I have a very soft spot for Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator since it was hearing the old Rainbow Theatre dramatization on audio tape (wonder if anyone remembers those) that began both my love of the works of Roald Dahl - at the age of three or four - and my intensive dislike of reading a series out of order. Fortunately, my dad remedied the situation by reading me the first book, and before my fifth birthday I'd read the complete version of the second book as well in unabridged format, plus a good few other of Dahl's works (I finished the whole Dahl collection before I was 7).
So for me the adventures of Charlie Bucket and Mr. Wonka were only half over by the time that great glass elevator smashed through the factory roof. Yet, for some odd reason, this seems to be a rather lesser known work in the Dahl collection, especially when compared to its illustrious predecessor, which is a shame.
The book begins exactly where the previous book finished, with Mr. Wonka, Charlie and his family travelling to the factory in the flying glass elevator of the title.
Dahl did not tend to write sequels, and unfortunately the introduction definitely shows why, since his attempt to reacquaint readers with the previous book and its characters, is more than a little clunky. I found it took a while for Dahl's usual easy, humorous and occasionally quite pointed style to replace slightly clumsy exposition, which was slightly off.
I'm not sure whether it was due to the 7 year gap between Dahl's writing of Chocolate Factory and Glass Elevator but I immediately noticed something of a change in the way several characters were portrayed.
In the case of Charlie and Mr. Wonka this was a distinct improvement. Charlie is no longer the rather passive character he was towards the end of the previous book, and Mr. Wonka, outside of his factory turns into a mischievous, fun loving figure. Wonka’s bucking of authority, casual use of nonsense, quick thinking on the fly and scatty explanations were fantastic, his claims to occasional deafness every time someone questions him too closely made me howl! One thing I now wonder is if my life-time love of Doctor Who actually began with Willy Wonka and Charlie in this book, since Wonka reminded me very strongly of the happy-go-lucky but still slightly mysterious second Doctor with Charlie as his assistant (he even has a semi magical box that can go most anywhere).
In the case of other characters however, changes were less welcome. With Wonka taking on the roll of Charlie's mentor, the wise and gentle Grandpa Jo seemed to fade slightly into the background for much of the book, while Charlie's parents spent most of their time in a state of quiet amazement.
I actually don't think handling large groups of characters interacting was a strong suit of Dahls, since as with the Monkeys in The Twits, or the fox family in Fantastic Mr Fox he seems to need to sideline some members and only deal with two or three principle players. The only instance I can think of where he succeeded with a larger group was in James and the Giant Peach.
My major issue however is Dahl's decision to paint Charlie's three still bedridden old grandparents as the book's antagonists. In the first part of the book they spend their time bitterly complaining at getting out of bed, and calling Mr. Wonka mad. While these cantankerous characters are undoubtedly entertaining, I did find them very at odds to the story telling, friendly old people of the first book.
When an argument with Grandma Georgina sends the elevator too high into Earth's orbit, Charlie and company find themselves encountering an American space capsule transporting staff to the newly launched space hotel. Mr. Wonka decides to board the hotel to see what's on there first, and after being threatened by the Americans for being possible enemy agents makes up a story that he and his friends are men from Mars, only to find the hotel host to a dangerous interstellar species, the vermicious knids.
This is where one of the major themes of the book is introduced, that of a rather gentle political satire. While I do find it a bit odd that the supposed internationally famous Space Hotel launch was never mentioned in the news previously (especially with newspapers and reports playing such a part in the previous book) I'm quite willing to ignore that just for Dahl's wonderful portrayal of an American cabinet trying to cope with a world crisis who act like a bunch of naughty school children, overseen by the president's formidable old nurse. This section got very comic and especially puntastic, such as the President telling the premier of Russia "this is where you get off, Yugetof".
I also was quite amazed at Dahl's ability (much as was said of the late Terry Pratchett) to be extremely satirical, but at the same time never cruel or deliberately trying to push a set ideology. This can be seen when the President's nurse crossly tells the Chief of the army after one too many outbursts of "blow them up" to go and stand in the corner and stop being silly, where upon the rest of the staff applaud. The President is quick to act and decisive, albeit rather too easily inclined to jump to the wrong conclusion, indeed even though the political landscape has changed the idea of a president whose mind goes all too quickly to enemy agents carrying bombs and makes threatening calls to foreign powers is definitely still relevant, albeit that like the Queen in The BFG the President is still a kindly and much respected figure who will do the right thing in the end and not just a total buffoon existing for parody.
Another fact which strongly reminded me of Doctor Who was the appearance of the Knids as alien monsters. The Knids are undoubtedly some of Dahl's most frightening creations, shaped like huge eggs with brownish green slimy skin and red eyes, able to stretch and change shape and swallow people whole despite not having a mouth.
The scene in which Charlie and co step onto the deserted Space Hotel, then see five lifts descend and open each revealing a Knid is absolutely spine-chilling, and the moment in which the transport capsules crew and several hotel staff are devoured by the Knids, with their screams over the radio and only the astronaut commander Shuckworth's description to the President of what happened has shades of Ridley Scott's Aliens.
My only problem with this section is the Elevator itself becomes something of a utility belt: tow ropes, knid proof glass, the ability to withstand the heat of re-entry even though Mr Wonka went into orbit by accident - it all seems a little convenient although I will give Dahl credit in how he manages to have the knids remain a threat even though it's made quite clear the Elevator is absolutely knid proof.
