Offended or Provoked? Factory of Dismay

Recently, I came across something that I cannot believe has taken this long for me to discover. I’m talking ofcourse, about the 50th anniversary book cover edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2014. The cover image, which was appropriated from a 2008 issue of Numero Magazine, caused controversy among fans who felt that the image was inappropriate for appearing sexualized, or not central to the main character of the fictionwhilst according to a Facebook post, Penguin wanted the cover to draw attention to the children of the story, appealing towards a less juvenile representation than people were used to. It seems that this cover embraces the darker side of the novel, which in this case reflects its dual nature as both an adult and children’s book.

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Although I can see why people might find the cover unsettling, I am surprised at the majority’s disapproval. In my opinion, the cover is brilliant. It challenges the general associations with the novel, which is mainly pictured as a story for children due to the excitement about a chocolate factory that becomes accessible to the lucky winners of a golden ticket (no spoilers). Yet the totality of the story can be appreciated by adults much in the same way stories like Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland appeal to adults – by having different dimensions of meaning. In this case, the novel lightly speaks to children about poverty, luck and moral behaviour, whilst for adults it presents a world where the dangers of spoiling children become manifest in ways that devastate the parents responsible for it. In other words, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great story, but that is hardly the point of this blog. What I would like to talk about is why I think this is a good (I actually think it is a great) cover.

As a visual person, I like things that can subtly push buttons without resorting to obvious shock-tactics. An image that can induce a certain level of discomfort must be a very powerful image, because it presents no real-life threat and does virtually nothing but sit on a surface, therefore the ‘damage’ it imparts is purely upon the imagination. Moreover, there is nothing that can be directly pinpointed as a source of inappropriateness. A child wearing make up? We’ve seen it all before in beauty pageants, dramas and fashion magazines; sexual abuse? The child, who sits beside her mother, could be looking at anything, and her fixed gaze suggests that she is passively staring – as if her eyes found the smallest thing to focus upon as her mind attends to an inner disturbance of some sort. This outward projection of internal unrest constitutes half of what I find unsettling about this picture, and mostly what excites me about it.

The reason I like it this much is because I believe it prompts questions; like why is that expression at the focal point of the image? Why has this image been chosen as a representation of the story, is there something I am missing out? Am I to find out by reading the book, or am I to keep looking for other visual cues around the composition? The intrigue is that the answer may remain unknown, and this way the question is left to linger, the excitement made to last. In-fact, it could easily be the reason why some tend to disfavour the image – there is something unsolved and undisclosable, which may irritate some as much as it can excite others.

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Here’s a picture of the image in it’s original context, a spread from issue 97 of Numero Magazine, titled Mommie Dearest.

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