2.16.2009

The Sin and Glory of Willy Wonka

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that old children's classic tale of a boy's rags-to-riches saga. The beloved Gene Wilder version barely scratches the surface of the rather dark moral teaching the original story provides. Although the book written by Roald Dahl was created for children's reading, there is a deeper sociological moral to the story at play. It's brought out a great deal by Tim Burton's version of the movie, which was released in 2005.

The story seems to be a straightforward, fairytale modeled, and self explanatory. But is it? The cinematic versions of the story take a decidedly dark undertone of a cautionary tale against the seven deadly sins. Each character represents one of the seven deadly sins, with the exception of lust, which is only briefly touched on in the Burton version where Mrs Beauregard makes a pass at Willy Wonka, and Envy, which is represented in all of the characters at some point. There is another "sin" represented in the story that is based on society's, not religion's, notion of sin.

Starting with the most obvious characters and their respective sins, Augustus Gloop represents, of course, gluttony. The notion of gluttony as a societal norm is actually as old as it is common. The heroin chic look we so crave now is relatively new in modern day society, and a plump, gluttonous body was a sign of wealth and good health for centuries. Today, we are still taught that gluttony is desirable, so long as it isn't showing around our midsections. He met his fate, of course, by eating himself into the precarious position of being stuck in a tube of chocolate, and almost made into fudge.

The second, and equally obvious vice is that of greed. Veruca Salt, the infamous spoiled brat who gets everything her little heart desires is the epitome of greed. In today's society, of course we are taught indirectly that greed is good. Greed is what we strive to do. We hoard our things, and crave increasingly more. Consumerism "Name your price" and being able to buy whatever we want, whenever we want it. It's the Capitalist way, and of course, it signifies our very well-to-do social standing. It gives us power, and makes us feel better about ourselves. She of course, met her demise in a garbage shoot.

Which brings us to our next little darling, Violet Beauregard. In the story, her gum popping is the main annoyance, but it isn't her nasty habits, it's her pride that gets her into trouble. In the Tim Burton version, the little girl, and her mother represent modern day nuclear helicopter parent families. She is the epitome of competition a poor mannered winner with her pride at being the best ever so in your face. This competitive streak is highly ingrained in capitalist society today. We are taught to compete at any and all levels, and regardless of who we step on, we keep telling ourselves to keep an "Eye on the prize". The prize, of course, is being the best-est, the first-est, and the most competitive which should earn us some sort of award. In poor Violet's case, her reward was being turned into a giant blueberry...


Anger is a massive problem today, particularly when it's misdirected. The ever present and incessant know-it-all who righteously lashes out at anyone deemed inferior is commonplace, and seems to be what puts some people ahead of others in life. Meet Mike Teavee, he's plugged in, tuned up, techno-savvy and completely clueless about childhood. or anything, for that matter. The mind numbing effects of TV and video games, piped to us directly from consumerist land creates people with one track minds and rather aggressive personalities. He of course faces the doom of being shrunken down into a pint sized terror because of his inability to listen, and his seething anger which prevents him from thinking before acting.

So which sin is that of poor Charlie Bucket? Quite simply, poverty. In society today, and for centuries, poverty is a perceived sin. It's an unspeakable, unthinkable punishment to those at society's upper crust. Poverty is the bane yet stability of their very existence, so it is demonized by those who need, yet despise it. Poverty is often associated with sloth, but most people know that sloth has nothing to do with poverty. Even though Charlie is portrayed as being a simple, naive daydreamer the story goes on to actually dispel the myth that the poor are lazy. His desire to find a ticket is tempered by hard work, and the selfless notion of giving up that childish pursuit in the name of putting food on his family's table. He possesses the quality that few adults today express. That is to say, the virtue of selflessness in the face of attaining a want.

When combined, the four main characters, and their parents embody the type of marketing schemes and general normalcy of society today. We breed competition, greed, and gluttony into our own children, and sell them on the ideas of attaining as much as possible, and to be prideful of all that we own. Status symbols that reaches beyond mere childhood, and move straight on into adulthood, where the real damage is done. In the story, Willy Wonka, the anti-authoritarian eccentric runs his company on his own terms. He seeks not the "experienced" ways of adult entrepreneurs, and he shows a disdain for adult ideologies and practicalities. His process of weeding out the competitors is not based on which children could be most like corporate sharks, but rather uses their own vices against them, creating their own downfall.

In theory, this is what we all wish for, is it not?

We want those who characterize all of the vices that make this world a harsh place to get their comeuppance. We want them to be hoisted on their own petard. And yet, we continue to idolize, respect and emulate the very people we'd like to see fall flat on their faces. And therein lies the problem. We reward this behavior in real life, but in this tale those behaviors are severely punished. And not just in any old way, and not by trial and jury. But honest to goodness Karma in action punishment.

