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.
Well I’m unexpectedly emotional. Good job mouse. Good job movie.
Hell of a write-up of one of my favorite childhood movies.
I agree, that scene feels very genuine on Wonka’s part. He’s got other bits where he acts out and shouts, but it all comes off as very performative. Even the boat scene, that’s just a guy messing with people. The part in the office he’s a lot more real, and looks like he’s about to burst into angry tears.
Wilder, man, one of the great Sad Clowns. I actually think he could have thrived just as well in the silent era, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, guy can emote.
I guess one difference between Charlie and the other kids is that Charlie is talked into his misdeed by Grandpa Joe, whereas the other brats’ parents are spineless enablers. Show’s that Charlie’s big problem isn’t that he’s spoiled like the others, but a little too eager to please. Which I guess makes it character development that he actually rejects Grandpa Joe’s advice to do the right thing at the end. A lot more interesting than just being the last kid standing.
I do believe I learned a new word today. “Paltering,” you say? How useful. 😁
I actually learned it myself for thus post
This is also why the Johnny Depp remake is complete crap:
I don’t think I’ve seen this movie since I was in grade-school, but from parodies and other Internet discussions and such, I glean there’s two other big reasons people don’t grok with this scene:
1.) They hate Grandpa Joe. There’s still that whole debate going on about whether he was faking his infirmity the whole time, and jumped straight out of bed as soon as free chocolate/money was on the table.
2.) Wonka unemploying his entire staff because a few guys sold out trade secrets. That might’ve flown back in the ’70s where the line in both Britain and the UK was “bosses can do whatever the fuck they like”, but in the current generation, with the current economy? It’s something people would tie straight to the Trump playbook.
Now, both of these are straight from the book, but the book has a significantly different focus. Think of it like a Looney Tunes picture – the point isn’t to explore some rich, deep character in Charlie or Wonka, it’s to watch how much wacky shit Dahl can put on the page (and, perhaps, get some vicarious revenge on those brats who bullied you in school). I don’t resent Stuart and Seltzer for doing what they did, but I can understand why many (including Dahl himself) do.
I’m sorry, but this review reminds me of why I never really cared much for Roald Dahl.
It seems to me that all of his stories are too weird and brutal for my taste.
Somehow I always had these thoughts about this scene, but I was never able to articulate and solidify them until now, when you did just that.
I think this needs to be published in every movie review journal from now till kingdom come!
A very well-written and eloquent piece as usual, Mouse. But I am afraid I respectfully disagree with your main premise, and I will do my best to dispute your notion that the book’s ending is “objectively terrible.”
i have to admit I may be biased because I did not grow up with the 1971 film. I grew up with the book. My grandmother gave it to me as a birthday present when I was about 7 or 8, and it triggered years of addiction to/obsession with Roald Dahl until I had read just about all of his children’s novels except for The Gremlins, The Minpins, and The Witches. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in particular, I read time and time again with my father.
I planned on watchiing the 1971 film once when it came on TV, but never got very far in it before something else came up as a distraction (I remember wondering where the squirrels were in the scene with the geese). But then came one day when it was playing on television again during the one day of the week when I would be visiting my mother. I went downstairs and tuned in to watch it very late, just in time to see the scene where Grandpa Joe entices Charlie to take the fizzy lifting drinks. I was astonished, mortified. The whole point of the story was that Charlie was the only one who didn’t do wrong, the only one who didn’t misbehave, the only one who deserved the factory. So if he broke the rules like everyone else, then how could the story work?
How could he have earned his happy ending?
So I turned it off, and when I came back later, I was even more shocked to learn that Wonka knew about Charlie’s misbehavior and was in fact refusing to grant him said happy ending. Acting exactly the way I had thought he should. And there was Grandpa Joe, Wonka’s #1 defender, calling him “a crook, a cheat, and a swindler, an inhuman monster!” My jaw must have hit the floor. This was NOT the story I knew and loved. It had been completely destroyed, mutilated beyond belief. Even when Charlie gave the candy back and was rewarded, it felt tacked on to me somehow. A little, too late, to wash away the sour taste in my mouth from seeing my beloved characters mistreat each other.
For I had never, ever once questioned the ending of the original book. For me, it was perfect and elegant in its simplicity. There comes a point when Charlie is the only child left. Wonka and Grandpa Joe suddenly stop and realize this fact, and the tour ends. Charlie is the winner. Charlie gets the factory.
