Not his best work?

I have a confession to make, and I feel I should give you due warning that it could cause you great distress. You may even have thoughts of striking me down dead. But, I have to be honest with myself, and with the world, come what may.

I came to a realization the other day, and it saddened me greatly, but I could not deny it, and I am slowly having to come to terms with it. It happened while reading to my son before bed. It happened while reading to him, reading a story we have read before, and one we will probably read again. It occurred to me, in mid-sentence, and I have not yet the heart to tell him.

The book is Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

The realization is – wait for it – I don’t like it.

Horror upon horror.

I feel ashamed to say it, and my head is hung low even as I write this. But, there is no denying the truth, any more than there is denying that Quentin Blake is a far better illustrator than Joseph Schindelman, the brute who savaged our edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with his unwieldily and terrifying scratches:

Please allow me to earn some redemption by saying that there is nothing wrong with Roald Dahl. He was a staple of my childhood, and my imagination would be far duller without his delightful tales. I love The Witches, The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, Danny, the Champion of the World, and – my particular favorite – The Twits. But, with the sole exception of his autobiography (which doesn’t really count, I feel), not one of them was ever a sequel. Not one. Except…

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

What happened? I will admit to enjoying the story as a young child, but really only because they got to go into space, which crossed over to my other imaginative inspiration. I somehow knew, deep down, that it was inferior to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and, despite looking at it longingly on the bookshelf, would somehow always find something else to read instead.

Now, as an adult, I think I am beginning to understand why. Every one of Dahl’s stories is filled with wonder, amazement, impossibility, humor and terror, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is no different. So what is? In a word – the characters.

For comparison, let’s consider the BFG. In this book, there are two main characters, Sophie and the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). However, there are a whole host of support characters, including nine other terrifying giants, an army general, and of course, the Queen of England. Each of these characters has a singular personality, and stand out among each other. Even the Queen’s butler, Mr. Tibbs, is haughtily obedient to the BFG (thinking to use a pitchfork and a sword for his eating utensils).

In some ways, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the epitome of this – five distinct characters: Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregard, Veruca Salt (hee-hee), Mike Teavea, and of course, Charlie. Greed, rudeness, spoiling and obsession are all treated equally (and equally reviled). It is simple, brilliant, and insightful.

But consider now Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. It picks up directly from where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leaves off. Almost directly, in fact. Yet that first book really needed no continuation. The image of Charlie’s poverty was painted so vividly at the beginning of the book that the very thought that he would live for the rest of his life with Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory is enough to satisfy even the most die-hard “happily-ever-after” nut.

Instead, we end up with a book that has no new significant characters, and in fact, far fewer significant characters than its predecessor. The four disgusting children are gone; we are left with Willy, Charlie and Grandpa Joe. Mr. and Mrs. Bucket are never fully developed, and the three remaining grandparents feel wooden by comparison.

And what of the new support characters? The President of the United States is a bluffing halfwit, presided over by his nanny, Mrs. Tibbs. This could have been humorous, yet the dialog falls flat. The army general is reduced to a one-line buffoon (“blow it up!”), and the astronauts, Shuckworth, Shanks and Showler, feel like space-age Stooges. I will admit the Vernicious Knids gave me quite a fright so many years ago, and continue to do so to this day. But what does it say that the best character in the book is an alien?

So I am left reading a book that, while my son enjoys still, I sadly do not. And perhaps I am most disturbed by what feels like a loss of childhood innocence more than anything else. How could my favorite author let me down so? How could he not have known that, forty years after writing the book, the children who grew up with it would look back one day and fail to see that magic? How dare he.

I still love every book Mr. Dahl ever wrote, and I will continue to enjoy Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, for all its flaws. Every artist has a work that is their favorite, and one that is not. So it is that with great pain I must admit that this book is not his best work.

May Charlie Bucket rest in peace.

4 thoughts on “Not his best work?

  1. I’m totally with you! I read Elevator as a child, being somewhat of a Roald Dahl fangirl at the time, and was so disappointed! I’ve never been back, and although I’ve read the rest of his wonderful books to my own children, I haven’t read and don’t plan to read Elevator to them. Thanks for the validation! Hope you are well.

    • Hey, sorry I missed this – I haven’t been very active lately with COVID-19 and everything (you’d think the opposite, but there we are). Yeah – Elevator was just … odd. It felt like it was a forced sequel rather than something spontaneous and inspired. Sheesh – how did you even find this post? I wrote it over 8 years ago! Thank you!

  2. I’m in complete agreement about Glass Elevator; it remains one of the very few Dahl books I don’t like, although I can’t bring myself to say I dislike it. I loved his description of the aliens but they’re even more out of place here than they were in the world of Indiana Jones. The main problem is that Dahl tries too hard to make this appeal to adults as well, when he doesn’t need to; his appeal to grown-up readers was specifically because of his cheerfully juvenile approach to adult material, much like MAD magazine. BTW, I loved Schindelman’s illustrations for Chocolate Factory, and think they were perfectly appropriate because they were so grotesque. It’s a book about grotesque people (except for Charlie and his family) to begin with!

    • Thank you for commenting! It’s crazy that a post I wrote over eight years ago still gets views! I agree that Dahl’s take on aliens was unique, but seemed out of place for someone who I never really took as a “sci-fi” author. As for the illustrations … lol I’m sure Schindelman is, in his own right, an excellent artist, but I grew up on Quentin Blake’s drawings, and for me they’re the definitive Dahl illustrations.

      It’s funny – ever since my son grew out of Roald Dahl (again – this post was eight years ago!), I haven’t really read any of his work; I should revisit it, just for the memories!

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