From the department of alternate timelines comes the revelation that Roald Dahl originally wanted Charlie Bucket, protagonist of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to be black.
It’s apparently Roald Dahl Day over in the U.K. and BBC Radio 4’s Today had the author’s widow, Liccy Dahl, and his biographer, Donald Sturrock, on for a talk. According to the Guardian, Dahl revealed that, “His first Charlie that he wrote about was a little black boy.” So what happened?
Her husband’s biographer Donald Sturrock, who was also being interviewed, said the change to a white character was driven by Dahl’s agent, who thought a black Charlie would not appeal to readers.
“I can tell you that it was his agent who thought it was a bad idea, when the book was first published, to have a black hero,” said Sturrock. “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’”
The Guardian notes that this is a particularly interesting development considering that in the version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that was ultimately published, the Oompa Loompas are “black pygmies from Africa” and drew criticism from the NAACP, who said it was basically a rosy depiction of slavery. Dahl said he didn’t mean it like that, but ultimately rewrote the characters “as white hippie-ish dwarves hailing from an invented place, ‘Loompaland,’” for a second American edition. (The movie, of course, just made them orange.)
Before anybody embraces Dahl as a hero of social justice, it bears noting that he unfortunately also said some seriously anti-Semitic shit. And frankly it’s unnerving to imagine how somebody who originally wrote the Oompa Loompas as he did would’ve written a black protagonist. But the whole story is a great illustration of the way the publishing and entertainment businesses have traditionally fearfully, preemptively narrowed their own horizons. And still do.