Favorite Fictional Characters, #158: Willy Wonka
First, let's acknowledge Roald Dahl for the twisted, beautiful creative genius he was. He is best known for his off-center children's stories, though he also had a successful career writing darkly comic adult fiction as well. He was influenced by his WWII experiences in the Royal Air Force, as well as by his mother's telling of stories from her Norwegian heritage. I've read some Norwegian fairy tales, and they are horrifying, funny, and unsettling. You can see the connection. Dahl's most famous work is likely Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (though James and the Giant Peach is right there, and his catalog hardly stops there), and his most enduring character is that of Willy Wonka.
Wonka is a brilliant innovator, a recluse, and a borderline sociopath. He is something of an enigma in Dahl's book (and in the 1971 film adaptation - the only one worth discussing), and mercurial, swerving from expansive bonhomie to shrill wrath to eerie contemplation. As in much of Dahl's work, the action is centered on the child, in this case Charlie Bucket, while most adults are portrayed as narrow-minded, or outright villainous. Wonka is the great exception, mostly because he remains a man-child, immature and capricious. When it came time for the 1971 film, Dahl was engaged to adapt his book into a screenplay, but he proved unable to meet deadlines, and so the project moved into other hands. The eventual product emphasized Wonka (in no small measure for the lucrative candy cross-merchandising), which enraged Dahl, who felt the heart of the story was with Charlie.
The great serendipity was the casting of Gene Wilder as Wonka. Many wanted the role, and many were considered for it, including John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Fred Astaire. It's hard now to imagine anyone other than Wilder inhabiting the melancholy, kinetic candymaker. His performance illuminates Wonka as gifted and lonely, strange and yet sympathetic. It's a bravura effort by Wilder, indelible for its whimsy and its weirdness, including perhaps the most unnerving sequence in any family film, the still-creepy tunnel scene. The world of pure imagination is a frightening place.
You would have thought Johnny Depp a worthy heir to the role. You would have been wrong. Despite another Hollywood high-budget, low-skill reboot, and even despite Dahl's protests, Gene Wilder is perfect as Willy Wonka.