Childhood's horror and joy
Grim (and Grimm) tales a staple of youth
By Todd Leopold
Freddie Highmore clutches a Golden Ticket in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
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(CNN) -- In the Roald Dahl canon, the short story "The Wish" is nothing exceptional.
A young boy ponders a patterned carpet between him and the front door of his house. His imagination runs wild: He decides that the carpet's red patches are hot coals and its black patches are writhing, poisonous snakes. In his mind, if he can make it to the door without stepping on either, sticking to the carpet's safe yellow spots, he'll get a puppy for his birthday.
So he sets out on his careful walk, gingerly making his way across the rug. At one point, he comes close to a black portion and can feel a snake slide close to his foot. He soldiers on, but he's only halfway to the door with much carpet, and much black, to go.
He panics; he struggles; he gazes out at the seemingly infinite distance between himself and the door. And then ...
Well, I'm not going to spoil it. But this little story (a mere four or five pages), which I read when I was a child working my way through Dahl's works, scared the bejabbers out of me. Never a fan of snakes myself, the story gave me nightmares.
I loved it anyway. (Thanks to http://www.roalddahlfans.com for refreshing my memory on some details.)
A recent New Yorker article noted that Dahl stirs mixed feelings in readers. Many adults, turned off by his mean-spirited authority figures and bratty children, believe he's a bad influence. Many children, however, will have none of it: Appreciative of Dahl's creepy scares and black humor, they want more "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator," "James and the Giant Peach," "The Witches" and his short stories.
Children understand that the world isn't all sweetness and light. The world is also full of fear and violence and sadness and loneliness, and it can be a random and inexplicable place.
J.K. Rowling knows it, too. For all the clever creations and inspired silliness of her Harry Potter books, some of the most evocative passages concern the terrors of the wizard world: Dementors, hooded figures that suck away happiness and souls; the Forbidden Forest, with its clawing trees and scary beasts; and, of course, Lord Voldemort, the personification of evil. They're comparable to Dahl's snakes, not to mention other characters that have haunted children since the days of Grimm (and well before).
Do all these horrors give way to happy endings? Usually. Dahl's Charlie Bucket becomes Willy Wonka's heir. Harry Potter has -- so far -- managed to overcome his foes.
But there are always the snakes in the carpet to worry about. Which is a big reason why we keep reading -- and carry these stories fondly into adulthood.
This weekend sees the opening of director Tim Burton's new version of Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and the release of Book Six of Rowling's Harry Potter saga, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Eye on Entertainment turns the page.
Burton's "Charlie" faces a difficult challenge. Not only are there plenty of fans of Dahl's original book, but there are a couple of generations of moviegoers who know the previous movie version, 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," by heart -- and may not take kindly to a new version.
Nevertheless, Johnny Depp has stepped into Gene Wilder's crushed-velvet coat and top hat, assaying the Willy Wonka role with a chirpy Michael Jackson-ish voice (and Jackson-ish makeup, too). Freddie Highmore plays Charlie Bucket.
The new version is more loyal to Dahl's original work than the 1971 film (welcome back, Veruca's squirrels) and features Burton's typical colorful sets and inventive, animated camerawork.
But the film also includes a back story to explain Wonka's distant personality and love of candy. Whether that is necessary -- or desirable -- will be left to a new audience of moviegoers.
As for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," here's what we know: Harry is now in his sixth year at Hogwarts. Most of his friends are still alive, and so are most of his enemies (hmm, wonder what's in store for Draco Malfoy?).
The book has already sold close to 2 million copies in preorders from Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com (Amazon has sold 1.4 million alone). And it comes out Saturday at 12:01 a.m., period, unless you happen to live in Vancouver, British Columbia, or Rosendale, New York.
Rowling has said that the series will grow darker as Harry grows older and finds out more facts surrounding his parents' death. Given the sulky Harry and nasty politics of the previous book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," one can only wonder what Rowling has in her wand this time around.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" comes out Friday. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" comes out Saturday. ("Charlie" is a Warner Bros. film; Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner.)
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