My younger son signed up for our library’s summer reading program, and I suggested he try reading some books by Roald Dahl. He enjoyed reading Matilda, and since he also enjoyed seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – both the original and the recent remake – I suggested he read the book it was based on. Then I decided I ought to read the book myself, since I never had.
The vast majority of the reader reviews at amazon.com rate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at either four or five stars. As I read the superlatives piled on this book, I wondered what they had seen in the book that I missed. It started out well enough, but with the repeated emphasis on just how terribly poor the Buckets are and how desperately hunger they are and how awfully cold they are, it started to wear thin.
The descriptions of the naughty children and their parents are similarly over the top. Clearly the book is a fantasy, not realistic fiction, and fairy tales are full of such unrealistic extremes between riches and poverty, and between good and evil people. But fairy tales are set in some far away “once upon a time” kingdom, while this book is set in a place and time not too far removed from our own.
The chocolate factory is clearly a place of fantasy, and I don’t mind that the ordinary rules of life don’t apply there. But I found it jarring to see the juxtaposition of realistic details of everyday life with the unrealistic exaggerations. Even within the factory, the magic just didn’t seem all that impressive. Perhaps part of the problem is that I’m an adult, but there are other children’s books, such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where I do find the magic elements entertaining.
Mostly, though, what I dislike is that the book seems to focus more on punishing the naughty children than on the magic of the factory. Each room that Wonka leads them to seems to function primarily as a temptation that will eliminate one more child. After all, as soon as Wonka sees that only Charlie is left, he leaves off the pretense of a tour and gets to the point of how he wants to give the factory to Charlie.
I’ve never enjoyed scenes in books or movies depicting the punishment or death of the bad guys. Yes, justice has to be done, and I hardly expect it to be pleasant for the villain, but I can’t understand how one can find entertainment in a description of their fate. No matter how obnoxious a child is, or how obviously culpable the child’s parents are for that state of affairs, I can’t relate to a “serves them right” attitude when they face the consequences of their past behavior.
Dahl himself attributed his success as a writer of children’s books to his ability to write from a child’s perspective. Since so many people love his books, I have to assume that he does successfully capture the point of view of many children. Not all of them, though. I don’t think I would have enjoyed his books even when I was a child.
I had thought I might try reading James and the Giant Peach. But now I think I’ll reread some other children’s books, such as those by Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, and Edward Eager.