Paul King on ‘Wonka’: ‘Roald Dahl’s writing is like salted caramel’

Paul King, the director of the Timothée Chalamet-led Wonka, says one of the joys of adapting Roald Dahl is in placing childlike whimsy beside macabre storytelling

December 06, 2023 04:41 pm | Updated December 07, 2023 04:57 pm IST

Paul King with Timothée Chalamet 

Paul King with Timothée Chalamet  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

After Wes Anderson’smarvellous adaptations of Roald Dahl’s short stories, comes yet another Dahl adaptation, Wonka, an origin story for Willy Wonka, the eccentric chocolatier from Dahl’s 1964 novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Directed by Paul King, who has some experience in translating beloved stories to delightful cinema, having helmed Paddington and Paddington 2, Wonka stars Timothée Chalamet in the lead. 

“Probably the greatest joy of adapting classics is being able to stand on the shoulders of these great giants, these fantastic writers who’ve created such enduring characters and wonderful worlds,” says King over the phone from London. “It is a great pleasure for me to spend time with their creations and explore the limits of what they did. With Paddington, it was fun to try and find the larger story within the world of Paddington and those wonderful short stories that Michael Bond had written.”

Navigational North Star

Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in a still from ‘Wonka’

Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in a still from ‘Wonka’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Wonka, King says, is about exploring the edges of the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “It is an amazing launch pad. It is like a navigational North Star to go, ‘What would Roald Dahl do?’ Or, ‘would Michael Bond approve?’ and see where that takes you. It is a unique and unusual challenge because it’s not just about following your own creativity, but more putting on somebody else’s shoes and going for a walk in their world.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factorywas one of the first novel-length books that the 45-year-old King read. “I was probably seven or eight and devoured it. I had this battered old paperback, which I read from cover to cover so often that the pages started to fall out. I read everything by Roald Dahl that I could get my hands on when I was a child, though not his more grown up stuff.”

Reason to return

Working on Wonka gave King a reason to return to Dahl. “I read everything that he’s written from the big novels to his guide to railway safety, which is a very small pamphlet about not leaning out of a train (laughs). They’re all infused with this extraordinary kind of mixture of childlike whimsy and quite dark and macabre storytelling. My highlight of the process, was reading these fantastic stories that are so gripping, funny, strange, scary and ridiculous all at the same time. He is a magician for being able to carry different tones at the same time, telling different stories for different audiences.”

With a taste less macabre than Dahl’s, King says he wanted to make a warm-hearted family movie. “I think everyone’s taste is fractionally less than Dahl’s (laughs). He’s definitely at the more extreme end of things. There is, however, a healthy overlap between my interests and his. I loved this great, Dickensian world of this impoverished family, and this amazing colourful, chocolate factory.

A still from Wonka

A still from Wonka | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The storybookish-ness and the wonder you get from Willy Wonka as a character appealed to King. “Willy Wonka was this amazing magician who can make dreams come true. When I was a child, I definitely loved Willy Wonka and wanted to tour his factory. I thought he was great, and wanted him to be my friend.”

Not a darker interpretation

While there have been darker interpretations of the book, King says that was not his impression. “I didn’t want to make a character who was incredibly damaged, evil or nefarious because I don’t think that’s what Willie Wonka is. He’s got a bit of an edge but sending out these five golden tickets and hoping to find an heir from among five children, someone who could run the chocolate factory, is quite optimistic.”

Though he gets some real rotters amongst the children, King says, he also finds Charlie, a wonderful, warm-hearted child. “Mixed with the cynicism there’s actually a lot of hope, optimism and warmth in Dahl and that’s the great goal, to find those two flavors and put them alongside each other like salted caramel.”

Short list of one

The cast, King describes as a ridiculous assembly of brilliant people. “Trying to find a Wonka was difficult and it was a very short list of one person who I thought could play the role. We are very lucky to get Timothée Chalamet. A film called Wonka lives or dies by how good its Wonka is. Timothée is funny, charming, manic, strange and unknowable and all those things you expect Willy Wonka to be but he has also got this strong emotional core to his performance that guides you through it.”

Hugh Grant, who was hilarious as the pop-up book thieving Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, plays Lofty, an Oompa-Loompa, one of the tiny humans working at the chocolate factory. “They were done in a couple of different ways in earlier films.”

Lovely double act

Timothée Chalamet in a still from ‘Wonka’

Timothée Chalamet in a still from ‘Wonka’

On re-reading the books King discovered the Oompa-Loompas’ songs. “They are so sarcastic, biting and scornful. They are funny, but also incredibly judgmental and take gleeful delight in the fall of these nasty kids. As I was reading these songs, and wondering what sort of what voice would fit it, Hugh’s voice popped into my head. He’s so good at this kind of disdainful, scornful voice (imitates Grant). It suddenly felt like that would be a lovely double act between him and Willy, especially because Willy at this stage of the story is still finding his way. This very self important 18-inch Oompa-Loompa and the slightly scatter-brained genius Willy hopefully complete each other.”

Rowan Atkinson is also part of the cast. “He plays Father Julius. It’s not his first time in clerical attire (laughs). He plays the priest of the local church, and is part of this greater conspiracy of chocoholics who have ended up running this town.”

Stands on its own

The book stands on its own without much back-story to Wonka, says King. “Grandpa Joe tells a little bit about him, but it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s not. That’s the delightful tight rope that Dahl walks all the way through. I know that Dahl was interested in exploring Willie Wonka. He wrote the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.”

King spent some time at Dahl’s archive and found another short story about Willy Wonka. “They all have lunch on the White House lawn. There are bits where he explored other ideas. Dahl was aware that he had this great character, and there might be more narrative in there.” Dahl was looking forward rather than back, says King. “The idea of going back and making a film that could be a companion piece to the 1971 movie was interesting. Willy Wonka is this unknowable magician type in the book. I felt I had a glimmer of who he might be and where he might have come from.”

One could do a film, King says, where Wonka is this amazing person but before he becomes the perfect showman of the book. “Combine the heart that you get from Charlie in the book with Willy as a character. It seemed like a good idea to put him at the heart of the story. The book will survive without this film for sure (laughs).”

Wonka releases in theatres on December 8, 2023

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