Wonka shows Roald Dahl’s biggest threat isn’t ‘cancel culture’ – it’s corporate greed

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Against the odds, Wonka is a winner. It was supposed to be the prequel nobody asked for, an utterly unnecessary addendum to one of the great works of children’s fiction, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It seemed like it was addled by unflattering CGI. Its buzzy young star, Timothée Chalamet, was miscast – how could anyone fill Gene Wilder’s shoes? Now that critics have actually seen it, a fair portion of humble pie has been doled out. (Or perhaps some kind of humble pie-flavoured nougat bar, whipped up by the orange boys in the lab.) Wonka is a great movie. But a great Roald Dahl adaptation it is not. Instead, we have a jaunty original caper about making one’s name in the world, which bears little resemblance to the eternal morality tale that inspired it.

Dahl’s inimitable children’s fiction has come under renewed scrutiny in recent years, with some of the more problematic or bigoted elements of his writing being controversially excised from recent republishings of his books. Despite cries of “cancel culture”, however, much of Dahl’s beloved oeuvre has proved immune to any sort of scrapheaping. Amid the furore, Dahl’s work has continued to be enthusiastically adapted for the screen. In just the past few years, we’ve had Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, Robert Zemeckis’s The Witches, and Matilda the Musical, while Netflix signed a splashy long-term deal with the Roald Dahl Company. An impressive quartet of live-action shorts by Wes Anderson (The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison) have already been released on the streamer; adaptations of The Twits and two animated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes (the latter written and directed by Taika Waititi) are set to follow. There’s never been more interest in adapting Dahl for the screen. And as Wonka and Anderson’s shorts show, the results can be impressive. But in the flattening of Dahl’s work into a product, an Intellectual Property to be built upon, elasticised and re-interpreted, something singular and special is being lost.

Steven Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’

(Walt Disney Studios/Alamy)

More than anything, Dahl was an expert teller of stories. His characters and world-building were always secondary to his plots. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn’t a classic because of Charlie Bucket or even Willy Wonka himself – who was always painted at a distance, as a cypher and an unknowable eccentric – but the story. A group of kids, each with their own precise moral failing, travel around a wondrous factory and are punished for their sins in turn. There’s a timelessness to it. In breaking the chocolatier open, examining his motivations and placing him within an entirely new narrative, Wonka does away with the very essence of Dahl’s magic.

The fear is that Dahl is being turned from a writer into a brand. If it’s not the stories themselves that matter, what does? Wonka manages to successfully recreate some of the more specific preoccupations of the source material: there is charm and affirmation in Wonka’s supernatural gifts, for instance. The signature Dahl darkness is not completely forsworn. (A trio of rival chocolate-makers, fronted by a delightfully hammy Paterson Joseph, try to drown Wonka in a vat of chocolate at one point, and a slightly fatphobic running gag involving a Chief Wiggum-esque police chief played by Keegan-Michael Key nods to Dahl’s penchant for physical grotesquery.)

Anne Hathaway in ‘The Witches’

(Warner Bros. Pictures/Alamy)

It’s not that there haven’t been bad Dahl adaptations in the past. (Remember Dustin Hoffman’s Esio Trot?) Often, the best attempts have been headed up by filmmakers with a distinctive style and vision: Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, for example, or stop-motion maven Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach. Anderson’s four Dahl shorts might not have been up there with the director’s best work, but they too rank among the most interesting and faithful efforts to translate Dahl’s writing to screen. But the forthcoming Netflix projects, or the inevitable further endeavours of the Roald Dahl Company yet to be announced, are hard to get excited about.

It is a testament to Dahl’s brilliance that the appetite for adaptation is still there. Films such as Wonka, however, expose both the possibilities and drawbacks of treating these books as IP. Dahl was always so much more than just the man who conceived of Willy Wonka. He was a man of stories. And piece by piece, film by film, those stories are starting to get lost in the telling.

‘Wonka’ is in cinemas now