I am not normally one for summer blockbuster type movies, but the summer of '05 featured adaptations of two beloved books of my childhood so I knew I was going to have to see them as soon as I could do so without actually, like, interacting with people.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, however, was a disappointment. It was basically just a rehash of jokes I first encountered when I was eleven years old and have since read many times over. This time I was hearing them aloud, but... I dunno, I guess they don't really work aloud, despite having originally been written for radio scripts. Or at least, they don't work here. I sat through the entire thing and didn't laugh once, neither at the parts I knew by heart from the books nor at the unfunny new material that was grafted on. Nor was my heart warmed by the the seriously dubious love plot between Arthur and Trillian. On the other hand, at least it gave Trillian something to do. One problem with the Hitchhiker's series is that it doesn't really have the greatest mix of characters: it starts with a very solid core of Arthur the nebbishy guy and Ford the zany guy, but then Zaphod shows up as a still zanier guy who makes Ford redundant, and Trillian is a total cipher because, as he admitted in the biography that Neil Gaiman wrote, Douglas Adams didn't really get girls.

The main value added of a Guide movie is the opportunity to actually see the Vogons and the Heart of Gold and so forth, but this seems to me to be missing the point. Hitchhiker's and its sequels are not about what things look like. They're about the way Adams describes things. "The ships hung in the sky much the way that bricks don't." (I can't tell you how many people have tried to rip off that line for Lyttle Lytton.) Turning Hitchhiker's into a movie buries the strengths of the source material and highlights the flaws. Or at least it did this time.

I figured that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be similarly disappointing, since the book had been my favorite for a few years when I was very small (so how could any movie measure up?) and the last time I tried to watch the 1971 adaptation I'd had enough after maybe twenty minutes or so and turned it off (so there was already a track record of failure here). Also, I find Tim Burton to be very hit-or-miss. I love some of his stuff (eg, Ed Wood) but a lot of it leaves me cold (the Batman movies kinda sucked, and ten minutes of Mars Attacks was enough to put me off Burton for a decade). Well, chalk another one up on the hit column. This movie was wonderful!

First off, it's extremely faithful to the book. The 1971 movie was a loose adaptation; this one, with only a few exceptions, follows the book chapter by chapter and leaves great swaths of dialogue intact. (Good thing, too, since the only reason I had any idea what the Oompa-Loompas were singing was that I knew the songs in the book more or less by heart.) The pacing is right on, perfectly in sync with the book's. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really is, to a great extent, less an adaptation than it is the book come to life.

And unlike Hitchhiker's, it gains more than it loses in the process. Unlike Douglas Adams's, Roald Dahl's strengths weren't in dialogue that reads well on the page but not aloud, nor in the way the descriptions are written — as I recall, a lot of the prose was essentially handwaving about how marvelous everything was. There are, it seems to me, three reasons the book is a classic:

One is simply the idea of a gargantuan, impossible candy factory. Burton's great with phantasmagoric visuals; the wonder of the factory comes through on the screen as well as or better than it did on the page. You can protest that no, the factory in this movie paled in comparison to the one in your imagination, but I would submit that if that is the case, that has more to do with you than with anything Dahl wrote. I would further suggest that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory first appeared as a book not because any aspect of it was uniquely suited to prose, but rather because Dahl was a writer rather than a filmmaker, and because computer-generated imagery was not very advanced in 1964.

Then we have the beastly children and the great relish the rather sadistic Dahl took in giving them their just deserts. The success of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hinges to a great extent on the kids, and the kids in this movie are great. As noted by many reviewers, they seem to have been given the "Black Hole Sun" treatment, their features given a little CGI boost, but all the special effects in the world wouldn't help if the kids didn't do such a good job incarnating the characters from the book. Two of them — Violet Beauregard and Mike Teavee — have been updated, and the changes are actually a great improvement; Mike in particular is a surprisingly deep portrait of the very intelligent but sneeringly dismissive and actually rather psychopathic boys that populate the nation's honors classes. Very good acting by Jordan Fry there. Augustus doesn't have much to do other than be a pig and get knocked off, but Charlie is appealing, and the two girls are both perfectly horrible and absolutely adorable. Whoever conducted the talent search for this movie earned their pay.

Finally, there is of course Willy Wonka himself. He is also not quite the same fellow as in the book, and again it's an improvement. The Willy Wonka of the book was a twinkly man-child who was always ten steps ahead of everyone else and whose paranoia and authoritarian streak were wholly endorsed by the author. (The book concludes with Wonka explaining that he wanted to recruit a child because an adult might have — gasp — independent ideas.) The Willy Wonka played by Johnny Depp in this movie is a different creature: jumpy and uncomfortable in his own skin, forced to resort to note cards when flustered, unable to relate to either adults or children. It's a different vibe and leads to a few exchanges that aren't in the book, but unlike in Hitchhiker's, most of the new stuff works. I found myself giggling pretty much the entire time Depp was onscreen — all the reviewers who said his performance brought down the movie can bite me. ("Even I'm eatable!")

The least successful change is that Wonka has been given a backstory that establishes that his mania for candy is a rebellion against a strict dentist father, which culminates in a heavy-handed ending in which Wonka learns the importance of family. I'm pretty much in Wonka's shoes here, myself: I'm sufficiently estranged from my family that I still haven't been able to bring myself to answer my mother's email asking for my new phone number and address. One of the problems I've found myself running into with my new book is that it deals with a generation that's been overparented, but my first instinct when coming up with characters is to get the parents out of the picture as quickly as possible. (It's probably not too surprising that said characters often end up becoming Wonka-like recluses — or at least, the ones I can relate to do.) But that doesn't mean that I'm against family as a concept: the main trauma of my breakup with Jen isn't the rejection or loss of affection so much as the fact that she and the cats were my entire family and now I don't have anyone to come home to. But that was a family I chose, not one that I just happened to be born into. (Of course, in the movie, Wonka's reconciliation with his father is fairly perfunctory, and the real payoff is that he is more or less adopted by Charlie's. But I haven't found myself any more at home around Jen's family, or those of any of my friends, than around my own, so.)

Anyway, despite the rather dismal turn this writeup has taken, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a very pleasant surprise and I really enjoyed it. I shake everyone involved warmly by the hand!

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