Tuesday 25 June 2019

Charlie and the coquettish factory sensationalises classic

The Penguin Modern Classics new edition 'adult' cover of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Penguin Modern Classics new edition 'adult' cover of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

IF we do judge a book by its cover than what does the cover of the new edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory suggest to you?

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the children's classic by Roald Dahl, the book has been entered into Penguin's hall of fame, its Modern Classics collection.

In honour of such an auspicious occasion, it has undergone something of a facelift with Penguin debuting its new cover art this week.

Gone are Quentin Blake's effervescent illustrations, which delighted generations of readers, and in their place is a highly made-up blonde girl staring blankly from the cover.

"This new image for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl's writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life," explained Penguin.

Really? Because all I can see is a highly sexualised image of a young girl, caked in make-up and drowning in a feather boa perched beside her mannequin-esque mother, and I don't remember that character from the novel.

To say that the new image has been greeted with almost universal loathing is something of an understatement.

Some of the more charitable comments, on Penguin's Facebook page, have decried it as "creepy", "trashy" and "inappropriate".

In fact, the list of pejorative adjectives, which could be used to describe it, is endless. What was Penguin thinking?

The publisher would presumably defend its cover as being designed for inclusion in a series that is largely full of adult titles.

Adults are serious and so this is a serious cover that shoehorns the book into a collection that also boasts authors like Kafka, Orwell and Joyce.

Forgotten in this analysis is that the book is a children's book that is supposed to be read by children.

Dahl was a genius but his appeal to adult readers is pretty limited and it's hard to imagine children, especially boys, being enticed by this cover and picking up the book.

Penguin, regrettably, has committed a cardinal marketing sin: it has forgotten who its target audience is.

It probably thinks the cover is edgy, risqué and cool. I imagine that executives, when it was pitched, were thrilled to learn that Charlie, Willie Wonka and the chocolate factory had been airbrushed out.

Everyone was presumably delighted at how postmodern and subversive it sounded.

But, in reality, the cover is hackneyed, generic and, frankly, bizarre.

Is the marketing industry so bereft of imagination that, given the opportunity to illustrate a cover for a timeless classic like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they immediately think: young girl, make-up, pouting?

It's a prototype that is not only ubiquitous in the advertising world, but also bears a striking resemblance to the image featured on another of Penguin's modern classics, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, in which a blonde girl with painted nails and red lips simpers on the cover.

At least, in that instance, the image is understandable and, given the storyline of the book, appropriate.

In contrast, the cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels like a desperate attempt to court controversy.

If the publishers really wanted to allude to some of the adult subjects in the book, why not highlight the themes of poverty and inequality that permeate Dahl's work.

Instead, we get a dead-eyed baby beauty queen who is presumably supposed to depict either Violet Beauregarde or Veruca Salt, although it's worth noting that, in the book, Salt's father, and not her mother, accompanies her to the factory and Beauregarde is portrayed as a tomboy.

Hopefully, after this debacle, Penguin will learn that publishing great classics comes with great responsibility - namely, a responsibility not to wreck them with lurid sensationalism.

Irish Independent

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