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Gene Wilder in the Willy Wonka movie juxtaposed with a Squid Game guard
Paramount Pictures/Netflix

Squid Game explained: it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for grown-ups

The Netflix phenomenon strikes a potent chord by riffing on the enduring children’s narrative about morality, greed and power

Nick Dent
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Nick Dent
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This article contains spoilers. 

An impoverished hero who needs a lucky break. A Golden Ticket that takes him into a colourful, childlike wonderland that is much more sinister than it first seems. A process of elimination in which there can only be one winner. A strange and mysterious ringmaster whose motives are only revealed at the very end. A popular narrative ripe with garish images of capitalism and inequality.

Yep, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pretty dark stuff wouldn’t you say?

Think about it. Netflix’s biggest ever show, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game, bears more than a slight resemblance to Roald Dahl’s ever-popular 1964 kids’ novel and the 1971 movie based on it, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Readers of the beloved book have long noted its menacing undercurrents, namely Wonka’s barely masked disregard for the safety of the children in his charge and his contempt for their follies. There’s even a parody true-crime podcast that portrays Charlie Bucket’s adventure as a dreadful ordeal, which it certainly is for the other four kids who take Wonka’s fateful tour.

I’ll come clean. I’ve been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my six-year-old son. And after his eyes droop and he heads off to nodsville, I’ve been taking some daddy time to binge on ultra-violent Korean TV drama. The two narratives may have gotten a little muddled in my head. But the parallels are more than obvious. 

In the book, the factory is an object of fascination for the world. Everyone admires Wonka as a successful businessman, even though (as is often pointed out) he has fired his human staff and replaced them with a slave labour force flown in from a foreign land. The Oompa-Loompas are even paid literal beans (cocoa beans) rather than actual wages. They are exploited workers, suffering as the unwitting test subjects of various dangerous Wonka products before the kids do. Similarly the pink-clad, faceless guards who run the Squid Game are an oppressed workforce, kept in tiny cells and winning instant death if they're unmasked to players or ‘spoil the fairness of the game’.  

Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is designed as a test for childish peccadilloes, and as the story progresses each child exposes themselves as guilty of a particular sin. For Augustus Gloop, it’s greed that sees him fall into the chocolate river and get sucked up the pipe like effluent. For Violet Beauregarde, a mania for chewing gum sees her inflate like a purple gum bubble herself. Veruca Salt’s crime is being entitled and demanding in a world all too willing to indulge her, while television-obsessed Mike Teavee fatefully equates fame with success. (What Dahl would have made of social media’s narcissists is almost too delicious to contemplate.)

In the same way, major characters in Squid Game die when their sins come home to roost, such as Jang Deok-su, the gangster whose mistreats the con woman Han Mi-nyeo and thus invites her revenge on the bridge of glass, or Ji-yeong, the young woman who has killed her abusive father and comes to realise she has literally nothing to live for. Of course, many more character deaths in the contest are simply perverse and ironic, illustrative not of any moral lesson but of a system bereft of morality.

And yet both stories are actually very clear morality tales on corruptive materialism and how only truly honest humanity is redeemable. Like Charlie Bucket, Squid Game’s hero, Seong Ji-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), proves his strength of character by the way he behaves during the game, showing and kindness to the old man, gratitude to the foreign worker who saves his life, loyalty to his old classmate, and empathy toward the North Korean defector. Seong’s reward is not just the money, it’s the ascension into the heaven implied by the high-altitude hospital bed where he finally meets the game’s true maker – with echoes of Charlie’s triumphant ascent in Wonka’s great glass elevator. 

What truly links both narratives in the pantheon of creepy things is the way they use childhood obsessions as bait

What truly links both narratives in the pantheon of creepy things is the way they use childhood obsessions as bait. Kids love chocolate, bubblegum, TV and cute animals, and Wonka waves these in front of his captive audience, daring them to step out of line. In Squid Game, the harmless joys of schoolyard games and treats mask the terrible reality of what being ‘eliminated’ means in a pitiless adult system. Picture the players desperately licking their dalgona candy, and compare it to Charlie tonguing the lickable wallpaper in the trippy Wonka film: two potent images of degradation before the free market. 

If only we’d stop putting our faith in dreams of riches and find commonality with those around us. If only we’d give up on the things that are bad for us as individuals and focus on the wellbeing of the group. Then we might not only survive the squid game of 21st century life, we might live in happiness too. Like the Oompa-Loompa (doom-pa-dee) do.  

As for my kid, he recently gave me the willies by asking me if I knew the game Red Light Green Light – such is Squid Game’s ubiquity, the lunchtime activities it draws upon have gone full circle and ended up back in the schoolyard. And according to a colleague’s slightly older kids, it’s become de rigueur in the playground to claim you’ve seen the Korean series in all its bullet-riddled detail. 

As if Dahl wasn’t dark enough stuff already.

Squid Game screens on Netflix. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is available on HBO Max, Google Play, Vudu and iTunes.

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