The group then descend rapidly, smashing back through the roof and into the factory with the ever-singing Oompa Loopas. Wonka tries to persuade the old people to get out of bed and help Charlie and he run the factory, but they refuse so he introduces his latest magical creation, Wonkavite, which makes a person twenty years younger, and offers it to the three squabbling grandparents.
I initially was rather confused with how this plot surrounding Wonkavite seemed to negate Wonka's need for an apprentice to take over running the factory mentioned in the first book (his explanation that the stuff is too precious to waste on him really doesn't wash, especially with how he casually doles it out to three less than pleasant comparative strangers). However it did occur to me that he does say he only discovered Wonkavite two weeks previously, and also that Wonka could still be looking for a companion and friend as much as for an apprentice which is exactly what he seems to have found in Charlie.
This is however where I really am not sure of the characterization of the three grandparents, since all three suddenly turn greedy and grasping, fighting over the drug. While I love Mr Wonka's world weary sadness at this, the fact that he supplies the bottle but then refuses to take part in the argument, his both understated and cynical "oompa' loompa's are always ready to help" when he realizes they will all take massive overdoses was a nice moment. Again, I can't square this with the kindly old people from the first book at all.
Grandpa Jo does express the quite understandable desire to be young again, but certainly doesn't join in the fight, neither do Charlie's parents despite asking for one pill each so as to not feel tired or have aching feet anymore (a nice call back to the Bucket's poverty). While it's a lovely moment both thematically and morally, particularly with how Mr. Wonka ties it to greed for money, I just find it hard to accept on character grounds.
Due to their overdoses Grandpa George and Grandma Josephine are reduced to being babies, and Georgina actually loses more years than she'd lived and vanishes.
Charlie however decides that it's better to recover Grandma Georgina and with Mr Wonka they set off in the Elevator for Minus Land.
I have to say, this section was the climax of the book for me. On the way, Charlie sees yet more of the wonderful factory while Mr. Wonka explains about the development of Viterwonk, a drug that makes people older, which he used to recover those converted into minuses due to his earlier tests. I was first pleased that this shows Wonka doesn't treat the Oompa Loompas as simply disposable guinea pigs for his experiments but regards them as friends, and also I was pleased to see more mysterious regions of the factory, expanding the sense of wonder.
When the two reach Minus Land - a misty, underground dark hell - the horror elements return in full force. Mr. Wonka tells Charlie of the Gnoolies who live in Minus Land who are nearly Lovecraftian in the way he describes them: "they don't look like anything Charlie, they can't."
Wonka's honest assertion that he was glad Charlie was with him here was a truly lovely moment, particularly given it's incredibly dark setting.
The two succeed in hitting the ghostly Georgina with Viterwonk then return to the surface to find she's now become 358 years old due to an overdose. Charlie and Mr Wonka then work out her age by asking her of her youth, then return her to her original age and grow up both babies with Viterwonk.
While I don't blame Dahl for this, I do always feel the "and we must return everything to status quo for the ending" trope is a bit of a cop-out since it often makes things feel as if they're running on the spot. I also confess Mr Wonka's casual use of Wonkavite here also bothered me since again, if he was willing to expend so much of the supposedly precious substance just to return a stranger, why not take a couple himself?
Despite the jaunt to the wonderfully dark Minus Land, I have to say this last half of the book felt rather flat, and more like marking time than progression.
Finally, the book finishes with a note from the President of the US inviting all who were in the Elevator to come and be awarded medals of honour and stay at the Whitehouse in thanks for the help they gave to the space capsule during the knid attack, an invitation which forces the three old people to finally get out of bed in order to come.
Again, since this relates only to the first half of the book, it does rather make the Wonkavite section feel a little aimless. I'd actually rather have had the old people (including Grandpa Jo), given a dose or two of Wonkavite at the end which enabled them to go, although the overcoming of their own stubborn desire to cling to their perceived helplessness was a nice moment.
Apparently Dahl was planning a third book entitled Charlie in the Whitehouse, though sadly only one chapter was finished, so here, leaving the factory for a ceremony of honour with the American President is where Charlie's story comes to a close.
In general Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is a very wild ride. The book has a rather different emphasis to the first. Where the Chocolate Factory was something of a fairy tale, Great Glass Elevator is far more a straight up adventure story. While I can see that some people who want something pretty much the same as the first book might be disappointed, especially in the changes in character around the old people, Great Glass Elevator has a great deal to offer that the first book didn't, from gentle satire to tinges of monster horror.
Despite my issues with characters and some of the feeling that the second half fell slightly flat due to the return to status quo (though it also had the awesomely dark Minus Land) I have to say Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is a classic that fulfils all requirements of a true sequel. It takes the characters through a new and very different journey, it advances the relationship between the two principle cast members (even if it fails the old people slightly) and it ends by cementing the lessons learned in the first book.
To do all this peppered with jokes, rhymes and puns and the trademark Dahl humour, as well as tinges of horror and satire. Well, I'm always amazed how little this book is remembered, and I really hope it enjoys the reputation it deserves in the future.
Review by Dark
1 positive reader review(s) for Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Amal from Pakistan
In this book Charlie went in an elevator which takes him to space and then he goes to a space hotel and to different adventures.
Tan from Singapura
Wow! I have Charlie and the chocolate factory book. Thanks for all the book's interesting things
Simrandeep Kaur from Punjab, India
Roald Dahl is my favourite author. I have read the book Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I love this book, the way in which he invented the vita wonk. Thanks for writing this book.
9.8/10 from 4 reviews