The other caution here is that forcing young children to become little adults with all of the wrong priorities is that they lose all whimsy. They lack imagination, which is needed for societal progress and invention. They also lack innocence, in this regard. And innocence is what keeps us honest.

For better or for worse, whether intentional or not, this classic tale turned big box hit certainly makes a big social point.

24 comments:

Valerie said...

Working off of the theory that no mainstream movie can ever actually finish up without some form of harmful brainwashing, I kind of see the fact that the characters are punished for being jerks in the movie as a convenient fiction to help erase the unfairness of the world in hopes that nobody in the audiences will grow up to want to change it blah blah blah.

Anok said...

Hey Valerie, thanks for stopping in. Typical and traditional fairytales (of which this story uses the standard model) always show that the wicked get theirs. They were teaching tools, rather than fantastic stories, so that the young could understand why wickedness was bad, or at the very least, be too afraid of the consequences to try.

As we know, this didn't actually stop people from behaving badly, but I'd say it's much less of a brainwashing tool to convince that all ne'erdowells get punished, but rather an attempt at preventing them from behaving that way in the first place.

There is also an interesting connection between the step-parent and bused birth child storyline in fairytales that have been tied to both witchcraft, and societal unhappiness with the legal transference of property. The step mothers are almost always portrayed as bad witches - and in history, many a step mother figure and/or a person perceived to be moving in on family inheritance was accused of actual witchcraft. (Just a side note, really :D )

But I do believe that the story underlines a greater moral importance, and does not set out to satisfy the public outcry of unethical behavior, but rather it emboldens it.

ewebert said...

Interesting post. I agree that we do seem to on won hand demonize these certain 'sinful' traits in tales and on the big screen while often in real life many of the same actions are deemed appropriate and even rewarded. Isn't the American dream to become wealthy and have your own house with tons of fancy toys?

The question then is what do we teach our kids in the face of the overwhelming societal pressure to become a 'success' which means to become rich? Is becoming rich necessarily bad? I would argue no, but it definitely depends on the means one uses to get there (and how one lives his life to sustain the accumulated wealth).

Money has become the bottom line in society.. not the good of society or the good of the people or the want of a God. Most of goals that drive us are based on mass marketing of multiple companies etc for their own good (ie our shelves are flooded with food that is laden with sugar and fat... both of which increase as opposed to decrease appetite, and their are advertisements everywhere telling us to 'indulge' and 'give in to the craving' etc teaching us that 'gluttony is ok. We no longer have the moral virtures that were so long passed on through churches and temples etc. Now we follow the god of marketing and whatever he dictates that masses generally follow.. and its only helping the pocketbooks of the companies not the wellbeing of society or people in general.

Monkey Wrench said...

Very thoughtful analysis, as always Anok. You continue to impress me. The Gene Wilder version always was my favorite, and the darker overtones were briefly glimpsed in the boat-tunnel...Dahl was definitely ahead of his time.

Take care,

Wrench

Sunnyberra said...

Okay, I had this great comment to leave...but now, I've forgotten it :(

I will say this, though: interesting post. There are always so many parallels that can be drawn, and tangents that become apparent as the values and goals of society changes over time.

On another note: Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz are two movies I absolutely loathe. Ever since I first saw them, they scared the bejesus out of me, and I avoid them like the plague (flying monkeys? hell, no. And for some reason Gene Wilder came across as a lechy man to me, in that movie. For some reason I can't quite pinpoint).

Pam said...

Very intelligent post. Dahl is one of my favorite writers.

Thanks for the thoughtful insights.

Anok said...

Ewebert - I agree that we now worship the almighty dollar in society, and routinely teach our children to do the same.

I think a general shift in social thinking will do the trick, and to be honest, the downfall of Wallstreet right now might actually be the catalyst for exactly that.

Wrench - Oh, that original Tunnel scene always freaked me out as a kid! Thank you for the compliment - and yes, Dahl was definitely on the right right track. Too bad not enough people listen!

Sunny - I'm laughing at your Flying monkey's? Hell no! The books, believe it or not, are a far hairy depiction than even the movies!

All fairytales provide us the ability and opportunity to draw these parallels, because that was their main function. This one, just so happens to be a modern day fairytale. If only they were true...

Pam, thanks for stopping in, I'm glad your enjoyed it!

jason said...

Wow!! Quote:

"So which sin is that of poor Charlie Bucket? Quite simply, poverty. In society today, and for centuries, poverty is a perceived sin."

You expect to read some interesting blogs surfing after midnight but this was simply genius, seriously. Very compelling discussion. I like your account of Charlie's sin the most because in this materialistic society the dollar is the end all. Superb post!

Anok said...

Thanks Jason! I also found your blog to be a great read - looks like we have some good stuff to discuss!

