Why Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a beloved children’s film, portrays a darker side of humanity than Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic action film.
First, plot summaries:
In the film Snowpiercer, a band of caboose-dwelling “Scum” fight their way towards the engine room of a train, which contains all of the humans left alive, as it hurdles through a frozen post-apocalyptic wasteland. One by one, in surprising and gruesome ways, the revolutionaries are killed off by the inhabitants of the other cars. The hero Curtis Everett and a drug-addicted security officer named Namgoong Minsu along with his clairvoyant daughter Yona, are the only members of the original group to survive the trip to the engine room of the train. In the last scenes of the movie Everett discovers that his escape from the caboose was manufactured by the train’s leader and engineer Wilford. Wilford confesses to Everett that he allowed the uprising to happen as a method of controlling the train’s population; in order to justify the murder of most of the remaining Scum, he manufactured a revolt. This is a decision based on the idea of maintaining “balance and order” and protecting the train as a whole. He then asks Everett to be the inheritor of the engine, and thereby the leader and ruler of the train. Everett turns down this offer after he discovers that Wilford has been using child labor in the engine room—kidnapping Scum children and turning them into brainwashed, industrial robots. Soon after, the train derails and explodes; Yona and Timmy, a kidnapped Scum child from the rear section, escape into the tundra. The ending is hopeful when the children see a polar bear on the horizon.
In the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, five children win a lottery to take a tour of the mysterious chocolate factory, only to be nearly killed one by one. Each child, except for the hero Charlie, represents a different vice including greed, gluttony, and ambition. And each child falls victim to their own desires by shrinking, by falling down an incineration shaft, by being swept away in a river of chocolate, or by blowing up into a grotesque, juicy ball. As each child and their guardians fall by the wayside, Charlie becomes the only child left standing. He then discovers that the whole scenario was a test designed by Wonka to produce the next rightful heir to Wonka’s chocolate empire. Wonka wants a child as his heir because he needs someone “trustworthy to take care of the Oompa Loompas.” Unlike Everett, Charlie agrees to Wonka’s offer to take over the factory. Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and Wonka all get into a glass elevator that explodes through the roof of the factory and hurdles them into outer space. It is unclear how they ever come back down.
Is it just me or are there some obvious similarities between these two films and their storylines? Let’s discuss!
But before I talk more about the plots, I’d also like to point out that there are also several parallel themes in both films. For example, both films touch on our industrialized food system with echoes of The Jungle and Soylent Green. Both films wrestle with ideas of class structure and the decadence and greed of those in power and of mass culture. Both grapple with ideas of addiction (to industrially-processed sugar in Willy Wonka, the only substance that can lift Charlie out of his impoverished misery, and to Kronole, an addictive industrial byproduct in Snowpiercer). Both stories have a hero that is morally fallible but essentially good. Both are about male journeys towards reconciliation with a father figure.
That being said, for brevity’s sake, let’s just talk about basic plot structure: both stories are set up in such a way as to maximize surprise and suspense. What lies ahead in each subsequent train car or factory chamber is unknown to the viewers and this adds to the suspense. Also, at each films’ start we know next to nothing about Wilford or Wonka. Both are mythical leaders shrouded in mystery. Both control great industrial icons: the factory and the train engine. No one knows the secret to their technology or success, thus they have great power over their enemies and subordinates. The engine in Snowpiercer is referred to as the “sacred engine.” And the candy produced in Wonka’s factory has unique and magical qualities to it.
Wonka’s secret to success turns out to be the Oompa Loompas, a group of people “rescued” from assumed eventual starvation in their homeland to work as laborers in Wonka’s factory. No one in the surrounding town has ever seen any workers coming in or going out of the chocolate factory. This is because the Oompa Loompas, according to their protector and exploiter Wonka, are too small and fragile to live outside of the controlled environment of the factory and are simultaneously too naïve and childlike to betray Wonka’s candy-making secrets to his competitors. Wonka is a smart business man; he simply fired all his British workers and brought in foreign labor. In the book and movie, the Oompa Loompas are described in childlike terms, making Wonka out to be benevolent or paternalistic, whichever you prefer.
