Sunday, April 10, 2005

Golden Tickets to Hell:Willy Wonka – Tour Guide of the Abyss

In 1971, Warner Bros. released Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the now-famous children’s musical based on the book by celebrated author Roald Dahl (and shot from his own screenplay).[1] Directed by Mel Stuart, the film starred Gene Wilder as the eccentric, slightly sadistic, famous candy maker, Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe, and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket.

In the story, Charlie is a poor boy living with his mother and four grandparents, none of whom have been out of bed in twenty years (and, unpleasantly, it’s the same bed). Charlie is bravely struggling to support his family when he hears that the famous recluse Mr. Willy Wonka has placed “golden tickets” into five of his candy-bars. The finders of these special items will be given a full tour of Wonka’s famous candy factory – the inner workings of which are a tightly kept secret – and a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Charlie wants to win more than anyone, and encouraged by Grandpa Joe, foolishly spends his money on a single bar of chocolate, which, sadly, is ticket-less. He is heartbroken when the news reports that all five tickets have been found. But later, when the fifth ticket turns out to be a hoax, he risks it all on one more chocolate bar, and viola – the coveted fifth ticket is his.
Before the big day, however, he is approached by the villainous Arthur Slugworth, rival candy-maker, who offers big bucks in exchange for a sample of Wonka’s latest creation, an everlasting Gobstopper. A stranger Tinker also appears, warning Charlie in a bizarre poem about “little men”. These forebodings are soon forgotten, however, amid a media circus in which the five winners are ushered into the candy-maker’s world.

Upon entering the Chocolate Factory, reality is checked at the door, as Wonka’s abode is a psychedelic wonderland full of chocolate rivers, giant edible mushrooms, lick-able wallpapers, and sanctimonious orange midgets (the Oompa Loompas[2]). And yes, each child is given their own Gobstopper, a candy that can be licked forever without ever dissolving away.
As the tour progresses, the four other children reveal themselves to be gluttonous, greedy, spoiled, and ill-behaved; traits that backfire, bringing bizarre disasters down upon their heads. One by one, the small tour is reduced in number, until only Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe remain.

They mistakenly assume they’ve won the promised lifetime supply of chocolate, but are told that their own drinking of an off-limits experimental soda has disqualified them, and they are curtly dismissed. Grandpa Joe is incensed, promising to get even with Wonka no matter what it takes, and encourages Charlie to hand over the secrets of the Gobstopper to the rival Slugworth. But Charlie has a heart of gold, and returns the Gobstopper to Wonka despite the money it could mean for him. “So shines a good deed in a weary world,” says the candy-man, who explains that this was all a test to find a good and worthy child.

Wonka admits that he was looking for a replacement, and that in addition to the chocolate, Charlie will get the entire factory to run on Wonka’s behalf. Then they get in the Great Glass Elevator (the Wonka-vator, actually), and blast off into the sky, presumably to live happily ever after. [3]

Considered a classic now, most parents view the film as a good lesson in morality, as children are shown the errors of greed and poor impulse control. However, this view ignores the fact that many adults, when they recount their own impressions of the film, admit that it scared the bejeezus out of them as children. Only later, in adult life, do they revisit this film and enjoy it for its sophisticated humor on multiple levels. In fact, Wonka himself displays a very sinister edge, taking a perverse glee in the sufferings of some of the children and showing a dispassionate apathy to the plights of others, as witnessed by his line when Augustus Gloop is stuck in a pipe, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

So how do we account for this sinister streak in the candy-man, as well as the frightening nature of some of the stories elements? I submit to you that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is nothing more nor less than a decent into the abyss, a journey through a dark, stygian underworld, a descent into the depths of Hell.

Leaving Hollywood aside for the moment, let us jump back in time to the 14th Century. Written from 1306 to 1321, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy[4] is generally considered one of the greatest poems in world literature. Comprised of there parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, the first section, Inferno was published independently in 1314 and is the most widely read and studied.

The poem begins when Dante the Pilgrim, halfway through the journey of his life, suddenly finds himself lost in a dark woods without knowing how he came to be there. Three savage beasts – a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf – arise to menace him. But then Dante sees a hilltop “shawled in morning rays of light sent from the planet that leads men straight-ahead on every road.”[5]

Virgil, the famous Roman poet, appears, and offers to guide Dante on his path, but Dante learns that in order to go up, he will have to go down first. They enter into the Vestibule of Hell, a nowhere place of souls who have lived a life without blame or praise, and now suffer a pointless, eternal existence. The pair then confronts Charon, the boatman of Hell, and convinces him to ferry them across the river Acheron into Limbo, the first level of the Inferno.

