Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: will it work as a musical?

So Charlie, Willy Wonka, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee, Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop (the "great, big, greedy nincompoop") are about to arrive at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane, in a musical version of Roald Dahl's bestselling childrens' novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The tale of impoverished, chocolate-loving Charlie Bucket, whose miraculous acquisition of a precious golden ticket results in a tour of history's greatest ever chocolate factory, opens next week.

Since the book's publication in 1964 (1967 in the UK) there have been two film versions (one in 1971 and another, by Tim Burton in 2005), a radio adaptation, two videogames, several other musicals and a light opera last year in the US, called The Golden Ticket.

Dahl hated the 1971 film. He hated changes director Mel Stuart had made to Dahl's script, which he felt "weakened a lot of the bite". He hated the way it went for subtle, knowing, adult laughs instead of childlike revelry – and above all, he hated Gene Wilder as Wonka. Dahl had wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers for the role, their creative instincts and talents so wholly in the spirit of his eccentric, anarchic inventor. A tantalising prospect indeed, though perhaps pipped at the post by another tormenting if-only; what might have happened if Dahl had managed to get the illustrator he wanted for the book – a young man called Maurice Sendak? Ah, well.

Dahl died in 1990, so director Sam Mendes and adapter David Greig will not have to face the author's criticisms. Though it may be that they would both prefer that to the burden of doing justice to a beloved author's legacy in which everyone over the age of eight around the world feel they have some tiny stake.

The fealty of generations to the work is just one of the things that make adaptations of children's books such tricky propositions. With an author such as Dahl there has also, historically, been the instinct to soften the blows. "The good end happily and the bad unhappily," said Oscar Wilde. "That is what fiction means."

Dahl, however, has idiosyncratic visions of who the good and bad are – and, even more, of what constitutes a happy ending. Chicken thieves and pheasant-poachers get to live out their days in peace and plenty, while relatively minor crimes like gum-chewing and television watching is – because it was so hated by Dahl - punished by perpetrators being swollen, shrunk, squeezed, stretched and sent down rubbish chutes. A hero can end up as a mouse forevermore, his reward lying only in the fact that he will therefore die at about the same time as his beloved grandmother. This upsets adults, who know the rules and don't like to see them broken.

In addition, Dahl has always attracted criticism – from educators and academics rather than parents or the child readers themselves – for what they see as pandering to children's baser instincts for destruction, vengeance and bum jokes, and he is often mentioned in the same breath as Enid Blyton as guilty of ruining children for better, more sophisticated fare. The critic John Rowe Townsend, in his survey of children's literature Written for Children likened Charlie to "a thick, rich, glutinous candy bar … which children are all too likely to enjoy but which we need not urge them to consume." Writer Eleanor Cameron compared Dahl's books to film director Cecil B DeMille's epics, juvenile equivalents of the filmmaker's "blood, orgies and tortures to titillate the masses". Freudian critics have always damned Dahl and his "infantile urges", and Charlie itself stands condemned as "a text marked by strong anality" – the chocolate factory functioning as a massive digestive system into which the "orally greedy" are sucked up or pushed into and … Well, anyway. It's one way to look at things.

But such criticism, along with the glorious creative possibilities offered by the chance to bring an entire chocolate factory – chocolate river, glass pipes, squirrel shelling room, the Great Gum Machine, edible meadows and all – to life, must inevitably tempt those adapting the book to blunt Dahl's edges and lighten his shadows. Moreover, the book's audience is younger than those for other recent adaptations of children's books, such as His Dark Materials, War Horse and the later Harry Potter films.

Our feelings about what children can and should be exposed to, then, are fluctuating and complicated. We may know from personal experience that even the smallest children are, individually, robust little reactionaries who like nothing more than seeing justice done – the swifter and more summarily, stickily and squelchily the better – but collectively, we see them as innocents to be protected from as much of the darkness of this world as possible for as long as possible.

It was Dahl's genius to think of children as individuals, and dole out their delights in ever wittier and more inventive form without ever losing sight of their vulnerability. Whether Mendes and his team will manage to sate children's appetite for summary justice without descending into outright barbarism – and whether he will manage to walk the line separating playful exaggeration from monstrousness as naturally as Dahl does on the page – we will soon see. Meanwhile, the book, in all its lavish indulgence and invective, its sweetness and its steel, will endure. It is the Everlasting Gobstopper of children's books.

Powered by article was written by Lucy Mangan, for on Thursday 20th June 2013 14.24 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © John Loo