In 1964 British-Norwegian author Roald Dahl published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I wouldn’t call it the greatest Dahl novel (I actually prefer the sequel, believe it or not) but it’s a fun romp nonetheless where you the reader get to enjoy one of the most scabrously funny writers of the twentieth century sit an entire generation of children down and say “Listen up, you little bastards. Here’s why you suck.”
However, it has to be said that the ending is objectively terrible. Willy Wonka finishes the tour of his factory, glances over his shoulder and sees that Charlie Bucket has survived his gauntlet of death by dint of having no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever, and essentially says “yes, you, bland cipher child, you shall inherit my chocolate factory!” And that’s it. That’s the ending.
Now, a mere seven years later the book was adapted into Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory directed by Mel Stuart and starring the late great Gene Wilder in the title role. The screenplay is solely credited to Roald Dahl but around 30% of it was actually written by David Seltzer, including (I’m pretty certain) the scene I want to discuss. It’s a movie that I love with all my heart and soul and consider one of the very best literary adaptations ever made. I love this film. I love the performances, I love the songs, I love the gags. Those weird, Monty Python-esque skits where the whole world goes nuts looking for the Golden Tickets? I love ’em. And, in my opinion, it improves on the novel in every single change that it makes.
Removing Charlie’s Dad? Makes Charlie more sympathetic and gives Mrs Bucket more of a focus. Having each child only bring in one parent to the factory? Trims the fat. Making the Oompa Loompas little orange dudes instead of Arican pygmies?
But these are all mostly minor, cosmetic changes. There are two scenes added to the story that drastically change the meaning of the story and the character of Willy Wonka. The first interpolation happens between Violet Beauregard being turned into a blueberry and Veruca Salt being sent to the furnace (man, this movie is a fun time). Charlie Bucket and his Grandpa Joe steal Fizzy Lifting Drinks and almost get chopped to pieces by a ceiling fan. They belch their way to freedom and rejoin the tour, with Wonka seemingly none the wiser.
Now, a lot of people hate this addition and I can definitely see why. The whole point of Charlie is that he’s not like the other kids. He’s supposed to be the good one. And, you could argue that by stealing the Fizzy Lifting Drinks Charlie is actually worse than the other kids. I mean, it’s definitely worse than Augustus Gloop drinking from the chocolate river. Wonka just let those kids loose in a chocolate world and told them to go nuts, so why wouldn’t Augustus drink from the river? Why is the river off limits but not anything else? Mike Teevee was definitely out of line but I think the real blame is on the Oompa Loompas for shrinking him. Violet Beauregard may have taken the chewing gum against Wonka’s advice, but at least she was upfront about it and didn’t steal it behind his back! And Veruca…
Okay, Veruca just straight up trashed the egg laying room like the Rolling Stones trashing the Miami Hilton.
He’s not worse than Veruca but, other than the upper echelons of the Nazi party, no one is.
If Charlie Bucket isn’t good, then what even is he?
This ties into the second big addition, which seeks to resolve the problem of the book’s weak climax and boy howdy does it deliver. You know the scene I mean. Memed to hell and back it has been.
And again, this scene really rubs some folks up the wrong way. And with good reason. Like the infamous boat scene it just comes out of nowhere and the tonal shift is brutal. Gene Wilder was possibly the greatest comic actor who ever lived, because he also happened to be one of the greatest dramatic actors who ever lived but chose to devote his gargantuan thespian talents almost exclusively to comedy. And in this scene he gives everything and more. The rage, the pain, the sheer vicious bile he vents at Grandpa Joe and Charlie is honestly quite upsetting. It’s a phenomenal performance but it is a hard watch. But personally I think this scene is close to perfection and often completely misunderstood so we are going to go through this step by step.
But firstly, let’s talk about Wonka. I think it’s very significant that the title of the movie is not “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” but “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Wonka is our main character. And this movie is essentially a relationship study. The relationship in question being; Willy Wonka and the entire goddamned human race.
