A look back at one of Gene Wilder’s most memorable roles, in a film that is as much about technology as it is about childhood
The lesson you learn right away, when you are a small child who has devoured a heap of Roald Dahl books, is that childhood is dark and dangerous—and yet still an adventure worth taking. In Dahl’s simultaneously sinister and gloriumptious worlds, to use one of his many invented adjectives, breaking the rules can yield both great rewards and terrible punishment.
Navigating this not-always-straightforward relationship between what people deserve and what they get is part of growing up. It’s also a central theme in one of Dahl’s most beloved books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and an idea explored thoroughly by Willy Wonka, the quirky candy maker at the center of the story.
Gene Wilder, in his outstanding portrayal of Wonka in the 1971 adaptation of Dahl’s 1964 tale, captures this theme by oscillating between sincerity and deadpan sarcasm with unnerving grace. Wilder, who died Monday morning at age 83, was so well suited for the role that his Wonka seems to have sprung to the silver screen directly from Dahl’s mind. (It’s somewhat disorienting, then, to return to Dahl’s physical description of Wonka as a little man with a black goatee and quick squirrel-like movements—none of which is evident in Wilder’s portrayal—though Wilder exactly fits Dahl’s version of a Wonka with blue eyes “marvelously bright... sparkling and twinkling at the same time.”)