And what did he do to earn it? The very thing that I was never appreciated for doing as a child – though people always made me aware of and punished me for my mistakes, every time I stayed out of trouble, behaved myself, it was taken for granted. Never given any special reward. Never noticed every time I kept my hand out of the cookie jar. It was only when I did something wrong that people suddenly paid attention. But there was Charlie, just doing the right thing, being polite, being respectful, and staying out of trouble. Following the rules, watching and observing, but never disobeying. And that was all he ever needed to do. Absolutely perfect.
You think Charlie was a flat character with no distinguishing characteristics other than being “good.” Perhaps, to an extent, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fairy tale. The characters are archetypes designed for no reason other than to spread a moral lesson. Charlie is no deeper a character than Cinderella, because he doesn’t need to be. He exists to be the hero, do the right thing, and prosper from it. Just as he should.
And Wonka was not the main character of the film (though as Doug Walker pointed out, he ironically is the one given far more attention in the 2005 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). The only reason his name is mentioned in the title was the result of a marketing deal to promote Wonka candy bars for the Quaker-Oats company (which is basically the entire reason this film was created).
I didn’t watch the entire film from beginning to end until I was about 13 and by then I was a bit more mature. I had already watched the (FAR WORSE) 2005 version multiple times, and I could understand what the film was doing. It’s a good children’s film in its own right, but for me it still can’t compare to the book. Not just because the tone is a bit too saccharine-sweet and they spend an unforgivable amount of time outside the factory before we even meet Wonka, but because I came to understand the real problems with the ending.
Wonka DID give Charlie a test. And Charlie passed. The fact he set up Slugworth specifically to tempt people proves that alone. He tested every single child who stepped inside his factory, and all the others failed. But Wonka played a double standard. Charlie made a mistake just like all the others, but unlike all the others, he was allowed to make up for it. He was given the chance to take the gobstopper or return it.
But as far as we know, none of them were even given the chance to redeem themselves. How could they? Wonka had no time to speak to them (following the “fizzy lifting drink” scene, we never see him leave Charlie and Grandpa Joe’s sides), let alone see if they would sell him out to “Slugworth”. He assumes they will all “return to their horrible old selves,” but how does he know that none of them could also learn from their mistakes?
What’s more, the real mistake arises from Grandpa Joe breaking the rules, encouraging his grandson to do the same, and then refusing to take responsibility. Even when he’s told Charlie will be denied a grand prize because of the transgression he induced him to commit, he offers not a word of apology or regret not to the factory owner he wronged, nor to his own grandson. Wonka is at fault completely, even though he coerced Charlie to steal from him and break his rules. Wonka is “AN INHUMAN MONSTER.” And then he encourages Charlie to seek petty revenge by ruining the man’s business. He never repents, never seems to realize the error of his ways.
And in return, Wonka offers him permanent shelter and care in his factory. After watching these two men who mean so much to him manipulate him, scream at and berate each other and him, all of that is supposed to be forgotten. Because Charlie did the right thing, in the end.
I like the movie, but truth be told, this ending still leaves me with a feeling, even after all these years, that I never got from reading the book: that decidedly bitter taste.
Also I notice you didn’t mention that not only did David Seltzer write at least 30% of this movie (probably even more), but he also rewrote so much that Roald Dahl hated the final product, and refused to grant the rights to a sequel.
Which is probably for the better, because that sequel he wrote, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, is completely bat-shit fucking INSANE. Even as a child I only read it with my dad once and we both found it hard to believe what we were reading. I still find it hard to believe that it exists because not only it is the only sequel Roald Dahl ever wrote to a fiction novel, not only is it completely bonkers with no discernible moral or point, not only does it add nothing to the original, but it feels like an imitation of Roald Dahl written by a fanfic author.
And he almost wrote a THIRD BOOK. GOOD GOD.
IIRC, Dahl wrote Great Glass Elevator mostly because he needed quick money to settle his family’s medical issues, and back then even more than now, Charlie was the biggest hit he had.
It’s true that it can’t stack up to the original, but I do find it – the first half, at least – an interesting peek into how Dahl would’ve worked as a Doctor Who writer. (And maybe that’s how it began – as a half-serious pitch he might’ve given to the BBC if he were ever really desperate for work…)
Wow, that does explain a lot.
And at the age of 7 or 8 when I probably read the book, I wasn’t watching Doctor Who (the show hadn’t even been revived yet) so that never would have occurred to me, but yeah, you’re right. Of course, I believe Sydney Newman was the one who actually made that pitch, haha.
What did you think of the 2005 Tim Burton version of the story (which is actually NOT a remake of the ‘71 version)?
I loathe, despise and contemn it
Why’s that? It’s great that you like the ‘71 version — I do too — but imo the Burton version has a lot of good things about it, not only for being a more faithful retelling of the book but also having its own style.
Do you think youd ever do a review on it?