Did you know that Charlie from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' was supposed to be black?
If, like me, you grew up before the days of smart devices and social media with a preference for the written word, you're probably very familiar with the works of Roald Dahl. The British-Norwegian author whose own life was as colourful and eventful as the lives he wrote about, his books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide.
You've probably read the likes of Matilda or the BFG (or watched their wonderful movie adaptations), but Roald Dahl's perhaps most famous work is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
For those of you who haven't read the book or watched the movies, it's about the rags to riches story of a young boy named Charlie Bucket who wins a golden ticket to a strange and wonderful chocolate factory, run by the wildly eccentric Willy Wonka.
In the two movies chronicling Charlie's story in 1971 and 2005, Charlie Bucket has been played by Peter Ostrum and Freddie Highmore, who both brought the character to life in different ways, but are both white actors. Of course, Roald Dahl died in 1990 of a very rare form of blood cancer, but the book that would go on to define his legacy was initially intended to have the titular Charlie Bucket as a black character.
September 13 is known amongst literature aficionados as Roald Dahl day, marking the anniversary of the decorated author, and this year, Dahl would have been 101 years old. To commemorate the day, Donald Sturrock, Roald Dahl's biographer, conducted an interview with BBC Radio 4, where he recounted his conversation with Felicity Dahl, Roald Dahl's widow, about the initial first draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“His first Charlie that he wrote about was a little black boy,” Felicity said to Donald Sturrock of the initial manuscript. The biographer said that Roald Dahl had "understood the American sensibility", and Felicity said that Charlie's race had been "influenced by America".
Today, we're yet to see Charlie Bucket as a black character. That's down to an unnamed agent, who Sturrock says talked Roald Dahl out of the idea, convincing him to rewrite the character.
"It was his agent who thought it was a bad idea when the book was first published to have a black hero. She said people would ask why."
Although Felicity declared Roald's u-turn to be "a great pity", Dahl's widow admitted she'd be open to any "reworkings" that may occur in the future. When posited about the idea, Felicity Dahl replied: “It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
Felicity's revelation is especially curious considering that in the past, Roald Dahl's legacy has been slightly tainted by racial controversy.
In initial publishings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa Loompas that man the titular chocolate factory were initially mischievous African pygmies brought over by Willy Wonka to work in the factory. Later, this detail was changed in later editions and films to little orange people hailing from the fictional Loompaland.
Roald Dahl is perhaps the most famous children's book author ever to live, and his works have gone a long way toward shaping the formative periods of many a youngster. With the last Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film coming out in 2005, perhaps there's a chance that any new adaptation will have a black Charlie discovering the Golden Ticket and going on the adventure of a lifetime.