Roald Dahl was one of the most inspirational children’s authors of the last century, yet we can’t stop tampering with his magic. Earlier this year, his publisher Puffin caused outrage by releasing expurgated versions of his books, removing words such as “fat” and “ugly”, and editing out a reference to Rudyard Kipling – all of which were deemed unpalatable to the modern child. (Who is presumably supposed to know that Kipling was an imperialist.)
Now come a film and its novelisation, both titled Wonka and telling the story of how Willy Wonka grew up to become the man we meet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “the world’s greatest inventor, magician and chocolate-maker”. This time, if they pick up the novel, the sensitivity readers won’t find much to worry about.
In Dahl’s 1964 story, Wonka was a complex figure who showed little remorse when his chocolate river swallowed Augustus Gloop, or when his squirrels threw Veruca Salt down a rubbish chute. But in Wonka, by the accomplished children’s writer Sibéal Pounder, the emphasis is firmly on the hero’s nice character. We meet him as the dreamy child of a single mother, growing up on “the world’s smallest boat”: “Not many people would see their life as grand… but Willy Wonka did. He could see what others couldn’t because he had the most wonderful imagination.”
Fast-forward seven years, and the young Wonka arrives in a fictional city where, after giving away his sovereigns to those even poorer than himself, he tries to fulfil his lifelong dream of opening a chocolate shop. But can he overcome a cartel of villainous chocolatiers, with a chocoholic Chief of Police in their pay? (“We want you to send Wonka a MESSAGE… Backed up by physical force!”)
Dahl was an ingenious writer, whose combination of wild invention and emotional resonance has inspired countless imitators – many of whom fall flat. Pounder comes up with some deft Dahlesque touches – “Cockle warming is extra,” warns Wonka’s grotesque landlady Mrs Scrubitt, charging him for standing in front of the fire – and spins out the story as well as anyone might.
But the problem with Wonka is that it has no real author, for Pounder’s task was to create a novel out of the screenplay for the musical film, which was written by Simon Farnaby and Paul King. The result is a piece of slick, cinematic storytelling, in which you sense that everyone is about to burst into song. “Every good thing in this world started with a dream. So you hold on to yours. And when you do share your chocolate with the world, I’ll be right there beside you,”’ Wonka’s mother tells him, in the sort of dialogue that surely needs a musical score.
Young readers will find much to enjoy in Wonka: it’s a pacy adventure, told in Pounder’s reliably readable prose. But fans of Dahl’s original masterpiece will be left with the taste of slightly cheap chocolate.
Wonka is published by Puffin at £7.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books