Can the Oompa-Loompas Be Saved?

What do we do with the Oompa-Loompas?

That’s a question filmmakers and writers have tangled with ever since the 1964 debut of the tiny, largely unpaid laborers in Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

In Dahl’s original, the Oompa-Loompas were starving African pygmies, subsisting largely on a mash of green caterpillars and tree bark until “rescued” by Willy Wonka. He smuggled the entire tribe out of Africa in packing crates to live and work, and sing and goof and dance, in the chocolatier’s plantation, er, factory.

“It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist,” Dahl said in a 1988 interview. “But it did occur to the N.A.A.C.P. and others.”

In the five decades since their literary debut, the Oompa-Loompas have undergone a series of transformations to shake their story from its colonialist roots. Some fixes have been transparently cosmetic (in subsequent editions of the book, illustrators simply made the tribesmen white). Others weren’t fixes at all: In the 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the director, Tim Burton, just shifted continents, moving the Oompa-Loompas out of Africa to someplace that vaguely resembles South America, as imagined by an adventure film director from the 1950s.

In the Warner Bros. prequel “Wonka,” which opens Dec. 15, the filmmakers address the colonialist aspects head on.

In many ways, the prequel format — with Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) struggling to get his chocolate business up and running — allowed the filmmakers to sidestep the book’s more off-putting elements. Instead of smiling servants, there’s a sole Oompa-Loompa, and he is something of a lone wolf, more cranky nemesis and eventual mentor than kowtowing lackey. Put simply, he’s Hugh Grant. As for the Oompa-Loompas’s sketchy working conditions (are they really just paid in chocolate?) and the questions about just how and where Wonka gets all those cocoa beans to make his delicious chocolate, well, he unwittingly steals them — from the Oompa-Loompas! — and makes the candy himself (at this point in the story, he’s still a small-batch candymaker).

“I was really interested in the idea of the Oompa-Loompas judging Wonka for having stolen their cocoa beans, and finding him extremely wanting, and meting out punishments,” said Paul King, the film’s director and co-writer.

In the film, we finally hear the Oompa-Loompas’s side of this once-lopsided story, a first for a five-decade franchise that includes books, musicals (Broadway and kids’ versions) and films. Even so, there were complaints about these Oompa-Loompas even before this latest film opened, with some actors criticizing the decision to cast Grant in a role traditionally played by actors with dwarfism.

Scholars have criticized Dahl’s children’s books for decades, calling out instances of racist and sexist stereotypes. This year, Puffin Books ignited a firestorm when it released new versions of Dahl’s classics, including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” that removed, among other things, references to skin color, body size and slavery. For years, biographers have taken on Dahl himself, calling out his self-professed antisemitism and his stunningly cruel mistreatment of his first wife, the Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal.

So it’s little wonder that when the creators of the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder, first adapted Dahl’s story, they ran as fast and far as they could from the book’s “happy slave” narrative, with its singing, grinning Black workers, dressed only in skins and leaves, toiling for next to nothing in a place they never leave.

Performers with dwarfism were hired for the 1971 movie with Gene Wilder. In that version, the Oompa-Loompas weren’t African but vaguely European.Credit…alamy

After race riots in Britain in the 1950s and the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, “there really is no way of overstating how not of the moment this was,” said Catherine Keyser, an English professor at the University of South Carolina and author of the article “Candy Boys and Chocolate Factories: Roald Dahl, Racialization, and Global Industry.”

In the Wilder version, the Oompa-Loompas morphed from starving natives from “the deepest and darkest part of Africa” into orange-faced, green-haired men in vaguely European togs. Their African home was changed to the fictional nation of Loompaland; instead of being smuggled from the jungle in crates, they were “transported.”

To play the newly refashioned Oompa-Loompas, the 1971 filmmakers hired performers with dwarfism and painted them green, a decision that Dahl found upsetting. “He thought they were nightmarish,” said Matthew Dennison, author of the critically acclaimed biography “Roald Dahl: Teller of the Unexpected.” (He said, “Dahl hated the film version, partly because he couldn’t bear Gene Wilder, for reasons I don’t understand.”)

