The Story Behind Roald Dahl's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

On March 28th 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' will begin previews as a Broadway musical. We devour some sweet — and bittersweet — facts behind the origins of Roald Dahl's most famous work.
Roald Dahl Photo

Roald Dahl Photo By Tony Evans/Getty Images

Among his many children's books, Roald Dahl's 1964 confectionary tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is his most prominent. A story about a candy manufacturer named Willy Wonka who opens up his magical factory to five lucky children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory went on to spawn two films and sell over 20 million copies worldwide.

On March 28th Dahl's book will once again be adapted, this time for the Broadway stage, allowing fans to relish in the sweet and imaginative tale that Dahl spun during a unique and particularly trying time in his life.

While writing the story, Dahl experienced two major tragic events. The first was in 1960, during which his infant son was in a car accident and sustained massive head injuries. For the next 18 months, the author put Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on hold and concentrated on creating a valve that would alleviate fluid build-up in his son's brain. Two years later, Dahl's seven-year-old daughter developed encephalitis and died.

It was in the creation of Willy Wonka that close friend and Dahl biographer Donald Sturrock saw the influence that these two events had on him, especially when he was helping his young son. “This sense of the magic, the genius of the inventor, I think is very clear in Wonka,” Sturrock said, “and also that sense of a really strong, dominant personality who could overcome anything. I think he poured himself into Wonka, and the more you know about the difficult circumstances of his own private life as he was writing the book, the more sympathetic and extraordinary Wonka becomes.”

But thankfully, many elements of Dahl's book came from happier times. A rabid lover of chocolate and candy, Dahl grew up being a chocolate taste tester. Even earlier in his childhood, Dahl remembered the days in which he would stare at a local candy store's window and admire the piles of sweet treats on display. His favorite? A sherbert sucker that was dipped in licorice.

"... You sucked the sherbet [powder] up through the straw and when it was finished you ate the licorice," he recalled. "The sherbet fizzed in your mouth, and if you knew how to do it, you could make white froth come out of your nostrils ..."

Of the candy companies that reigned supreme in Dahl's youth were Cadbury and Rowntree. The competition was so fierce between the companies that they actually planted spies to discover each other's trade secrets — a surprising real-life plot point in Dahl's book.

By the time Dahl was raising his own children, he observed how big candy corporations were swallowing up the local candy shops that he so loved. Using antagonistic characters like Mr. Slugworth, Mr. Prodnose, and Mr. Fickelgruber — spies and saboteurs who try to steal Wonka's recipes — Dahl expressed his disdain for these corporations and their generic manufacturing of candy. With the help of the Oompa Loompas, Wonka is able to keep his candy secrets intact and eventually offer his most honest, well-behaved pupil, Charlie Bucket, the keys to his factory.