I realise there’s no shame in being poor…but it’s no great honour either.
The above quotation is from the musical Fiddler on the Roof and is spoken by the bumbling patriarch, Tevye before he launches into his song ‘If I Were a Rich Man’. It’s one of the disembodied quotes that revolves around my head without being attached to its original source material because it possesses some quite universally applicable wisdom. On the one hand, it stresses the resilient pride of working people who have to put up with a hard life but on the other, the indignity that poverty forces on people. It’s a maxim that Edwardian writers such as E. M. Forster knew well and that is brought into particularly sharp focus by G. B. Shaw’s play, Major Barbara, where the foundling industrialist and Übermensch, Undershaft has to decide who will inherit his international arms conglomerate. Major Barbara is a play that shatters the Victorian paternalistic view of the industrialist found in novels such as Dickens’s Hard Times and shares much in common with Tim Burton’s adaptation of Rohl Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – the work to which I falsely attributed the quotation. It is also a story of inheritance and of competing ideologies.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a profound effect on me upon its release. I had read the story and the even zanier Great Glass Elevator (which makes an appearance at the end of the adaptation) and was captivated by Rohl Dahl’s darkly comic imagination. When the film came out, I remember it being met with mixed reviews and compared unfavourably to the 1970s Willy Wonka incarnation starring Gene Wilder. I can see why one could criticise Burton’s decision to foreground the troubled industrialist at the expense of fun and childlike wonderment because although he uses the original title, this film is really about Wonka’s journey – Charlie of course providing an effective foil to the privileged yet unloved son of the ingenious dentist father figure played by Christopher Lee. Burton’s Chocolate Factory is less fantastical enchantment and more technological spectacle.
The film has two main threads, or themes – one psychological and one concerning economic relations and exploring consumer capitalism. It’s opening credits introduce the latter in a several-minute montage of the elaborate automated mass-producing of “Wonka Bars” over a tumbling, emotionally heightened orchestral score by Danny Elfman.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s setting of perpetual winter may have been employed partly to induce festive feeling and ensure durability as a vaguely seasonal escapade, but this largely adds to the dystopian, unforgiving urban landscape Charlie’s family inhabits. The protagonist lives in a comically slanted shack in the shadow of the chocolate factory’s looming chimneys. Charlie venerates Willy Wonka, as is shown by his father handing him the last piece – a misshapen toothpaste lid for the signature top hat of the capitalist – to complete his model of the plant. His grandad is equally in awe despite being made redundant when Wonka imports cheap (possibly even slave) labour from Oompa Loompa Land and dismisses the entire workforce. Charlie’s father also loses his job because of automation. However, the family is resolved to stoic forbearance and quiet dignity – his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) takes it lightly and vows to thin down the cabbage soup. It’s this particular family scene that I associate with Tevye’s aphorism, misattributing it in my mind to the other, more pragmatic of the co-habiting grandfathers.
An odd, quasi-religious, even puritanical, willingness to endure the misery is complemented by a blind faith in the ultimate goodness of the industrialist (Wonka) and, like the proles in Orwell’s 1984, a belief in the divine justice of the lottery (an attitude typified by the sentimental grandfather) which takes the form of the Golden Ticket competition in the film. When the film was released, I was of an age where I did not distinctly distinguish between fiction and reality. I was of the generation for whom some small part of them was disappointed when no letter inviting them to take up residence at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry arrived in the post on the eve of their eleventh birthday. In the case of the Burton film, this blending of worlds was compounded by the promoters’ decision to manufacture actual Wonka bars and run a golden ticket draw of their own. Unlike the magic of Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s wonders were broadly scientific feats and its impossible flavours the result of pioneering exploration and experimentation. (This grounding in the rational was echoed in another 2005 phenomenon that deeply impressed my young consciousness – the new Doctor Who – but that’s a story for another time.) Yet this hope of being the “chosen one” and the recipient of an unexpected inheritance was common to both, is a major trope of modern literature and perhaps the most seductive. As a young child, I was utterly drawn into this promise of benevolent fate whisking me away to fortune, fame and glory. However, what sticks with me now is the message of the film – exposing the true nature of capitalism, which is in direct opposition to Charlie’s insistence on sharing his limited wealth, leading him to reject the inheritance that comes with the price of solitude enforced by material superiority.
The film falls down slightly on the resolution of the no-less-engaging psychological plot, which reverses the powerful refusal to take up the mantle of lonely venture-capitalist-cum-philanthropist and rather cornily stresses “family” over class solidarity to appease American audiences. This, however, is not enough to reverse its strong critique.
Watching it back after all these years is different, however. The first thing I noticed was the dialogue, which is resolutely in American English, despite all Charlie’s family’s Britishness. Again, in the corner shop where Charlie buys the winning Wonka bar, he is served by an English shopkeeper, yet pays in dollars. This only leads me to conclude that Burton’s film is set on Airstrip One in the country of Oceania, enhancing the general dystopia by literary reference.