Roald Dahl’s slim novels are not good candidates for spinoff material, and a planned Wonka prequel movie is likely to end up as empty calories.
We’re living in a golden age of sequels, spinoffs and reboots. Watchmen, The Mandalorian and WandaVision are some of the best shows on TV. From Avengers: Endgame to Bad Boys for Life, the top films at the box office every year are reliably part of franchises and tentpoles. Along with dozens more announced Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe titles, series set in the worlds of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are also reportedly in the works. So too are multiple projects inspired by the books of famed children’s author, Roald Dahl. But, as any child who’s ever eaten an entire chocolate cake will admit, one can have too much of a good thing, and Warner Bros.’ Wonka prequel is one bite of intellectual property cake too many.
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It’s understandable that studios keep going back to the well of existing IP. Original ideas are riskier (at least financially speaking), and fans enjoy the communal and continuous experience of larger-scale storytelling. Still, not every word of a source text is worthy of being spun into its own yarn. Prequels rarely live up to the originals, especially when the material is thin. This has certainly been the case with The Hobbit trilogy and the Fantastic Beasts movies. Origin stories for supporting characters are particularly hard to pull off, as was demonstrated with movies like Solo: A Star Wars Story and the abysmal Catwoman. At best, these films explore characters or elements that haven’t yet been done justice. But Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did right by Willa Wonka the first time.
Roald Dahl’s slim novels are deceptively tricky to adapt, and they lend themselves even less to further exploration. That’s because, despite the presence of magic and a whimsical aesthetic, Dahl didn’t bother with much worldbuilding. Unlike the writing of Tolkien or even J.K. Rowling, these are books for emerging readers. Magic just is. Giants, witches and oompa loompas simply exist. Explanations are provided only when necessary and characters are given backstories only when they’re essential to the plot. This is precisely the case for 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All readers need to know is that Charlie Bucket’s family is too poor to regularly afford chocolate and that a bizarre man named Willy Wonka owns a candy factory that defies belief. That Wonka exists, untethered by reason, is part of his appeal. He’s a device, and a fun bit of spectacle, more than he is a real person.
The tone of Dahl’s work has also proven difficult for filmmakers to pin down. Though they’re surreal, Dahl’s stories also have a creepy homespun quality to them. This was perhaps better exemplified by earlier adaptations of his characters, such as in the Gene Wilder-starring Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Danny DeVito-starring Matilda. It’s almost as though advancements in technology have made Dahl easier to mess up. More recent adaptations like Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG and Robert Zemeckis’ 2020 update of The Witches have all fallen short, to various degrees. They went big and predictably weird instead of intimate yet strangely biting, which is more Dahl’s style. They also focus too much on the adult characters and not enough on the children, which violates the operating principle of Dahl’s work.
Kids are the stars in Dahl’s world, and for good reason. Whether readers or viewers are in middle school or middle age, it’s Matilda, Charlie and James they identify with. The young protagonists start out powerless in perilous situations, but they end up brave, resourceful and having saved the day… no thanks to grown ups. The adults are the ones who cause the peril. They’re either oblivious or downright evil. Dahl’s fiction dares to admit to children that the world is a scary, unfair place, and it allows them to face those fears. It can even offer catharsis from real mistreatment and hardship. The author himself said his ideas sprang from abuse he suffered at boarding school, but it’s unlikely he was overly concerned with the psychology of his tormentors.
Though Willy Wonka’s curiously demented, and he and his factory may be responsible for the harm or death of some (admittedly awful) children, the character is neither a hero nor a villain — but that doesn’t mean audiences are clamoring to know any more about him. Burton’s 2005 film, starring Johnny Depp, attempted to interrogate his eccentricities by adding a scene in which it’s revealed Wonka’s parents were dentists who forbade him from eating candy. Whether that relatively benign trauma will serve as his motivation in the upcoming film is yet to be determined as Wonka, which has been in development since 2016, still hasn’t cast its title character and isn’t scheduled to be released until 2023. Whatever filmmakers do will be akin to spinning sugar out of the scant characterization of Wonka that Dahl’s already provided. And when it hits theaters, it’s likely to be little more than empty calories.
Wonka is directed by Paul King and written by Simon Rich. It is scheduled to open theatrically on March 17, 2023.
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