The Inferno of Dante’s poem is a vast funnel, with nine ledges, each of which comprises one of the levels of the underworld. As the journey progresses downward, Dante seems example after example of sinners suffering for their crimes, all punished in appropriately matched and fiendishly imaginative ways. For example, the soothsayers, those guilty of foretelling the future, have their heads twisted around backwards so they can no longer see in front of them.

At the very center, Lucifer is bound, his body half submerged in a frozen lake. The pair must climb down the devil’s hairy body. Midway through their climb, gravity reverses itself. They have passed through the center of the earth, and now make their ascent towards Purgatory and Heaven.

Chances are, aspects of this story are already starting to sound familiar to you. Returning to WonkaLand - we have five children, escorted by their guide through a magical realm. Along the way, one child at a time falls victim to their own vice. Augustus Gloop drinks from the forbidden river and falls in, become stuck in a pipe. Violet Beauregarde snatches an experimental gum and is transformed into a giant blueberry. Veruca Salt[6] threatens to throw a fit if she isn’t given everything she wants immediately, and falls down a shoot for bad eggs into an incinerator. Mike Teevee, rushing in to be the first person “sent by television”, is shrunk to a mere few inches tall.
Finally, only Charlie Bucket is left. And although Charlie isn’t blameless, he is repentant. Even when rebuffed by Wonka, Charlie does the right thing, returning Wonka’s Gobstopper despite the fact it represents much needed money for his family.

Wonka, Charlie’s Virgil in this retelling of the Inferno, then rewards the boy for making it through Hell, by taking him up in the sky – ie. up to heaven – in the great, glass elevator, just as Virgil lead Dante through the Inferno and up to Purgatory and Paradise.

Roald Dahl has cleverly taking the classic medieval poem and transposed it into the setting of a children’s novel. But when deconstructed, its roots in the Inferno are painfully obvious. In fact, at one point in the film itself, the veil of metaphor is completely torn away and Wonka actually tells us where we are. Standing beside a Chocolate River, the tour group sees a wonderful boat – the Wonkatania – crewed by Oompa Loompas. Leaving the wonderful candyland receiving area behind (the Vestibule of Hell), they cross the Chocolate River by ferry. Here, the Chocolate River is no less than the River Acheron itself, as Willy Wonka, now in the guise of Charon the Ferryman, makes plain as he sings out, “Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of Hell a blowin’? Is the grisly reaper mowing? Yes!”

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory truly is Dante’s Inferno, a slice of Hell served up with a sugar coating.

[1] Roald Dahl also wrote screenplays for two Ian Fleming films, the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice and the film of Fleming’s own children’s book, ChittyChitty Bang Bang.

[2] Though uncredited for their performances in Willy Wonka, several of the Oompah Loompas had illustrious Hollywood careers, appearing in such films as Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, Labyrinth, and Time Bandits, and cult classic TV shows like Doctor Who and The Prisoner. One of them, Norman McGlen, continues our Dahl-Fleming connection by appearing in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a janitor in underworld leader Draco’s office. Alas, McGlen isn’t credited for this role either.

[3] The film ends there, though in the follow-up novel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: The Further Adventures of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Chocolate-Maker Extraordinary, they travel to space and meet such creatures as the Gnoolies and the Vermicious Knids. Oddly, it is interesting to view Wonka in context of a contemporary British television show. As a bizarre eccentric, sporting pseudo-Victorian dress and looking for the perfect child companion to take on a journey into outer space in his magic flying box, he certainly resembles the BBC’s popular creation, Doctor Who.

[4] Originally titled only Comedy, “divine” was presumed to have been added to the title later by Renaissance writer Boccacio, who repeatedly refered to Dante as a “divine poet.”

[5] Lines, 15 – 16.

[6] The rock group Veruca Salt took their name from this character.


A.R.Yngve said...

I didn't see the movie as a kid, but I loved the original novel - I wished there was candy like that, and I laughed (then) at what happened to the nasty kids.

Adults tend to look at childhood with rose-tinted glasses. Dahl's novel, though fantastic, actually has some psychological insight into how kids think.
(I was certainly a gluttonous kid; if someone had shown me that chocolate river, I'd have gone berserk!)


Lou Anders said...