Dahl was also pressured to recast the Oompa-Loompas in later editions of his books. The illustrator Joseph Schindelman’s images of smiling Black natives were reimagined by various illustrators as fair-skinned sprites with spiky blond locks, or bearded hippies.

For Keyser, the novelist’s attempts to “de-Negro” (Dahl’s words) his own characters, admittedly under pressure, had the effect of making them, in some ways, even less human. “They were rewritten as white, so now he’s basically drawing from elves and tricksters,” Keyser said. “It’s like ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker.’ You don’t have to feel bad that the elves did all that work and never got to sleep.”

That’s a lot of bother just to rehab what are essentially minor characters. But the Oompa-Loompas are necessary parts of the story, not only to keep Wonka’s factory up and running, but also to serve as the book’s Greek chorus, laughing at the bad children as they drop like flies. And for screenwriters interested in telling a visually and dramatically compelling story, they are a huge part of what makes a trip to Wonka’s infinitely more magical than, say, a trip to the Hershey plant in Robinson, Ill.

“The Oompa-Loompas take the chocolate factory, which fundamentally could be a rather dull building, and transform it into an enchanted realm,” Dennison said.

In Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Oompa-Loompas were all played by the same actor: Deep Roy.Credit…Warner Bros. Pictures

Over the years, the Oompa-Loompas continued to morph. In the 2005 Tim Burton remake, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a single actor, Deep Roy, was cast to play all of the Oompa-Loompas, his performances digitally mashed together to create a sea of singing, dancing, swimming workers in identical shiny red jumpsuits (robots were also used in some scenes). Onstage in countless school productions, they have been played by children in green wigs, with or without orangeface, and on London’s West End by half human-half puppet hybrids.

Clearly, there was a lot of visual material for King to choose from. However, Dahl’s original characters, the African pygmies, were never a consideration.

“It was a good choice to change it,” King said. “I felt very comfortable with Dahl’s decision.”

Instead, King looked to the 1971 Oompa-Loompas for style inspirations. “The iconic look that they came up with is extraordinary,” he said. “A piece of makeup design and hair design that’s lasted 50-odd years is not to be sneezed at.”

“I really wanted this film to be a companion piece to the ’71 movie,” King continued, “and not do things that would affect people’s enjoyment of that lasting classic.”

The new version imagines the Oompa-Loompa as egotistical and judgmental.Credit…Warner Bros.

Besides their distinctive orange makeup and green wigs, King said, the Oompa-Loompas stood out for just how judgmental they could be, often to the point of sadism. “There are no shades of gray for them, morally speaking,” he explained. “It’s like, ‘You’re bad, down the chute.’ They take this gleeful delight in the demise of the ghastly children who are touring the factory.”

All of which inspired King to cast as the central Oompa-Loompa the actor Hugh Grant, whom one could imagine being judgmental to a fault and perhaps delighting in a child’s misery. King had previously worked with Grant in the critically acclaimed 2017 film “Paddington 2,” in which he starred as an egotistical, conniving has-been actor and archnemesis to an impossibly lovable bear, so it all made a sort of weird sense.

It’s a relatively minor role for Grant, but one that plays into Keyser’s vision of a story that would redeem the Oompa-Loompas, one that was told from their point of view. “I think that Oompa-Loompas were a way to make globalization in a colonial vein seem cozy and appealing and comforting,” she said. “But maybe if you could have a Bildungsroman from the perspective of a single Oompa-Loompa, that gives an Oompa-Loompa interiority and a name, that might fix it.”

In the end, Grant’s Oompa-Loompa pays tribute to the 1971 original, even as he’s endowed with a sort of agency those original servants could only dream of. And unlike those predecessors, the actor never had to endure hours in a makeup chair. His orange skin and green hair, said King, were digitally created.

“I want to say that he was in a green wig all the way through, but he wasn’t, to my lasting shame,” King said. “I hope he dons one on the weekend. But no, he was just Hugh as Hugh.”

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