Yes, I think it's funny, because poverty - or really the lack of hoarding material possessions has historically (religiously) been a virtue, not a sin. And yet in today's society we see a social reverse of that (while other "sins" are still accepted as such by society). This is, in my mind, a mere justification strategy to help ease the collective consciousness of the masses who buy into, have, or wish they had the power and opportunity to be above others (financially).

Classism predates racism, I'm sure, by a millennium. It really is the bane of our existence.

Stas said...

Classism predates racism... Unquestionably thru! Thank You for attractive reading!

HalfCrazy said...

I admit, I didn't finish Charlie And The Chocolate Factory when I watched it on cable years ago. Too much Fantasy drives me crazy. I've seen a couple of these characters, though, and I didn't realize that they represent the 7 deadly sins until you pointed it out and wrote about it lol. A very well written post.

I especially have hatred for people with "I'm better than anyone else. I'm gonna be the first and the best and I'll completely obliterate your very existence because... I'm gonna be the best." attitude. I really have no high idea why they have such high regards for themselves but they ultimately fail most of the time. If they do become successful, it's not gonna be too long. Even if it's evil, I'm eager for their downfall because of their selfish attitude.

Much Love,

StillThinking said...

I don't think that the drive for financial success is a purely Western obsession. In fact, I would dare say that Asia has quickly surpassed us in teaching their children about ruthless monetary gain. The Asian math geek who plays the violin stereotype stems from a kernel of truth: Asian parents and Asian cultures push conformity, monetary wealth and achievement over personal happiness and individual expression. I am Korean American, and daresay that many Asians all over the world could testify to this.

So as many fairy tales and morality tales as we may have to brainwash our children, I still think we can't hold a candle to the ruthless pressure some parents can inflict on their own children to pursue material wealth.

Great post. I had to read it twice before I decided what angle I wanted to pursue.

Melissa said...

Hey sweetcheeks! Have you ever watched the Josie and the Pussycats movie that came out a few years back with tara reid? The stab it takes at consumerism and MTV and the whole mall generation/abercrombie and Fitch culture is pretty intersting.

Anok said...

Stas - yes, thank you!

Half crazy - yeah I tend to wish for their demise as well. Unfortunately I tend to see more of them succeed than not. The attitude needed to get ahead in a capitalist world is exactly what these children represent.

Meh.

Still Thinking - of course, being an American I wrote it from an American perspective ;) Yes, I agree with globalization the drive for greed has swept the entire world save for a few pockets here and there. More and more people impose this ideology onto their children, making them the next generation to bring us more of the same. It's sad, really.

Melissa - Yup I LOVE Josie and the pussycats Pink is the new black! Orange is the new pink! Blech. I'll give ya the new hot item, alright :P Heh.

Orion said...

i totally hate to argue with you here, but it's so well written i just can't help myself.

does the upper crust view poverty as a sin? sin is such a powerful word. i would lean towards disease, plague, or punishment.

...but sin is usually a choice. a choice made from watching environmental surroundings and blah blah blah, some more shit that no one cares about, blah blah... you get the idea. We make the choice to sin, because our surroundings have lead us to believe that the sin, is okay.

It's okay if my fat ass eats another cup cake, i'm immobile, i must spend the rest of my life in my bed, my heart is getting crushed by 90 pounds of fat...
one cupcake isn't going to make the difference, so why not!

Great article, loved the read.. but i just hadta pick a fight. i'm antagonistic.

Anok said...

AH Orion - good observation. Yes, sin is often portrayed as a choice and/or a punishment for a choice. And the wealthy (and wealthy wannabes) often blame the poor for their own poverty. So yes! Sin would be appropriate here.

And you so don't hate to argue ;) But thanks for stopping in - glad to see on this side of the blogspot. (I always feel like I'm in the naughty corner)

Orion said...

so what you're really saying is...
poverty is a punishment for sin, not necessarily the sin itself.. eh??

my past life must have been the fuckin' ride of a lifetime cause i'm poor. :)

Anok said...

You and me both :D But in reality - I don't think it's a punishment or a choice. I think it's just inherent in the system we have. Poverty is perpetuated by the greed of others.

So, in a round about way I guess it is a result of a sin. Just the sin of others!

Annie Cook said...

I love your blog about Chocolate Factory. We bought the copy dvd while in Jakarta. Till now my daughter doesn't seem to enjoy anything on it. Kids are drawn towards kindness and truth, but certainly there is nothing in that movie that attracts her. So despite all the candies and chocolates, it never got mentioned ever again.

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Theseus said...

AMAZING article. I REALLY enjoyed reading it. I just want to say a few things (which'll probably start a contest to see who runs out of "Your mom" jokes first).

First off, I was sorta worried about your tendency to lean towards society, saying that the whole story was actually a peak under civilization's ugly mask. I feel it relates more to mankind's primal "instincts". I may have read your post wrong, but this is what I think.

Second, I just want to say that this was really awesome, and I'm expecting much from you later on. Not that you care or anything... I'm... just... y'know... Ugh...