Dahl's Inferno: Willy Wonka and the Pits of Hell
By Preston Nelson
24 January 2013 — We've all seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It's a right of passage for every child born after 1971. From the Oompa Loompas to the chocolate river, we all remember almost ever inch of that factory. Gene Wilder, one of my favorite actors of all time, absolutely creates one of the most memorable portrayals of his career, only rivaled by his turn in Young Frankenstein. But, even though this film is a staple of childhood, there's always been a dark undercurrent to it.
Upon a re-watch of the film, I concocted a theory. It's not perfect by any means, but it explains a lot. I warn you, however, this theory utterly destroys a beloved children's classic. You need to stop here if you want to keep looking at this film as the portrait of youth and innocence that you remember it as.
Okay, are all the weaklings gone? Awesome. Are you ready for this?
Charlie and the rest of the kids are dead, and Willy Wonka is Satan.
Okay, bear with me, here. The whole idea sounds ludicrous until I explain it, I know. The first thing of note is simple: when each of the children find their golden tickets, they're visited by a strange, terrifying man. This is The Angel of Death. He pretends to be Wonka's chief rival, Slugworth, but in reality he's working for Wonka. And every single one of these children were formerly in a position that would have lead to their deaths. Augustus Gloop: food poisoning. Veruca Salt: killed by her psychotically silent and relaxed mother. Violet Beauregarde: choked on her gum. Mike Teevee: accidentally shot himself when he finally got his hands on that Colt .45 he said he wanted so bad.
This leaves our protagonist, Charlie Bucket. Now, it would be easy to say something simple like he starved to death or he got tuberculosis. And frankly, that's completely possible. But those of you that remember the first half of the movie will remember this: Charlie gets a grand total of four chocolate bars. One from his grandparents for his birthday, but it has no golden ticket. One from Grandpa Joe, who spent his tobacco money on it, but it too has no ticket. Then, some South American douchebag fakes a golden ticket and Charlie gives up. This all occurs in my theory. What happens next? Charlie bends into the street, and fishes some change out of the gutter. Before he does this, what happens? You hear a bike messenger ring his bell at an inattentive driver. Again, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that inattentive driver? He ran over the poverty-stricken child as he fished change from the sewer grate. The now-dead Charlie purchases two chocolate bars with the money that he died for, and it's only then he finds a golden ticket. He runs home, and meets The Angel of Death on the way.
Once he gets home, things cease being realistic. Grandpa Joe, bedridden for 20 years, mind you, rises from bed without a trace of muscle atrophy and dances around the room. Why would the powers that be go to these lengths, why make Charlie feel comfortable, or any of the other horrible, horrible children, for that matter? It's simple: they are only children. They died violently and suddenly, so to make their deaths something easier to cope with Wonkalzebub provides them with a totally realistic simulation of their homes, and invites them (and a guiding figure) into Hell disguised as a chocolate factory.
Upon arriving at Wonka's factory, we're treated to Willy Wonka immediately setting himself up as the Prince of Lies, pretending to be crippled to frighten children. The children and their guardians enter the factory and immediately sign their lives away on a gigantic contract hung upon the wall. Nothing devilish about that, right? Notice that only the children sign, not the guardians. They're not even really there. They then hang their coats and hats on hooks that seem to be living human hands, perhaps souls entombed in the wall by Wonka himself. After stepping through some hallways that appear to defy the laws of physics, Wonka leads the children into "The Chocolate Room," which is exactly what the inside of a candy factory would look like in the imagination of a child. Oh, and Wonka sings a song, too. A song about how this is a world purely of his creation, a song that says that looking at this world is looking into their own imaginations, and in the final verse he literally says, "There is no life I know, that compares to pure imagination." Yeah, I'm wondering how I didn't notice this earlier, too.
Now is a good time to mention that each of the children represent one of the deadly sins. Augustus is clearly gluttony. Veruca Salt has both qualities of greed (wanting everything) and lust (her fine clothing). Violet's pride and competitive nature ruined a friendship (this is actually expanded on in the otherwise terrible Burton remake). Mike Teevee is a combination of sloth (laying around watching TV all day) and wrath (he says that the "killings are all there is to life," when talking about television). Even Charlie is envy. The first shot we see of him is his staring into the candy shop, wishing he could be inside. Charlie's envy, of course, is the only forgivable sin, due to his circumstances, and this is why he is spared later on.
