Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a classic for generations of readers. But the book, about a poor young boy who wins a golden ticket to tour the magical candy factory of the business genius Willy Wonka, almost looked extremely different.
On Wednesday, Dahl’s widow, Liccy Dahl, told BBC Radio 4 that when her late husband originally dreamed up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it starred “a little black boy.” As to why that was changed, she said, “I don’t know. It’s a great pity.”
The answer came from Dahl’s biographer Donald Sturrock, who revealed: “it was his agent who thought it was a bad idea when the book was first published, to have a black hero.”
According to the Huffington Post, Dahl’s agent was likely Shelia St. Lawrence, who has been credited with being a significant influence Dahl. In 2014, Sturrock told Vanity Fair that St. Lawrence worked closely with the author urging him to cut down on wild narratives and the initially large cast.
She has had a part to play with removing a black boy from the movie. “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’” Sturrock said.
The decision to remove a black child from a book is a challenge many authors face. Publishers have considered whiteness to be the default character and expect that a nonwhite character must serve a particular purpose in a book’s narrative. That by being nonwhite, their race and ethnicity will have a significant impact on the book’s storyline, plot devices, and other narrative ploys.
The incident speaks to how whitewashing in the film industry can take place in many different parts of the creative process not only the casting room but in the early writings of a novel. Not only did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory end up starring a white boy, so too did the major motion pictures based on the book, which featured white actors as Charlie and the rest of the Bucket family.
It is important to highlight the fact that Dahl is no stranger to criticism. He received a significant backlash for the racially problematic Oompa Loompa characters. The NAACP and others argued that the factory workers, which originally depicted as pygmies from Africa, reinforced racial stereotypes of African slavery. He said his intent all along was anti-racist, explaining, “I saw them as charming creatures, whereas the white kids in the books were … most unpleasant.” That said, the criticism was so harsh that Dahl rewrote the characters to make them light-skinned, long-haired beings from an artificial island.
It will be interesting to see if the upcoming Willy Wonka reboot will now include a black boy in the cast of the new movie.