The widow and the biographer of the beloved British children’s writer Roald Dahl told the BBC in an interview this week that Charlie Bucket, the young boy whose life is changed by a golden ticket in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” was originally supposed to be black.
“His first Charlie that he wrote about was a little black boy,” the widow, Felicity Dahl, said in the interview. It was timed to the author’s birthday, which fans of his work celebrate as Roald Dahl Day. He would have been 101.
Felicity Dahl made the remark during a conversation with Donald Sturrock, her husband’s biographer, on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. Sturrock said Roald Dahl had understood “the American sensibility.” In response, Felicity Dahl revealed the original idea for Charlie’s race and said she believed it had been “influenced by America.”
But as readers and moviegoers the world over know, Charlie Bucket is white. Sturrock said that was because of Roald Dahl’s agent, whom he did not name.
“It was his agent who thought it was a bad idea when the book was first published to have a black hero,” Sturrock said. “She said people would ask why.”
Felicity Dahl said “it was a great pity” that her husband had changed Charlie’s race. When the interviewer asked if they would ever issue a “reworking” of the story, she replied, “It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
Roald Dahl’s work is widely beloved and has spawned a fleet of film adaptations since the 1964 book was made into a movie, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” in 1971. The film starred 12-year-old, blond-haired Peter Ostrum as Charlie.
Dahl’s other well-known children’s books include “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Witches,” “Matilda” and “The BFG,” all of which have been turned into popular movies. A Broadway musical based on “Matilda” opened in 2013 and closed in January, while one based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is currently running.
But racial and ethnic controversy has followed Dahl’s work for years. The author has long been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, and critics denounced his original portrayal of the Oompa Loompa workers in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
They were originally depicted as hardworking but mischievous African pygmies who were brought to the factory to make candy. Dahl revised their portrayal in later editions of the work, turning the Oompa Loompas into fanciful dwarflike creatures from a made-up country, Loompaland. In the 1971 film they were depicted as squat, green-haired, orange factory workers.
Last year, on what would have been Dahl’s 100th birthday, The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, published an article, “The 5 Most Anti-Semitic Things Roald Dahl Has Ever Said.” Representatives for The Roald Dahl Literary Estate and the Roald Dahl Foundation, which employs Sturrock, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.
Among the statements The Forward attributed to the author were, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” and, “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.”
When Dahl died in 1990 at age 74, Abraham Foxman, who at the time was the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a letter to The New York Times that Dahl “was a blatant and admitted anti-Semite.”
“Praise for Mr. Dahl as a writer must not obscure the fact that he was also a bigot,” Foxman wrote. He also cited many of the statements published by The Forward, 26 years before its article came out.
Questions about Dahl’s views on Jews and other minorities were raised during the press tour for the 2016 Steven Spielberg film based on his book “The BFG.”
In an interview with The Times, Spielberg said the statements attributed to Dahl were “a paradox” because many of his books “do the opposite, embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language.”
Spielberg said he had spoken to friends of Dahl’s who told him “he liked to say things he didn’t mean just to get a reaction.”
“I don’t know,” he added. “I just admire ‘The BFG’ and I admire his values in that, and it’s hard even for me to even believe that somebody who could write something like that could say the terrible things that had been reported.”