First up, Augustus Gloop's gluttony gets the best of him. As he attempts to drink from the chocolate river, he falls in and is sucked up a pipe and sent far, far away. Then, the demons themselves — the Oompa Loompas — appear, stepping from a cave, singing a short morality tale. Wonka claims these "funny little men" were saved from a nonexistent country called Loompaland, where they were targeted by all manner of vicious beasts. This is complete and total crap. Look at the physiology of the Oompa Loompa. This is not a human being. It's attempting to look like one, but pure and simple, it's not. The hair is green and clearly styled to hide a set of horns set into its skull. The flesh is orange, perhaps singed from a lifetime of tending to Wonka's Hellfire? And their legs jut out a strange angles, not unlike the goat legs Satan has been classically portrayed with. They then sing / chant their morality tale, celebrating the ironic demise of Gloop — the glutton being given more chocolate than he could possibly handle.
Following this, the remaining children get aboard the boat of nightmares. I don't even know how to tie the paddleboat ride through the tunnel to my vision of Wonka's Hellscape, but, then again, I don't think I have to. It does it pretty well on its own. The boat races down the chocolate river, as visions of horror flash across the screen. Wonka then begins wailing an eerie tune about not knowing where their headed, and asking if the fires of Hell are glowing.
From here on out, things get fairly simple. Each of the children's fatal flaws leads to their damnation in hilariously ironic ways. The monstrous kids ignore Wonka's warnings, and are somehow disfigured or disposed of before being hauled away by the demonic Oompa Loompas to a jaunty morality tune. The prideful Violet Beauregarde is turned into a bloated, blue freak, taking away her beauty and even her ability to move. Thus robbing her of anything to be proud of, and making her look like a giant gumball. The greedy Veruca Salt is deemed a "bad egg" by Wonka's Educated Eggdicator, and is tossed into the trash chute, sent to by burned forever in the incinerator. (Well, there's a 50 / 50 shot.) And the wrathful and lazy Mike Teevee is shrunk, he's sent across the room via television. At such a reduced height, his wrath is truly impotent. And being so small, Teevee will always be scrambling to survive, eliminating his sloth.
Even Charlie nearly succumbs to a grisly fate. After Wonka displays his Fizzy Lifting Drinks, Charlie and his Grandpa Joe decide to sample them. The drinks, of course, are too strong and lift Charlie and Grandpa Joe hundreds of feet into the air, where they are nearly torn apart by the ventilation fan. Charlie, who's only desire was to rise above his situation in life, is nearly disposed of by being raised too high. Symbolism, engage. How does Charlie save himself? By embracing his more base nature, and burping. Charlie burps, releasing the gas, and settles back to the ground. Charlie embraces the base nature of his poverty and survives.
With all the bad children disposed of, Charlie enters Wonka's office and is berated about the incident with the Fizzy Lifting Drinks. Charlie repents and is forgiven, finding out that Slugworth / The Angel of Death was actually in Wonka's employ all along! Wonka's office is, entirely, sawed in half. Everything in his office is cut in half: the safe, magnifying glass, his coffee cup, everything. Until Charlie redeems him, Wonka is incomplete, symbolized by his Harvey Dent-esque office. As Wonka and Charlie have redeemed one another, they enter Wonka's Great Glass Elevator and ascend into the heavens, as the film ends.
The film, of course, is based on a novel by Roald Dahl. In my opinion, Dahl is the kind of man who would have taken an exquisite joy in taking something like, say, Dante's Divine Comedy, repackaging it in a candy factory, and selling it as a children's book. And there's nothing wrong with this darkness inherent to the film, really. Before you saw the horror, this was still a morality story. A tale of redemption and punishing societal wrongs. Ask a small child why Charlie wins the chocolate factory and the other children are punished, and they'll give the same answer I'm giving: because Charlie is good and the others were bad. I'm just saying that, on top of being bad, the other children are horribly mutilated and suffering in Hell for all eternity, tormented by green and orange singing demons.
The horror was always there, and, honestly, it's not so horrible. It's kind of reassuring knowing good is rewarded and evil is punished. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is still the wonderful, sweet film you remember, except for the Oompa Loompas. They're demons. Pure pants-shitting terror. Seriously, I hate those guys.