Sunday Morning: Giving Willy Wonka a Backstory was a Mistake

(Sam had a section in his essay about the splat movie Halloween discussing Michael Myers’s backstory detracting from what made the story work. So I got to thinking…)

Sunday Morning: Giving Willy Wonka a Backstory was a Mistake

There are a dozen essays that could have been written comparing the 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I mean, the 1971 film got a lot of stuff wrong about Willy Wonka. Gene Wilder went out of his way to want to communicate that you would never know whether Willy Wonka was being sincere. Remember the somersault?

Willy Wonka's Grand Entrance – Keith Kurlander

Wilder said that he’d only take the role if he could do that. Why? “From that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

Which is an interesting take on the character. It’s not particularly true to the book… but, hey. Hollywood adaptations, right? (I always got the feeling that screenwriters had a story they wanted to tell and would just crowbar it into whatever script that producers asked them to write. “Hey, I’ve always wanted to retell Xenophon’s Anabasis with a little bit of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Willy Wonka? Eh. It’ll do.”)

So then, in 2005, they decided to make an adaptation of the book that was faithful to the original. In the book, Willy Wonka wasn’t supposed to be a stand-in for God (at least, I don’t think he was) but he was more a force of nature. A savant confectioner who is somewhat beyond our limited notions of right and wrong. So they went for that, kinda, and picked Johnny Depp to play Willy Wonka as a cross between Howard Hughes and childrens’ television show hosts from his youth. (Personally, I thought that they were going for some Michael Jackson in there too… but both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton say that there was no intention of any Michael Jackson at all so who knows?)

Compare Gene Wilder’s entrance with Johnny Depp’s:

Wonka's Welcome Song (1080p)

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka comes across as focused and calculating and, yes, you never know whether he’s telling the truth. Johnny Depp’s, by comparison, comes across as an almost neurodiverse character who wears his heart on his sleeve. Somewhat closer to the one from the book… even if it’s not a bullseye, it hit paper.

UNTIL THEY GOT TO THE END. They decided that what Willy Wonka needed was a backstory. And so ask yourself: what is the most hackneyed backstory you could possibly come up with for a master confectioner? Would it be… the son of a dentist? Who, in an effort to rebel from his father, made candy?

Yeah, that’s the most hackneyed one that I could come up with too.

And it’s the addition of that backstory that detracts from the movie entirely. Like, the first half was *PERFECT*. And it’s the addition of the backstory that has you wondering why they went for note-perfect following the book in the first half only to throw everything off the rails in the second. Say what you will about the Gene Wilder movie, but it had a point of view that let you say “yeah, I see what they were going for when they decided to stray from the path laid out in the book.”

The Johnny Depp one? Why did they think that the perfection of the book would be improved by giving Willy Wonka a backstory?

I could see someone saying something like “well, where did Willy Wonka come from? That’s a problem!” Well, give him a backstory and guess what? If the backstory isn’t better than the mystery, now you’ve got two peoblems.

So… what are you reading and/or watching?

(Image is Wine Gums by Dominic Lockyer. Used under a Creative Commons License.)

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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

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3 thoughts on “Sunday Morning: Giving Willy Wonka a Backstory was a Mistake

  1. This scene has some *GREAT* stuff in it:

    It communicates that Willy Wonka doesn’t like Mike TeeVee very much.
    It gives the scene in the candy warzone where Mike asks why the somewhat overwrought candy creation processes that Willy Wonka’s factory engages in are “pointless” and Charlie points out that “candy doesn’t have to have a point” and Willy Wonka smiles and knows that Charlie gets it.

    And there’s even a brilliant “Candy is a waste of time” line from Mike and…


    Everything falls apart after that.

    Well, the “mumbler!” scene was really good.

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  2. Giving a background story is part of the homogenization of western culture.

    Peter Parker wouldn’t be Spider-Man if he didn’t think “Not my problem” and let the thief escape.

    Now with the latest reboot of Spider-Man, Peter Parker is Spider-Man because he’s a Parker. His father died and was unable to take advantage of being bitten by a radioactive spider. Nobody else could become Spider-Man unless they were of the Parker bloodline. The lesson of “With great responsibility” is now wholly diluted, Peter Parker was destined to become Spider-Man much in the same way Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother.

    And the story isn’t any different nor does it play upon the concepts of fate and destiny. Still a shallow, comic book film.

    On the bright side, the new Spider-Man origin says something about Hollywood. There are creators who want to tell their stories!

    But boardrooms are telling them to use established properties rather than hassle them with new properties and their legal and marketing issues.

    With background stories being the same across the board, with minor differences, diminishes an audience’s participation. The audience is there to involve a little bit of themselves in the characters and the plot, making it relatable to them. Instead Hollywood’s demanding, “THIS IS THE STORY, THERE ARE NO OTHER STORIES.” Unless the new story doesn’t sell, necessitating yet another reboot.

    Hollywood doesn’t create anything new. Their marketers make potent arguments to shovel the same crap year-in and year-out, but their arguments are becoming thinner than the plots imagined by Disney’s wunderkinds who might’ve had the potential to be the next Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, or Coppola before being shackled to hoary old properties in hopes of ensuring the revenue of some conglomerate.

    P.S. Tim Burton is a hack, playing on visuals but going light on story. Edward Scissorhands was a fluke and everything else is merely Danny Elfman, pastel colors, sprinkled with a little dark humor but not enough to scare children like the original Willy Wonka or Planet of the Apes.

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