In Snowpiercer, the great reveal is that Wilford has been kidnapping the Scum’s small children to be used as replacement parts in the engine room. This plot twist is a definite comment on class structure and industrialism. From the beginning of the industrial revolution, children were (and still are) used in factories to perform menial, repetitive tasks because they are small, dexterous, easy to control, and ultimately voiceless. There is a strong parallel between the exploited children in Snowpiercer and the exploited Oompa Loompas.
In the final scenes of both movies, Wilford and Wonka offer the heroes of the films the keys to the kingdom / a devil’s bargain. Charlie accepts. Everett does not. The difference here is that, unlike Everett, Charlie is a child and Wonka represents a father figure to Charlie. (In the film, Charlie’s father is dead. In the book, he is unemployed.) Furthermore, in the moral universe that the film creates, we are made to see Veruca Salt, etc., as morally bankrupt and decadent, while Charlie is pure and essentially good. And while Wonka is mischievous, cunning, and a savvy capitalist, we are meant to believe he is also basically good. So we can understand why Charlie makes the decision to take over Wonka’s empire; Charlie is the child-adult in his family. He has four elderly grandparents and his mother to think of. Who wouldn’t make the same decision if given the opportunity? He becomes a man, insofar as this is defined as being a worker or a capitalist, in this scene. Becoming a candy maker is a fulfillment of Charlie’s capitalist fantasies and also a coming-of-age moment.
In contrast, Everett is already an adult. In a strange scene immediately preceding his encounter with Wilford, he confesses to Namgoong about his experience with cannibalism, specifically that he “knows what babies taste like.” So it makes sense that when he is confronted with the child labor that is built into the train’s operation that he’s compelled to refuse Wilford’s offer. Everett and the viewers realize at this juncture that the whole operation is dependent on a kind of child-cannibalism. Everett is not willing to make this compromise a second time. It’s a strange parallel to make that, while Everett is an adult, the Wilford character is still paternalistic towards him and treats him like a prodigal son. However, Everett rejects the Wilford father figure because he wants to protect the children instead, which is an adult’s true role. So in a way, Snowpiercer is a coming-of-age story as well. Everett becomes an adult when he decides to make the right decision and refuse Wilford’s corrupting offer.
Everett’s confession of cannibalism mirrors the Charlie character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; both protagonists are imperfect, as we like them to be in film, and both have made errors due to the circumstances of their oppression. Charlie is tempted to betray Wonka in exchange for money from the “candy spy” and he and Grandpa Joe disobey Wonka’s orders and consume the Fizzy Lifting Drink. We can forgive both of these characters their shortcomings due to their respective disadvantages. However, when Charlie “does the right thing” in the Chocolate Factory, that right thing is the giving of Wonka’s intellectual property, the Everlasting Gobstopper*, back to the industrialist.
So in a way, although he makes a decision that on the surface seems to be the right one, Charlie ultimately makes a less moral choice than Everett. He chooses to take a seat of power for the benefit of his own family instead of sacrificing himself for the benefit of the exploited Oompa Loompas, all of those addicted to industrialized sugar, and the victims of class struggle. Unlike Everett and Namgoong, who martyr themselves for the greater good, Charlie takes on the mantle of capitalism and maintaining the status quo. I feel strange saying it, but for all its violence and dark themes, it turns out that Snowpiercer is in fact the film with the true happy ending.
Meanwhile, what Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory says is that those in power deserve their power. Everybody else? Well, they’re just jealous Slugworths and gluttonous Gloops.
*In my research for this essay, I discovered that the filmmakers changed the name of Dahl’s story from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory because they knew it would help with marketing the “Wonka Bar” and other products. The film has always been about how wonderful and alluring sugar is.