The movie actually really disturbed me as a child. The way that Mike TV's mom dehumanized him after he was shrunk creeped me out. I had a similar problem when Bob Denver was shrunk on the Wacky Far-Out Space Nuts. And he was shrunk twice over!

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that "Vermicious Knids" is one of the best names for a monster in all of human history.

Lou, do you know of The Three Black Chicks' review of Wonka? " I liked Albertson most as a representative of four people who never got up out of bed for 20 years - if that ain't Ghetto, I don't know what is."

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jess,
I always read "Vermicious Knids" as "Vicious Kids", yes. Meanwhile, thanks for the link. I love "And I'd still like to know just how so many Americans managed to live in that obviously Bavarian village during that period."

Anonymous said...

Interesting... I've only read part of the Inferno, but it seems Wonka has more powers than Virgil, especially in his power to reward or punish, most obviously shown by his granting Charlie entrance to "Heaven". I thought Wonka might've represented the author's warped view of God - Wonka as an indifferent, testing God?

Anonymous said...

I think willy wonka's books and movies aare very good!

Anonymous said...

You spelt are wrong!

Anonymous said...

Emily.. there's no such word as spelt... It's "spelled". If you must pick on others... make sure you're perfect first.

Salculd said...

I just realized all of the similarities between those two works about half an hour ago and, in an effort to see how many other people had noticed and possibly written about the parallels, I did a perfunctory google search for it.

Congratulations! This blog entry is the top result for "willy wonka inferno"!

Lou Anders said...

Hi Chris. Glad to know I'm not alone!

Jeff said...

there is such a thing as "spelt."
it's an antiquated past tense of "to spell." it's also a grain. more to the point, this article is extremely verbose, makes numerous homophone and spelling errors, and fails to prove its point. it just draws haphazard connections to a well known classical poem. fail.

Anonymous said...

I adored this movie as a child. The scary parts were exciting and fun. That may be partly because I had already read the book, and had a sense of complete fantasy about the whole thing even when seen with live actors on the screen.

Lou Anders said...

I wasn't crazy about it as a child, actually. But I loved it as an adult.

shadowreaper34 said...

jajajajaja, I think in Charlie and the chocolate factory and combine with the Divine Comedy by Dante, surely you can win a special ticket if you buy Generic Propecia and win a red ticket, well in the movies was gold but in this case you won a infernal tour, what better color than red.

Ben Villarreal said...

Just stumbled across this. Brilliant comparison! I love finding these kinds of analogies in pop culture :-)

Lou Anders said...

Thanks Ben. Glad you liked it.

neptune said...

I've read this before, but just came across it again. I think it's brilliant. I loved your observation that the parents' own dehumanization of their children was part of the horror. I also always saw the "pure imagination" room as kind of a reverse Garden of Eden, where nothing is forbidden but everything leads to damnation.

neptune said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

This truly was a horror movie without the guts and gore. If it were released today, I would hope that it would not be seen as light-hearted and fun, but as cruel, bizarre, and inappropriate for children.

Lou Anders said...

As a child it horrified me. As an adult, I love it.

Lisa Jones said...

In one word its awesome. Adults tend to look at Bulls schedule childhood with rose-tinted glasses good actors and acting HOpe its earn

James Hawk III said...

@Jeff - there is a 'spelt,' it's a British version of 'spelled.'

" and falls down a shoot for bad eggs into an incinerator..." *chute

The fires of hell are "glowin'," not "blowin'."



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Unknown said...

That is a terrific thesis.

Yes, I yearned to watch Willy Wonka when it emerged in the seventies, primarily because of the silly name — and I remember that my parents were guarded about letting their seven year old watch it on TV: quite rightly — because it was frightening and morally bewildering to me. But then, so were Alice's adventures in Wonderland ("Be brutal to your little boy and beat him when he sneezes. He only does it to annoy..."), which Dad had read to us at a younger age and to which I regularly returned. Some of Dahl's works are in much the same league.

Gene Wilder's mournful prescience and world-weary unconcern for those about to be hoist by their own petards is an absolute joy; had NeoCons paid attention to the film's basic morality (indeed, deliciously just amorality), the West might have sidestepped our current Millennial messes. Wilder was a dramatic genius (in fact, he even appears in a live-action nineties adaptation of Alice in wonderland — as The Mock Turtle to Donald Synden's Gryffon

But the parallels with Dante had never occurred to me. Dante had, indeed, conceived a surreal Comedy of similar scope — complete with descent and assent. Thank you so much for the observation.