In Tim Burton's re-imagining of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Willy Wonka, played by Johnny Depp, is given a back story not found in previous versions of the tale, namely the original Roald Dahl story or the 1971 film. In this new version, the fantastic factory, with its sugary streams and candy contraptions, is for Wonka a haven from--and retaliation against--his father, a sweets-eschewing dentist. The factory is, of course, an edible Eden for everyone else. This connection between the factory and the idea of an earthly Elysium is made even clearer in the 1971 "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," where Wonka, played by Gene Wilder, sings, "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it."

While Wonka buffs will certainly debate which film better portrays Dahl's vision of paradise, what cannot be debated is that his sugary Shangri-La owes much to past descriptions of paradise. Throughout the long history of mythological depictions of paradise, many were associated with great wealth, such as El Dorado, the mythical South American country of gold and the lost island of Hy-Brasil. Others featured perfect health and an end to aging, like Shangri-La, the imaginary paradise depicted in the novel "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton. But one conceit that most visions of paradise seem to share is the abundance of food.

This goes back long before Roald Dahl ever imagined a factory with chocolate flowing like water. Numerous medieval European tales, songs, and poems described a mythical paradise called Cockaigne, which offered ideal living conditions, at least ideal for those in the Middle Ages. The Christian paradise, the Garden of Eden, was already shut tight, man had to labor and toil to stay alive, but "Cockaigne was open to everyone," notes Herman Pleij, who lectures on Dutch historical literature at the University of Amsterdam.

"Throughout the centuries," writes Pleij in his book "Dreaming of Cockaigne," "dreamlands and pleasure grounds have had a lot in common, especially as regards eating."

"This is remarkable," continues Pleij, "since it can't be explained by mutual influence or borrowing, certainly not if one takes into account only written texts."

In Cockaigne, for example, roasted pigs roamed about with knives already in their backs, and cooked fish would jump from the rivers right into your mouth. Even the architecture was edible, with dwellings being made of meat, fish, and pastry. One 13th-century French poem describes Cockaigne as having houses made of barley sugar and cakes and the streets lined with pastry.

In more recent days, "The Wizard of Oz" depicted its own vision of paradise, as Dorothy steps out of her black-and-white world to a land of bright colors, singing munchkins, and lollipops so important they have their own guild.

The food-paradise connection is not only prevalent in fiction and mythology, but also in a smorgasbord, so to speak, of religious faiths.

In Pure Land Buddhism, those who merit rebirth in the Pure Land, a paradise for the highly worthy, are provided with ready-made food.

In Muslim texts, we find the idea that heaven will be filled with rivers of milk and honey. The book of Matthew likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast. And, of course, there's the original biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, a place lush with abundant fruit, some so enticing that they were irresistible; Adam and Eve were tossed forth from a place where God willed all to grow, because they willed to eat an apple.

Certainly, it is easy to understand why authors living in biblical and medieval times would conceive of a palatable paradise; food was scarce and the fear of hunger was dispelled by images of abundant food in multiple varieties. But, what about in modern times, when food--for most Americans, at least--is readily abundant and affordable?

Angelic Atkins, a paradise for the 21st century

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  • "Images of heaven in the media often have a gustatorial component to them," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "For the modern heaven, we see heaven as the ultimate pleasure, and for most people food is one of the greatest pleasures they have."

    A quick survey of pop culture proves the point. Jimmy Buffet sings of a cheeseburger being paradise, while Homer Simpson is constantly envisioning heaven as a place full of beer and doughnuts or as a fantastic Land of Chocolate where everything is edible, including the dogs.

    Food, of course, is not the only earthly pleasure we may wish to see magnified in a vision of heaven. Sex would certainly be up there on most people's lists, and that's a part of pop-culture paradise, too: Think of Meat Loaf's 1977 hit "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." That also has medieval precedent in Cockaigne, where sexual pleasure was an important component.

    But in American media, which tends to the more puritanical side of things, sex as paradise doesn't really sell in the way food does. "The American tradition has identified sexual pleasure with sin, so eating is a safe way to describe ultimate pleasure. Gluttony is certainly a sin, but not one Americans put a lot of credence in," notes Thompson.

    Indeed, gluttony is embraced in Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life," which takes the concept of food in paradise, or the afterlife, to its logical 20th-century conclusion: the no-calorie paradise. Newly departed souls sent to Judgment City enjoy the best food they've ever tasted, in the grandest amounts they've ever seen, and never gain a pound. A sort of Angelic Atkins diet.

    Similarly, "Groundhog Day" offers its own vision of paradise, a place where Bill Murray's character can keep trying until he gets things perfect--and he, too, can eat whatever he wants without consequence.

    So with scarcity of food no longer an issue for most people in America, empty-calorie edibles--foods eaten purely for enjoyment--have taken the place of the ripe fruit and protein-rich meats of paradises-past. Willy Wonka's factory would not have the same appeal for us, of course, if it made, say, brussel sprouts. But still, candy represents something even more primordial than latter-day gluttony. "Sweets are the memorials of our innocence," writes Tim Richards in "Sweets: A History of Candy."

    "The history of sweets goes back a long, long way, right back to the earliest human civilizations [sic], and (until the late 20th century) mankind always associated this sweetness with goodness and pleasure."

    And what is "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" all about if not a return to innocence, a return to paradise?

    After the other children's greed gets them expelled from the tour of the Wonka factory, Charlie Bucket and his Grandpa Joe are the only pair left standing. But Willy Wonka knows that Charlie and his Grandpa have been up to no good as well, and refuses them the rest of the prize, a life-time supply of chocolate. Charlie ends up repenting, by returning a super-secret candy he planned to make off with, and is given the keys to the factory--to paradise--by Wonka.

    And there you have it--sin and repentance, reward and punishment, with lemondrops as the backdrop. Which makes Roald Dahl's confectionary conception of paradise just perfect.

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