Willy Wonka is simultaneously the world’s greatest inventor and its most brilliant artist and the field in which he practices both these disciplines just happens to be the creation of high-sugar confectionary treats. He is a brilliant, sensitive artistic soul and the world treated him the way it always treats such people: it sucked him dry, chewed his withered husk and spat him out. Cheated, swindled, lied to and unappreciated, he literally shut himself off from the rest of humanity, barring the gates of the factory and…hiring? Let’s go with hiring. Hiring the Oompa Loompas so that he could run his factory literally without relying on another human being.
But years pass and he decides to give the human race another chance. He sends out the tickets, hoping to find one good person. One person who won’t lie to him, who won’t steal from him, who won’t be a selfish, narcissistic garbage person. Willy Wonka wants to believe that people can be good and he’s looking for someone to restore that faith. And then he meets Charlie. Actually, even before he meets Charlie he’s rooting for him to win. At the gate he tells Charlie and Joe that he read about them in the papers. He knows who they are. He knows they’ve got nothing. He wants this kid to do it. He wants him to be the one.
And then? Charlie fucks it all up. Charlie Bucket, Wonka’s last hope, proves himself to be just as greedy and stupid and selfish as anyone else. He steals from him. He’s not different. He’s just like everyone else.
How does that make Wonka feel?
They reach the end of the tour and Wonka is barely able to feign civility. He just wants these people out of his home now. He just wants to lock up the gates and wait to die alone, safely isolated from the rest of the human race.
Joe follows him into his office, wanting to know when Charlie will get the lifetime supply of chocolate. And Wonka, of course, fucking loses it.
Joe is devastated. He responds to Wonka’s rage the way any of us would. With shock, disbelief, wounded pride and rage of his own. He calls Wonka a crook and a monster. He can’t believe that anyone could raise a small child’s hopes so high and then dash them so cruelly.
Charlie just watches in numb disbelief. He can’t believe it got so bad, so fast.
Joe ushers him out of the room whispering “I’ll get even with him if it’s the last thing I do! If Slughorn wants an everlasting gob-stopper, he’ll get one!”
I think a lot of us in this situation would look at Wonka and think: fuck this guy. I have nothing. He lives in opulence. I have a shack. He has a factory. I made one, tiny mistake, and he destroyed all my dreams for it. Fuck this guy. I’m going to sell this everlasting gobstopper to Slugworth for as much as he’ll pay me and I’ll get mine.
But Charlie Bucket doesn’t do that. Because Charlie Bucket is good. And being good doesn’t mean you never do the wrong thing. It means being able to understand when you’ve done the wrong thing and hurt another human being.
And he takes the Everlasting Gobstopper, something that could change his entire life. And he gives it back. Because that’s the right thing to do.
And just like that, Wonka is pulled back from the brink.
Because now he realises that Charlie isn’t perfect. No one can be perfect. But he is good. And that’s plenty.
I think the next part is why so many people dislike this scene. Wonka suddenly switches back to joyful gaiety, apologises to Charlie and says: “I’m sorry I had to test you, and you passed the test!”. Which, when taken at face value, is incredibly cruel.
But I think when Wonka says “You passed the test” he’s paltering: lying while not saying anything that is technically untrue. Wonka did indeed test Charlie, that’s what the whole tour was about. And he did hire an actor to impersonate Slughorn to test Charlie’s honesty. But Wonka is being deliberately misleading here, I think, and doing it so successfully that he not only tricks Charlie and the audience but maybe even himself. By saying “I was testing you” he’s implying that the entire scene in the half room was staged. But how could it have been? How could Wonka know that Charlie and Joe would steal Fizzy Lifting Drinks? I’m not buying it. Everything from when Joe enters that room is real. Wonka’s fury, his pain and eventually his joy. None of this was a trick or a test. Wonka meant every hateful word.
And that’s why Wonka turns and calls him back. Why he suddenly realises why this boy is the proof of the goodness in humanity that he was searching desperately for. Not because he’s perfect or without sin.
Because Charlie saw Wonka at his very worst, his angriest, ugliest and most vindictive.
And he forgave him.