👩👦👨👧 Deciding which parents get to visit the factory
Examples from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on keeping things simple
Deciding which parents get to visit the factory
In Roald Dahl’s book, each of the four rotten kids (Veruca, Violet, Augustus and Mike) brings both of their parents on the tour of the factory. Charlie only brings Grandpa Joe, for reasons that are never entirely clear. According to the rules on the Golden Ticket, he’s allowed to bring two parents, but he doesn’t.
When Tim Burton and I first sat down to talk about how we were going to adapt Dahl’s book for the screen, the two-parent issue was one of my first questions. In addition to being a little unfair to Charlie, having each of the rotten kids bring both parents presented a lot of problems.
With a book, the reader can conveniently forget that Mrs. Teavee hasn’t said anything for a long time. In a movie, however, that character is always going to be on-screen. Which means she needs to be doing something, saying something. She has to interact with all the other characters in the scene, who in turn have to interact with each other, which steals focus from Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the rotten kids.
Basically, twice the parents means everyone gets half as much to say and do.
So we quickly decided that the rule on the Golden Ticket would be that every kid gets to bring one parent or guardian. No fuss, no muss.
Then the question becomes, which parent goes with which kid?
In my mind, piggy Augustus got that way because he had a mother who equated food with love. So Mrs. Gloop would be the first parent. We don’t learn much about her except that she and her husband own a sausage shop in Germany.
Violet Beauregarde claimed to be the world record-holder in chewing gum, so we decided to make her hyper-competitive, her ego stoked by sports mom Ms. Beauregarde, herself a former baton champion. We never say anything about Violet’s father.
Veruca Salt is a daddy’s girl gone wicked, manipulative and bossy. So it only made sense for her to bring her father, a British nut baron.
Finally, there’s Mike Teavee. In Dahl’s book, he’s obsessed with TV westerns and shoot-em-up cop shows. Updating it a bit, we gave him violent videogames and a well-meaning but completely over-his-head father, who is literally bullied by his son.
Even with just these four characters, it took work to find enough for everyone to do and say. In the Chocolate Room, for instance, we have to keep track of Willy Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, Augustus, Mrs. Gloop, Violet, Ms. Beauregarde, Veruca, Mr. Salt, Mike and Mr. Teavee. That’s eleven characters, not counting the Oompa-Loompas. If we’d added four more parents to the scene, we’d probably still be shooting it.
Simple is better than accurate
A story in the LA Times about chocolate-making got me thinking about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and an error I deliberately introduced. Early in the tour of the factory, Wonka says…
WONKA The cocoa bean happens to be the thing from which chocolate is made.
Wrong. The right word is cacao — it’s not cocoa until it’s partially processed, and as a globe-trotting master chocolatier, Wonka would certainly use the right word. And in the book, Roald Dahl does:
The cacao bean, which grows on the cacao tree, happens to be the thing from which chocolate is made. You cannot make chocolate without the cacao bean. The cacao bean is chocolate. I myself use billions of cacao beans every week in this factory.
So why change it? Why be wrong?
Because cacao is a weird word. It’s sounds like it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not actually funny in context. Then Wonka uses the word six times in the scene. You generally repeat funny things, so when you repeat something that wasn’t funny to begin with, the stench of failed joke begins to waft in.
Worse, cacao is confusing. It demands explanation, but the explanation isn’t particularly rewarding. As the audience, we don’t really want to learn about chocolate. We want to see bad things happen to terrible children.
Cocoa is a synonym for hot chocolate, so it seems reasonable that you’d make chocolate from cocoa beans. For the movie version, changing “cacao” to “cocoa” made it easier to focus on the point of the scene (a flashback to Wonka meeting the Oompa-Loompas), and concentrate on finding things that were actually funny. It’s wrong, but it’s right.
And that’s true in this general rule:
In screenwriting, simplicity should almost always trump accuracy.
I’m going to break that statement down into parts so that it doesn’t get misconstrued.
In screenwriting — I’m only talking about writing for film and television, stories that race ahead at 24 frames per second, give or take. In novels and playwriting, the writer has the time and opportunity to be far more precise and thorough. And in journalism, accuracy is a fundamental responsibility. The journalist’s challenge is to make that accuracy comprehensible to the readership.
simplicity — Simplicity is not the same as idiocy, or pandering. If you’re making a thriller set in the world of international espionage, you can’t have the computer expert “dial in” to something. We need to believe that the expert is an expert, that security is difficult, and yet be able to understand roughly what he’s doing. Consider the crew in the first two Alien movies. We don’t know how their spaceships work, but it’s easy to follow what they’re working on.
should almost always trump — Sometimes, the complicated-but-accurate version is more rewarding than the simple version, so be wary of smoothing out all the wrinkles. And screenwriters aren’t absolved of societal responsibility, either. For example, the pilot episode of Eli Stone had a plotline about childhood vaccines that was widely criticized for its inaccuracies. If there wasn’t time in the episode for a more thorough exploration of the issue, another case should have been substituted, because what remained was inflammatory and (debatably) dangerous.
accuracy — In archery and life, accuracy is measured by how close you come to the target. For movies and television, the target is pretty wide. Looking back at the derivative challenge, it was more important to give a sense of why derivatives exist than explain exactly what they were. For a medical drama, we’ve come to accept a certain amount of time compression, allowing characters to recover from surgery in much less time than they actually would. But if a character became pregnant and gave birth in the same day, we’d protest. That’s not just inaccurate, it’s implausible, and plausibility is a much higher standard.
Granted, even plausibility takes a back seat in Charlie. (c.f. Great Glass Elevator)
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