Yahoo Movies.
‘His ideal casting was Spike Milligan and he said Milligan was really up for doing it. He even shaved his beard off to do a screen test… I think he felt Wonka was a very British eccentric. Gene Wilder was rather too soft and didn’t have a sufficient edge. His voice is very light and he’s got that rather cherubic, sweet face. I think [Dahl] felt… there was something wrong with [Wonka’s] soul in the movie – it just wasn’t how he imagined the lines being spoken,’ Sturrock said.
Dahl’s Wonka was a kook, with ‘marvellously bright’ eyes ‘twinkling and sparkling at you all the time’ and a face ‘alight with fun and laughter…. quick and sharp and full of life… like a quick, clever old squirrel at the park’.
Our introduction to Wilder’s impression is a rapturous twist. From the factory doors, the top-hatted chocolatier stumbles, his weight resting on a cane. His approach is slow, jaded, unbefitting of the ‘Wonkamania’ preceding his arrival. Of course, it’s all just a ruse at the behest of the actor himself. ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.’
‘When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet,’ he earlier told director Mel Stuart, as detailed by Letters of Note.
‘As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause,’ Wilder said.
Why, you ask? ‘Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.’
He immediately fits the bill of Dahl’s creation. Yet, he thought Wilder was ‘pretentious’ and insufficiently ‘gay [the archaic use of the word] and bouncy’.
As the adventure through the factory unravels, the sadistic edge in his beaming smirk and deadpan sarcasm grows more insatiable. ‘Help, police, murder,’ he mumbles indifferently to Augustus’s doom by tube. ‘The suspense is terrible, I hope it’ll last.’
At times genteel, at others cutting. ‘You should open your mouth a little louder when you speak,’ he bites after Mike Teevee’s smart-arsery. He chews down on Dahl’s wacky sweets with complete earnestness, whether it’s Wangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwangers or Vermicious Knids.
One could rhapsodise about Wilder’s talents till the sun went down and came back up again, and again, and again. Any and all praise can revolve around two moments: firstly, the boat ride, a glimpse of the star’s knack for the unhinged, yelling poetry into the crimson, Ludovico kaleidoscope of chocolate and screams. ‘There’s no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going…’
The second comes just before the Wonkavator shoots into the sky. Charlie and Grandpa Joe enquire about their lifetime supply of chocolate, only to face the disgruntled fury of a business-owner with a contract, but without mercy.
‘It’s all there, black and white, clear as crystal! You stole fizzy lifting drinks! You bumped into the ceiling which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir.’
Next to Pure Imagination, it’s arguably the movie’s most iconic scene. On Wilder’s part, it carries immense dramatic heft, sinking viewers into their seats as the joyous screwball façade flattens. It’s a powerful shift, a real-world reminder, and in the moment, deeply sad. Yes, it’s part of his greater test of kindness and being inherently ‘good’, but it never feels like a cruel trick.
In his memoir, Wilder wrote, ‘I think to be believed, onstage or onscreen, is the one hope that all actors share.’ That’s the crux of all this; we’ve always believed.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is available to stream on Netflix now.
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