How Roald Dahl nearly disowned Willy Wonka

For a while the Welshman genuinely considered campaigning against the film.

Roald Dahl and Gene Wilder

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is the much-loved adaptation of Roald Dahl’s character. But Dahl himself wasn’t a fan at all…

Dahl (left) pictured on set with Gene Wilder, who played Willy Wonka in the 1971 film

There’s a common assumption that two films have been made of Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s book, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. That tends to gloss over the fact that there’s – genuinely – an animated story involving cartoon legends Tom & Jerry, but for the purposes of this story, we inevitably centre on the pair of big live action adaptations. 

The one that the Roald Dahl estate approves of? That’d be Tim Burton’s bland 2005 venture Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, an enormous hit that saw Johnny Depp play the character of Willy Wonka as merely a kooky guy with a hat.


The one that most of us gravitate to though is, rightly, 1971’s dark, unforgettable, far more interesting Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Over time, it’s a film that’s become a much-loved family favourite, notwithstanding the terrifying bit when Gene Wilder as Wonka goes through a tunnel and indelibly leaves nightmarish images in the heads of its impressionable young audience.

But chief amongst those who weren’t keen on the movie was Roald Dahl himself.

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Things hadn’t got off to the best of starts when the title of the story was changed for the movie. This came about following accusations levelled against the novel itself. First published in 1964, there was pushback against it over the depiction of the Oompa Loompas in the story from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement Of Coloured People).

The argument was that in their original depiction, they’d reinforced racial stereotypes, and to distance the film project from the book a little, changes were made to the Oompa Loompas for the screen, and the title was altered (so as not to promote the book itself). 

Changes were made to the depiction of the Oompa Loompas after some readers of the original novel complained they reinforced racial stereotypes

But it was the start of a whole series of disagreements over the production, which had unusual foundations anyway. After all, the film rights weren’t actually sold to a traditional movie studio, but to the Quaker Oats Company. The thinking being that it could launch a new chocolate bar, that’d in theory become a huge seller off the back of the hoped-for success of the film. Yep, the film got a greenlight as effectively a promotional tool.

Still, Dahl was initially involved, with producer David Wolper – best known at this stage for documentaries (William Friedkin, for one, got his big break making films for Wolper) – agreeing that the author could write the screenplay. The pair also agreed that it should be a musical feature, and Mel Stuart – whose daughter urged her dad to make the film having loved the book – was hired to direct.

Julie Dawn Cole, Roy Kinnear, Denise Nickerson, Leonard Stone, Ursula Reit, Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Paris Themmen, and Michael Bollner at the top of a staircase in a scene from the film ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’, directed by Mel Stuart, 1971. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

Things begin to sour…

It didn’t take long for all this to go wrong. Wolper would bring in another writer, an inexperienced scribe by the name of David Seltzer, to rework the screenplay when Dahl was running behind schedule on it. Furthermore, Dahl’s casting suggestion for the role of Willy Wonka was rejected. The author wanted Spike Milligan, the filmmakers eventually settled on Gene Wilder (the story goes that Peter Sellers had rung Dahl too to beg for the role, but it turned out it wasn’t Dahl’s role to give when it came to the screen version). It was a decision that the author was never at ease with.

As filming got underway in West Germany, Dahl grew more distant from the film. He’d pocketed a $300,000 fee for his involvement, but his suggestions were being sidelined, and – as Donald Sturrock’s biography Storyteller tells – he for a while genuinely considered campaigning against the film. He felt so strongly against it, that he wasn’t shy about potentially saying so. At the very least, it’d certainly sow seeds of distrust for the movie industry, that he’d hold for the rest of his life (accounting for the sparse collection of high profile movies based around his books while he was alive).

Dahl for a while genuinely considered campaigning against the film.

By the time Roald Dahl got to see the finished movie, he wasn’t much happier either. Amongst his list of complaints? That he found Gene Wilder “pretentious” in the role of Wonka for a start. He also tried to slice out the song ‘The Candyman’ from the final cut of the movie, and it’d be fair to say he absolutely wasn’t a fan of that bit. Furthermore, there was little love lost for Mel Stuart (a man Dahl argued had “no talent or flair whatsoever”), and the script changes from David Seltzer he said had robbed the story of some of its original bite. None of these made it to the post, surprisingly.

What’s often forgotten too is there were hardly queues around the block when the movie debuted in cinemas, to the point where it was a significant financial disappointment on its initial release. Quaker did not sell that many of its Wonka bars.

The original promotional Wonka Bars now sell at auction for £3,000 a pop


In fact, it took some time to find its audience, and it was television that transformed its fortunes. It’d take a few years to get its small screen debut, but it found a lot more eyeballs when it finally debuted on US TV. This, in turn, bolstered interest in the book, leading to an increase in sales for it, much to Dahl’s benefit. Going back to Sturrock’s biography, he notes in that how Dahl’s mood towards the film softened as more and more people warmed to it, edging it towards classic status. But that mood never fully turned. In a killer line, Sturrock writes “he never liked it. Even after it was acknowledged as a classic, he would dismiss it as ‘crummy’”. 

Any plans to film the follow-up, Charlie & The Great Glass Elevator – a movie set up at the end of the 1971 flick – were quietly buried, sent down the chute with the rest of the bad eggs.

15th April 1964: American actor Patricia Neal smiles with husband Roald Dahl and two of their children outside their farmhouse. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s worth noting that Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory – whilst very much loved – is far from a faithful adaptation of the original text. Yet Wilder’s depiction of Wonka is still seen as the definitive screen take on the character, and side by side with Depp’s attempts over 30 years later, there’s little competition. Still, next up to have a go is Timothee Chalamet, who’ll be playing Willy Wonka for Paddington director Paul King in an upcoming prequel film.

He’s got very big shoes to fill. Still, it’s also testament to the Dahl estate gradually relaxing a little, with a new film of Matilda also on the way. 

For Dahl himself though, who passed away in November 1990, he would never write another movie again, and would very much stick to his books…

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