May 2003

Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
(L.A. Weekly Books, 144 pages, $29.95)
By Mel Stuart and Josh Young

Upon the King! Let us our lives, Our souls, our debts, our careful wives, Our children, and our sins lay on the King.

The quote from Shakespeare's Henry V sums up Mel Stuart's "interpretation of a director's responsibility ... if anything goes wrong in a movie, there is only one man who takes the ultimate blame ... it's a fair bargain, because as a director you are able to fulfill your vision and create this two-hour world as you see it."

Thirty-two years after Stuart's vision of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) was released, the film continues to grow in popularity through television, videos, DVDs and websites. Stuart writes that though he has been a filmmaker for more than 40 years, Wonka "is the one work that has reached out to and been embraced by an enormous audience."

Unlike most "making of" film books, Pure Imagination is straight from the maker's mouth, offering the intimacy of a director's own viewpoint. It's an excellent model for such books, striking a pleasant balance between the details of filmmaking processes described in orderly chapters — "Page to Screen," "Casting," "Shooting the Movie," etc. — and the exuberance of a family scrapbook.

And family is where it all began. In the fall of 1969, Stuart's then 12-year-old daughter, Madeleine, who had read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory three times, asked Daddy to make the book into a movie. And to have "Uncle" Dave sell it — meaning Stuart's close friend, producer David L. Wolper, with whom Stuart began his directing career.

The novel presents "the world of the impoverished, good-hearted Charlie Bucket" and his hungry family. Near their home looms Willy Wonka's mysterious chocolate factory, wafting its "heavenly fumes" Charlie's way. When the secretive Wonka announces that he has wrapped five Golden Tickets inside his candy bars, granting their lucky finders a tour of his factory, a world-wide stampede for the tickets is on.

Charlie gets to go but the other four young "winners" are gluttonous, spoiled, self-absorbed and TV-obsessed. It was "a perfect alignment of four deadly childhood sins — that result in macabre consequences — for movie audiences to enjoy." As Wonka, with his offbeat ways of dressing, moving and speaking, takes the kids for a boat ride on his chocolate river or lets them sample his "lickable wallpaper," we definitely know we're not in Kansas anymore.

At first the idea of Stuart, the realistic documentarian, filming such a surreal story did not seem like "a natural match ... " However, he was "fascinated by the bizarre and amusing way a simple moral thesis was set forth — virtue was rewarded and nastiness punished."

Pure Imagination chronicles Stuart's determination to deliver "an adult film that can also be enjoyed by children." We see how Wonka operates on many levels: it's full of literary allusions — a pleasure to see some listed here — and offers an entertaining lesson because its "punishments" are self-generated. Its "evil spirits are not goblins or wizards, but the character flaws in the participants themselves."

Stuart rejected the use of animation and says that even if computer-generated effects had been available to him in 1970, he wouldn't have wanted them. A "sensitivity to racial issues" resulted in turning the Oompa-Loompas — the candy-making elves that were originally black — into orange-faced, green-haired fellows. The title was changed because "'Charlie' was a black expression that was a pejorative term for a white overseer." Since Stuart felt that "the dramatic essence of the movie revolved around Willy Wonka ... Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would be all to the good." (With Gene Wilder's brilliant, quirky star turn as Wonka, could it be otherwise?)

There are more than 100 photographs, mostly color, mostly never before seen, original set design sketches and delightful trivia. While its pages aren't "lickable," Pure Imagination is your Golden Ticket to increase appreciation for a delicious film.."

Review written by Lisa Mitchell


The best of new publications by, for, and about directors, their teams and the industry.

More from this topic