Real-life espionage that inspired Dahl's classic.

What really happened.
July 15 2005 1:13 PM

Chocolate Wars

The inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.


Roald Dahl's sweet-laden children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a remake of which opens today in movie theaters nationwide, tells the fantastical story of Willy Wonka, an eccentric candy maker who offers five children the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit his magical factory. Just what goes on inside is a tightly held secret, and the lure of the mystery sends millions scurrying for one of the lucky invitations—golden tickets tucked inside five Wonka bars. On the tour, outlandish misfortunes befall the children one by one—comeuppance for their spoiled behavior—until only honest, thoughtful Charlie Bucket remains, and Charlie receives the biggest prize of all—the factory itself.

Because of the happily-ever-after ending, the story is generally viewed as a straightforward parable, a typical Dahl treatment of the consequences of boorishness. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is far more. Dahl himself was obsessed with sweets, and he waxed nostalgic about the candies of his youth, many of which disappeared over the course of his life as industrial behemoths squeezed out the mom-and-pop confectioners he so adored. The result of his personal experience is the mythical world of Willy Wonka, which is not innocent fiction drawn from thin air, but a no-holds-barred parody of the real-world candy industry, a world every bit as strange as Mr. Wonka himself.


Because many candy firms are privately held, and, more important, because candy recipes are not patentable, the candy industry is extraordinarily secretive. It is impossible to stop competitors from stealing hot products and selling them as their own. Take the American coconut bar Mounds. Forrest Mars Sr., patriarch of the Mars candy empire, stole the idea for Mounds in the 1950s and took it to Britain, calling his version Bounty. Bounty remains a best-seller today; the Brits have never heard of Mounds.

During Dahl's childhood, the two largest British candy firms, Cadbury and Rowntree, sent so many moles to work in competitors' factories that their spying became legendary. This devious corporate practice serves neatly as Dahl's premise:

"You see, Charlie, not so very long ago there used to be thousands of people working in Mr. Willy Wonka's factory. Then one day, all of a sudden, Mr. Wonka had to ask every single one of them to leave, to go home, never to come back."
"But why?" asked Charlie.
"Because of spies."
"Yes. All the other chocolate makers, you see, had begun to grow jealous of the wonderful candies that Mr. Wonka was making, and they started sending in spies to steal his secret recipes. The spies took jobs in the Wonka factory, pretending they were ordinary workers, and while they were there, each one of them found out exactly how a certain special thing was made."

The real-life espionage became so pervasive that candy makers in Europe—where virtually all of the important industry innovations were taking place—began routinely employing detectives to keep track of workers. Sensitive manufacturing processes were off-limits to all but the most loyal workers. And outsiders dealing with candy makers were forced to sign strict, highly punitive confidentiality agreements.

For example, when Nestlé first figured out how to successfully blend milk and chocolate, only a handful of Nestlé executives knew how the complete milk chocolate-making process worked. The company also conducted employee background checks and put "suspicious" workers under surveillance. At Hershey's, an elite few are privy to the proper mix of cocoa beans required to produce Hershey's distinct chocolate flavor. And Mars blindfolds outside contractors when it's necessary to escort them through its factories.

Dahl experienced the industry's obsession with secrecy firsthand. At age 13, he attended Repton, a prestigious public boarding school in Derbyshire, not far from Cadbury headquarters. Cadbury executives used Dahl and his fellow students at Repton as taste testers. It was the perfect setup—an isolated population of teens and preteens who exchanged confidentiality for a little gray box containing a grading sheet and 12 different bars of chocolate—one "control" bar and 11 new confections. Wrapped in plain foil and marked by number, each bar was judged by the boys and rated from zero to 10; Cadbury then asked the boys to explain their grade.

In his autobiography Boy, Dahl recalls the elaborate daydreams inspired by his job—a Byzantine laboratory overflowing with glass beakers, bubbling potions, and Rube Goldberg machines, where men worked tirelessly concocting new sweets. "It was lovely dreaming those dreams, and I have no doubt at all that, thirty-five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them."

This wasn't the only experience that fed his fascination with candy. By age 7, Dahl recalls, his childhood sweetshop in Llandaff, South Wales, was the center of his universe. His favorite pastime? Standing in front of the shop's picture window, enchanted by the mounds of goodies piled high on display. The store carried the only kind of sweets available at the time: unbranded, handmade penny candies like lemon drops and peppermint twists manufactured on a small scale. Dahl's personal favorite was the sherbet sucker wrapped in licorice: "... You sucked the sherbet [powder] up through the straw and when it was finished you ate the licorice. ... The sherbet fizzed in your mouth, and if you knew how to do it, you could make white froth come out of your nostrils ..."



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.