The Horrible Truth About Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
I used to love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder.
Before VCR's, DVD players, on-demand, and streaming video, sometimes you just had to wait for a movie to be broadcast on television.
So there was a certain amount of anticipation. You couldn't just call up any movie you wanted on demand. And since, to my memory, Willy Wonka didn't air all that often, I would be overjoyed when it came on. Literally, I would rearrange my schedule or stop whatever I was doing to watch it. If I was channel surfing and I came across Willy Wonka, no matter how much of the movie I'd missed, time would stop. It's really hard now to articulate to people just how awesome it felt to realize something was on television that I hadn't seen in awhile. It felt like Christmas.
The Original Book: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
As an adult, I've really looked forward to sitting down with my kids and reading about Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl's original book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and watching the two movies.
That was until I realized after listening to the audiobook over and over again and analyzing the movies that Willy Wonka, the hero of my youth, is a colossal dick.
Why We Love Willy Wonka
Fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory most vividly remember the fantastical character of Willy Wonka, a reclusive candy business owner who re-opens his factory to five lucky children, who get to see and taste his wonderful creations.
To children who often long for the sweet taste of candy, the idea of visiting a factory like Willy Wonka's is the stuff of dreams. After all, every child fantasizes about a shopping spree in a candy store and eating candy until they puke. Candy is wonderful.
On the surface, it would seem that the moral of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that good children are rewarded and bad children are punished. Roald Dahl's original story is a condemnation of many things including bad parenting, gum-chewing, television, spoiling children, over-eating, and self-indulgence.
Most of us love that the innocent, likable, impoverished Charlie wins the factory in the end. It's a classic rags-to-riches tale against a creative, sugar-filled backdrop.
Still a movie full of fun and wonder, worth watching over and over again. But if you watch carefully, you'll notice there's a darker theme hiding behind the songs and candy...
What Willy Wonka is Really About
Candy and justice - is that what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is really about?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about slave labor and injustice. And that message is not at all hidden. It's right there slapping us in the face over and over again. It's just that most of us have chosen to ignore it. We've buried our heads in the chocolate river.
In fact, the book and the movies ask children to celebrate the exploitation of people for wealth and the supremacy of white people, who should be the masters of their destiny and everyone else's destiny too. It's an indoctrination in classic wealth-building and Imperialist brutality, served up from the master's perspective.
To fully understand Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you have to look at the story from the point-of-view of the Oompa Loompas, the little people who do the actual work in Willy Wonka's factory.
Wonka as Evil CEO
Years before Charlie had his visit to the factory, Willy Wonka ran his candy business with regular workers, not "little funny colored people." But because Willy Wonka was the greatest candy maker in the land, his enemies sent spies into his factory, stole his ideas, and recreated his greatest candy creations.
This produced overwhelming paranoia in Mr. Wonka. His solution? Fire all his workers and shut down his factory. In fact, it's revealed in the first movie that Grandpa Joe used to work in Wonka's factory and was one of the unlucky workers let go (an addition from the story in the original book). So, rather than develop a security solution or management solution to deal with these spies, like a sane person would, Willy Wonka fired his entire workforce. In the case of Charlie's parents, the Buckets, and probably numerous other families who relied on those jobs for their livelihood, it pushed them into poverty.
The degree of misery caused by Wonka's decision never made it into the story. Although we hear nothing about the town where the factory resides, it's probable that the city, or at the very least the neighborhood, was decimated by that decision. Yet, instead of being thought of as a villain, Willy Wonka is considered a hero. He's the creative genius who just wasn't allowed to be free to be himself and do his thing.
So what was Willy Wonka's solution to the spying conducted by his enemies? Slave labor. Particularly in the first movie, the factory is run by "little colored people" from a far away, exotic land (very interesting they could be described as "colored" even in the '70s). In the second movie, the Oompa Loompas are of Indian descent, which essentially signifies that Wonka outsourced his entire operation. In the book, they are simply described as very small, no taller than your knee.
There are two versions of any story, but we never get to hear the Oompa Loompas' side. It's undoubtedly different from Willy Wonka's side. Slave masters who purchased Africans and brought them to America had many things to say about their practice intended to make it appear righteous. The Africans they brought were simple people who needed saving because they couldn't take care of themselves. They used the hymns that the enslaved Africans sang as proof that they were happy. "Look, they're singing," the slave masters would say, "they're happy."
Of course, the slaves' versions of events was very different. They were abused, mistreated, and miserable. Most of them desired freedom more than anything.
The only version of the Oompa Loompas we hear is Willy Wonka's version. Even if we decided to give Wonka credit for a mostly accurate portrayal of the Oompa Loompas' plight, it remains a fact that they have toiled in his factory for many years to make it a success. They, more than anyone, know what it takes to run that business and make the best candy in the world, and they are utterly loyal to Willy Wonka (in part because they are apparently not allowed to leave the factory).
So what in the world is Willy Wonka doing when he decides to give his factory away to some utterly random ten-year-old white child instead of giving the factory to the Oompa Loompas who are almost entirely responsible for his continued success? If Willy Wonka cared about the Oompa Loompas, he would have given them the factory. He would have said: "You are beautiful, hard-working people and you deserve the spoils of your labor. Here's my factory - a gift to you for so many years of hard work." Instead, little Charlie gets it.
If the Oompa Loompas were good enough to work in the factory and do virtually everything to make it successful, they should have been good enough to run the factory in Wonka's absence. He could have taught them whatever management and marketing tips he knew, though that didn't seem to matter much. All that mattered was that his candy was the best. Still, apparently a small boy was a more attractive owner than the Oompa Loompas. Once again, the people who work in the factory get screwed over by the guy who owns the factory because he doesn't trust them.
Willy Wonka is truly lucky that the Oompa Loompas didn't kill him in his sleep.
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