Cover art for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shows dark side of story

Literary world frowns at stomach-churning jacket of Roald Dahl classic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 7:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

The legions of readers buying physical books may be growing smaller. But when you mess with their classics, they are as loud as they have ever been.

That was what Penguin discovered last week, when the publishing house's British arm announced the cover art for a 50th-anniversary edition of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

It is an image of a doll-like little girl decked out in heavy make-up and a pink feather boa - no Willy Wonka, no Charlie, and certainly no chocolate.

Although the new edition would be printed only in Britain, it was controversial enough that bookworms worldwide voiced their outrage.

"You mean, the worst cover ever?" Hannah Depp, a floor manager at Washington bookstore Politics and Prose, said.

"Well, not the worst ever," she backpedalled. "It just looks like, 'I think I'm cleverer than I am'."

The cover is certainly a departure from other incarnations of the Dahl classic, most of which have featured illustrations by British artist Quentin Blake.

But the Modern Classics imprint under which the new edition will be released is not a children's book line.

Instead, the sleek yet strange version of Charlie was probably intended for older readers, Nan Graham, publisher of New York-based imprint Scribner, said.

Adults who would not want to be seen reading the story of a cheery jaunt through a candy factory might be more interested in the new version, whose cover emphasised Dahl's dark commentary on parents who acted like children and children who must parent themselves.

It was a common strategy for publishers, who were always trying to carve out new markets for their books, Graham said.

Is that what the editors behind the new Charlie cover are going for? A blog post accompanying the announcement about the jacket art suggests its eeriness is not unintentional.

"This new image … 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," it reads.

But people in the literary circles were not sold on the rebranding. Commenters on Penguin's Facebook page called it "creepy", "sexualised" and "inappropriate garbage".

"The impulse to focus on the darker aspects of the book makes a lot of sense to me, but I'm just so shocked by the result," Depp said.

Therein lies the problem with modern reprintings: a revamped cover can help sell an old story to a new audience, but it runs the risk of alienating the book's established fans.

"They care about the book the way they remember it," Chip Kidd, a New York-based graphic designer who churns out about 75 book covers a year, said.

Penguin UK is not the first publishing house to incur the wrath of literature lovers by changing a classic cover. Last summer, when Scribner put US actor Leonardo DiCaprio on the jacket of author F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to capitalise on the popularity of the movie, the book world revolted.

"We never even took the non-movie tie-in edition out of print," Graham said. "And still we got into trouble."