Wednesday, 13 June 2012

LETTERS OF NOTE: Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka

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Another sweet something to chew over courtesy of Letters of Note. Although, being as it's about Willy Wonka, it may be an everlasting gobstopper, and therefore you definitely shouldn't chew.

When director Mel Stuart cast Gene Wilder as the title role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wilder was keen to put a personal stamp on the role. He accepted the role on the condition that he could enter his way, hobbling with a cane only to do a somersault in front of Charlie and the other children. The only other example I can recall of an actor insisting so meticulously upon an entrance was Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. He apparently requested that Jonathan Demme have Hannibal Lector stand silently in the centre of the cell, waiting for Clarice Starling. When asked why, he replied: "Because I can smell her coming down the corridor." [shudders]
Having got his way with his big entrance, Wilder set about making Wonka his own by sending detailed letters to Stuart about every aspect of production. Here, for example, is the letter in which he gives feedback about the costume designs.

And here's an interesting morsel that Letters of Note missed out on. Roald Dahl originally wanted Spike Milligan to play Willy Wonka, and it was Stuart's refusal which eventually to Dahl disowning the film and forbidding any future adaptations of either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or its sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. This embargo stayed in place until the Dahl estate allowed Tim Burton to make Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005 - and for the record, it's far better than the original.
By the way, if you want a fair idea of how Spike would have done Wonka, you're probably best to check out his performance in British cult oddity The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). You can read my review here or listen to the first-ever Movie Hour podcast here - the choice is yours.

Daniel

4 comments:

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!!! CATCF is no way near as good as WWATCF. For one thing, the music is timeless in the original. Further argumentation has already been fully expedited by the Nostalgia Critic guy (find his comparison video on YouTube). Wilder's portrayal will be the defining one for years down the line I feel.

It's the superior film because it's more cinematic and is miles closer to Dahl's dark vision, both in terms of the ultra-creepy, plastic visuals (cf. Nicolas Roeg's The Witches) and the themes of selfishness and excess. The music in the original is half-decent but it's essentially a glorified TV movie with nearly all the rough edges taken off it. If the whole film had been like the tunnel sequence, it would have been infinitely improved.

Me and Jamie randomly came across the film version of The Witches a few weeks ago and could only watch about half an hour of it. Really badly paced movie, reliant on bringing in Rowan Atkinson for some cheap laughs and then just randomly including its own Odessa Steps sequence. If anything, that film came across as a made-for-TV movie.

I used to have The Witches on audiobook as a kid - when you had to imagine all the scenes it was was ten times scarier. That can be a problem if you don't adapt a book which is heavily reliant on painting weird and wonderful pictures in some way for a screenplay.

WWATCF may not be the closest to what Dahl imagined in his book, but it is very well adapted for the screen and Bricuss and Newley's music is timeless. It also manages to balance the weirder elements (e.g. the boat scene) with more family-friendly elements. CATCH lacks the kind of charm which can make people of any generation appreciate the original.

Finally, to be frank, I'm getting fed up of any film reliant on in-your-face computer visuals. Even today they continue to look fake and they just become a way to hide a poor script. There's more of a charm to films of the past that couldn't do everything with industrial light and magic, making them more inventive and better written.

It's been a while since I've seen The Witches but I don't remember it being poorly paced. I know that Roeg's hands were tied by the studios to put in a happy ending (to which I object), but otherwise it's one of the better Dahl adaptations (though I need to see it again). Besides, even with Rowan Atkinson in the equation it does better on that front than Never Say Never Again, which (a) doesn't utilise Atkinson properly, and (b) looks in places like a straight-to-video erotic thriller, let alone a TV movie.

I completely understand where you're coming from in terms of the imagination being scarier than the visual representation thereof. There is something to be said for physicalising horror if it is symbolic (The Fly, for instance), but in general I agree with you.

I can see where you're coming from, insofar as some of the best 'adaptations' bear only a fleeting resemblance to the source material - From Russia With Love, for instance, is one of the best Bond films but has no real resemblance to the novel. But I was charmed by CATCF - can't help it but I was. WWATCF just felt horribly flat and not dark enough, so that while CATCF has some flaws (the songs aren't produced all that well) that's the version I gravitate towards. It has more to say and is closer to the Dahl spirit of "oh that's gross but I love it", while the original is a generic family film that just happens to have Dahl somewhere in it.

While I think your point about the physicality of effects is a good one (and a familiar one), I would just sound a note of caution about using that as an excuse for unchecked nostalgia. Then again, you know better than that :P

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