Writing in Pixels (Weekly Geek 2009-27)

(Image by Nallstar)

OK, so, I don't watch a lot of movies, and I don't read that many books, particularly new ones (which are more likely to have movies based on them, it seems), so this is a tough one for me. As such, when I revert to my childhood in the following essay, please, oh gentle readers, do not laugh. I could write something uninspired but solid, I guess, about something like the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre (in which I loved the girl who played Jane), or Pride and Prejudice (which was lots of fun). That would uphold my nose-in-the-air credibility. But, I really don't mean to be a snob, and it kind of breaks my heart to look back at my blog and realize I sound like one sometime, so I'm going to go backward from these 'grownup' books, and talk about something else.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Now, having said that, I could get some counterculture credibility by talking about how great the old version with Gene Wilder was (it was, I won't deny it). OR I could go for the cool-kid credibility and talk about how hot Johnny Depp looks in pancake makeup and a page boy (he does, I admit it). OR, I could go psychological, and talk about how weird it is that we feel the need to defend our affection for Gene Wilder's singing, or how mildly disturbing it is to realize an affection for androgynous child-men. But, god forbid, my friends, I subject you to that.

The thing is, BOTH of the reproductions of Charlie are great fun. Comparing them and trying to pick the better is kind of silly - they're not even the same plot, really, when you look at it. It's like trying to decide who was smarter between Da Vinci and Goethe - judging them against each other entirely misses the point. Don't believe me? Try to imagine Gene Wilder's Wonka in that creepy scenette where they pass the pink sheep being sheared. Try to imagine Johnny Depp's Wonka singing "Come with me, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination?" See how silly that sounds? They are totally different characters - and that's what's so great about them. Gene Wilder's whimsical slightly alien, vaguely drug-addled, distinctly grown-up Wonka feels like Gene Wilder, like the man who played in Mel Brooks comedies. Johnny Depp's eerily disturbed, larger than life, Peter Pan character feels like Johnny Depp, the man who played Captain Jack Sparrow and, dare I say, J.M. Barrie (not that it doesn't carry a tough or two of Tim Burton, too, but really, can you seperate the two in your mind? It's hard for me...).

The bigger question to me, having enjoyed both movies, is, why this book? Why Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the exception (twice mind you) to the popular maxim that the movie is never as good as the book? (I love the book, too, mind you) After all, I frankly hated both adaptations of Lord of the Rings, the old cartoon and the new movies. Though I didn't watch the last two of the latter, to be fair.

Charlie and the Chocolate factory has a few things going for it:

1) It is simple. The book is not intensely subtle or complex, it's rather straightforward. The characters are pretty stereotyped, in fact, if you think of it, mostly.

2) In that vein, there is one simple central theme to focus on: in the case of this book, Willy Wonka. Really, to be honest with yourself, can you imagine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being anything but dull without Willy Wonka? Everything else is window dressing (given, sometimes very fun window dressing) on that central theme.

And, both movie makers did something, in my mind, very clever - the made a movie less about the book and more about the reader. I mean, the Wonka in the book is actually a pretty straightforward tycoon type of fellow. The book is ALMOST a satire, really, with the jerky dryness of the characters. The movie? No. The Wonka in the old movie is the Wonka you REMEMBER from the book, not the one that's actually there. And the new movie? The Wonka of the book has no real history outside of the candy business. The Wonka and Charlie of the Burton version are not pieces of the author at all - they're pieces of the viewer - in fact, the movie is, in my mind more like a whimsical exploration of the same theme that's in 'Finding Neverland', the theme of childishness vs childlikeness, of growing up vs maturing. Of course, the book is useful in this search, because it's such a fable, and such a simple framework to work in - but that's just it, the book is a means to the movie's ends, instead of the movie being a means to tell the book. You want to know what's in the book? Read the book, right?

I'm not going to say ALL good movie adaptations are like this (Pride and Prejudice, mentioned above, has all the deviation of a doctoral thesis). But, it is to say that looking for movies that adapt books faithfully isn't always the way to find great adaptations.

Other examples of movies about readers instead of about books:

Return to Oz - based, kind of, on several of the first several Oz movies. A lot of people don't like this movie, but I haven't seen it since I was, maybe, 10, and it STILL sticks in my mind.

Dune - no, sci-fi geeks, not the new one that I'm told is good but I've actually never seen. The old one. Yeah, the really screwed up, weird one.


Rikki said...

Interesting take to compare two adaptations of one book. I can't really comment on what you said because I have neither read the book nor seen any of the two films. It seems, you are a pretty bad enabler, though, ;-).

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Rikki - Well... we all have our faults, I suppose ;)

Mish said...

I love both versions for their own merits. Depending on my mood, I'll pick Wilder or Depp from my shelf to watch. I think I still have a scratchy vhs copy of Return to Oz floating around somewhere. I can't remember if I've seen the old hard-to-find Dune, but liked the new one. I'm not fond enough of Herbert's writing to read the first three Dune books, but after watching Children of Dune I'd like to read the fourth so I can find out what happens.

Jason Gignac said...

I loved Return to Oz. I still have dreams, sometimes, about the insane asylum, or the lady who switches her head out every day, or the scene where she sees Ozma in the mirror...

I'll have to watch the new Dune movies someday, I suppose. The old one was directed by David Lynch. You know. Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive David Lynch. So it's odd.

Mish said...

If I have seen the old Dune, it was long long ago.

The crazy wheelers! Hmm, I might have to find and watch Return to Oz.