Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Was Originally Written as a ‘Little Black Boy’

BOOKS

Charlie Bucket, the hero of Roald Dahl’s famous book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was originally written to be a “little black boy,” according to Felicity Dahl, the author’s widow. (NPR)

Why does diversity in children’s literature make a difference?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit, including great media literacy guides from our partners.

Behold a golden ticket and Wonka chocolate bars from the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Photograph by Pablo RM, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-2.0

Discussion Ideas

  • Who is Charlie Bucket?
    • Charlie Bucket is the hero and main character in Roald Dahl’s books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972). Dahl planned to write a third book, but did not finish it before he died in 1990. The books are generally appropriate for ages 8-12 or grades 3-7.
    • Charlie is an exceedingly poor, exceedingly kind boy who lives with his parents and grandparents. He wins a “golden ticket” to tour the fantastical—and phantasmagorical—factory of confectioner Willy Wonka. Hijinks ensue.

 

 

 

  • Some critics consider the change in Charlie’s character an example of “whitewashing,” the decision to write white characters or actors in traditionally non-white roles. Can you think of other examples of “whitewashing” characters of color?
    • Whitewashing, sometimes called “racebending” or “racelifting,” generally falls into two categories: White actors playing characters of color and characters of color rewritten as white. (The Charlie change falls into the second category.)
      • Classic film is full of white actors playing characters of color: John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, Natalie Wood as Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, in West Side Story, Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal of Iraq in Lawrence of Arabia
        • Contemporary examples might include Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl, who is of mixed-race heritage, in A Mighty Heart; the mixed-race actor Max Minghella as Divya Narendra, who is Indian, in The Social Network; Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia; or Johnny Depp as Tonto, a Native American, in The Lone Ranger.
      • Sometimes the role itself is rewritten as white to better accommodate economic opportunity provided by bias. In the novel Hud, one of the main characters is a black housekeeper. In the classic 1963 movie, she was rewritten as white (and played, oddly enough, by Roald Dahl’s then-wife, Patricia Neal). “We would have loved to keep her black for the movie. She has moral strength, she’s benevolent, she’s tough-minded, and she’s secure in herself. So we would have loved to say to the world, ‘Look, here’s a hell of a woman, and she’s black,’ but in those days you simply couldn’t do it, and not because the talent wasn’t there—there were at least a half-dozen powerhouse black actresses who could have played that role,” said the film’s screenwriter, Harriet Frank.
        • Times have not changed. In 2014, Exodus: Gods and Kings director Ridley Scott dismissed hiring Middle Eastern actors for Middle Eastern roles: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
        • Contemporary examples might include the role played by Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (originally Japanese); the role played by Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (originally Japanese); or the role played by Kristen Dunst in The Beguiled (originally mixed-race).

 

  • Why is “whitewashing” an important part of media literacy today?
    • Ideally, of course, it wouldn’t be. Authors, screenwriters, directors, show runners, and casting agents could write and hire individuals based on their talent, charisma, and work ethic.
    • Whitewashing is a part of systemic racism; the media landscape is not a level playing field with “colorblind” casting or character development. Diverse perspectives are radically underrepresented across mainstream media, including contemporary children’s and young adult books.
      • In addition to race and ethnicity, diverse representation may include LGBT perspectives, religious perspectives, or perspectives of people with disabilities. Learn more here.
      • This summer, white actor Ed Skrein stepped down from a major role in the movie Hellboy upon learning the role was originally written as mixed-race. “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts. I feel it is important to honor and respect that … It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality.”

 

  • Roald Dahl’s widow supports the idea of reimagining Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as her husband intended, with a black title character. How would you reimagine familiar characters from children’s or young adult literature with different backgrounds and experiences?
    • Can you imagine Fern, the human heroine of Charlotte’s Web, as the daughter of Mexican American farmworkers?
    • Can you imagine Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day taking place in a busy urban Chinatown?
    • Can you imagine the class differences in Bridge to Terebithia taking place among African American families?
    • Could Claudia navigate the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler from a wheelchair?
    • Many Harry Potter fans originally interpreted Hermione Granger as having African ancestry; the actress who currently portrays her in the stage production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is black.
    • Many Hunger Games fans originally interpreted Katinss Everdeen as Native American, Latina, or mixed race, based on her description as having “olive skin, with straight black hair.”
    • Many A Wrinkle in Time fans interpret the book’s family of characters as having a variety of ethnicities. Ava duVernay, the director of the upcoming film, is one of them.

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

NPR: Roald Dahl’s Widow Says Charlie From ‘The Chocolate Factory’ Was Originally Black

Huffington Post: The Hero Of ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ Was Originally Black

KQED Education: Media Literacy

Teaching Tolerance: Media Literacy Builds Classroom Community

Teaching Tolerance: Teaching Controversy

Nat Geo: Banned Books Week: Celebrating Diversity

(extra credit!) The Berkeley McNair Research Journal: Deconstructing Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Race, Labor, and the Changing Depictions of the Oompa-Loompas

Guardian: ‘The idea that it’s good business is a myth’ – why Hollywood whitewashing has become toxic

(warning: strong language) This Week with John Oliver: How is This Still a Thing: Whitewashing

One response to “Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Was Originally Written as a ‘Little Black Boy’

  1. CarylSue,
    I would honestly prefer ‘Charlie’ to have been a boy of colour. It does make most sense in-line with the original story and the author’s rationale. It is true that the ‘Arts’ in the 21st century still succumb to orthodox and invalid arguments like flawless looks or the colour of one’s skin. In a time and age where we’ve adopted technology to ease lives, we’ve still not managed to do simple match like ‘everyone has rights, no less or more than you do’. Like with the LGBT community or people with colour. Ed Skrein was most sensitive to have turned down the role of ‘Hellboy’ in wanting to maintain the characters origins and significance here.

    Like

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