Roald Dahl’s sweet-laden children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a remake of which opens today in movie theaters nationwide, tells the fantastical story of Willy Wonka, an eccentric candy maker who offers five children the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit his magical factory. Just what goes on inside is a tightly held secret, and the lure of the mystery sends millions scurrying for one of the lucky invitations—golden tickets tucked inside five Wonka bars. On the tour, outlandish misfortunes befall the children one by one—comeuppance for their spoiled behavior—until only honest, thoughtful Charlie Bucket remains, and Charlie receives the biggest prize of all—the factory itself.
Because of the happily-ever-after ending, the story is generally viewed as a straightforward parable, a typical Dahl treatment of the consequences of boorishness. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is far more. Dahl himself was obsessed with sweets, and he waxed nostalgic about the candies of his youth, many of which disappeared over the course of his life as industrial behemoths squeezed out the mom-and-pop confectioners he so adored. The result of his personal experience is the mythical world of Willy Wonka, which is not innocent fiction drawn from thin air, but a no-holds-barred parody of the real-world candy industry, a world every bit as strange as Mr. Wonka himself.
Because many candy firms are privately held, and, more important, because candy recipes are not patentable, the candy industry is extraordinarily secretive. It is impossible to stop competitors from stealing hot products and selling them as their own. Take the American coconut bar Mounds. Forrest Mars Sr., patriarch of the Mars candy empire, stole the idea for Mounds in the 1950s and took it to Britain, calling his version Bounty. Bounty remains a best-seller today; the Brits have never heard of Mounds.
During Dahl’s childhood, the two largest British candy firms, Cadbury and Rowntree, sent so many moles to work in competitors’ factories that their spying became legendary. This devious corporate practice serves neatly as Dahl’s premise:
“You see, Charlie, not so very long ago there used to be thousands of people working in Mr. Willy Wonka’s factory. Then one day, all of a sudden, Mr. Wonka had to ask every single one of them to leave, to go home, never to come back.”
“But why?” asked Charlie.
“Because of spies.”
“Yes. All the other chocolate makers, you see, had begun to grow jealous of the wonderful candies that Mr. Wonka was making, and they started sending in spies to steal his secret recipes. The spies took jobs in the Wonka factory, pretending they were ordinary workers, and while they were there, each one of them found out exactly how a certain special thing was made.”
The real-life espionage became so pervasive that candy makers in Europe—where virtually all of the important industry innovations were taking place—began routinely employing detectives to keep track of workers. Sensitive manufacturing processes were off-limits to all but the most loyal workers. And outsiders dealing with candy makers were forced to sign strict, highly punitive confidentiality agreements.
For example, when Nestlé first figured out how to successfully blend milk and chocolate, only a handful of Nestlé executives knew how the complete milk chocolate-making process worked. The company also conducted employee background checks and put “suspicious” workers under surveillance. At Hershey’s, an elite few are privy to the proper mix of cocoa beans required to produce Hershey’s distinct chocolate flavor. And Mars blindfolds outside contractors when it’s necessary to escort them through its factories.
Dahl experienced the industry’s obsession with secrecy firsthand. At age 13, he attended Repton, a prestigious public boarding school in Derbyshire, not far from Cadbury headquarters. Cadbury executives used Dahl and his fellow students at Repton as taste testers. It was the perfect setup—an isolated population of teens and preteens who exchanged confidentiality for a little gray box containing a grading sheet and 12 different bars of chocolate—one “control” bar and 11 new confections. Wrapped in plain foil and marked by number, each bar was judged by the boys and rated from zero to 10; Cadbury then asked the boys to explain their grade.
In his autobiography Boy, Dahl recalls the elaborate daydreams inspired by his job—a Byzantine laboratory overflowing with glass beakers, bubbling potions, and Rube Goldberg machines, where men worked tirelessly concocting new sweets. “It was lovely dreaming those dreams, and I have no doubt at all that, thirty-five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them.”
This wasn’t the only experience that fed his fascination with candy. By age 7, Dahl recalls, his childhood sweetshop in Llandaff, South Wales, was the center of his universe. His favorite pastime? Standing in front of the shop’s picture window, enchanted by the mounds of goodies piled high on display. The store carried the only kind of sweets available at the time: unbranded, handmade penny candies like lemon drops and peppermint twists manufactured on a small scale. Dahl’s personal favorite was the sherbet sucker wrapped in licorice: “… You sucked the sherbet [powder] up through the straw and when it was finished you ate the licorice. … The sherbet fizzed in your mouth, and if you knew how to do it, you could make white froth come out of your nostrils …”
By the time Dahl had children of his own, the industrial revolution had turned sweetshops like Llandaff’s into a dying breed. Candy was no longer a rare and special commodity; corporate giants manufactured it en masse. They invented catchy slogans to market their products and employed massive sales forces to push their goods into every possible outlet, from newspaper vendors to drugstores, from groceries to gas stations. “If they see it, they will buy it,” became the candy maker’s mantra.
Dahl resented this profit-driven evolution and disliked the intense competition and cutthroat practices that candy makers employed to boost their bottom line. It wasn’t unusual, for example, for corporate salesmen visiting a candy store to rearrange the candy shelf, giving their products star billing. Some were said to have thrown away boxes of competitors’ candy to make room for their own.
Dahl brilliantly captures the ethos of the new era in the conniving characters of Mr. Slugworth, Mr. Prodnose, and Mr. Fickelgruber, Wonka competitors who try to steal his business by copying famous Wonka treats—like ice cream that never melts and chewing gum that never loses its flavor. To prevent future thefts, Wonka conveniently replaces all of his factory workers with Oompa-Loompas, doll-sized creatures who are indebted to Wonka for rescuing them from the vicious beasts of Loompaland and thereforewould never dream of betrayal. If only it could be so easy.