The moving finger

The Guardian reported yesterday, following an investigation by the Daily Telegraph, that

Roald Dahl’s children’s books are being rewritten to remove language deemed offensive by the publisher Puffin

although later in the article the changes are described as being made by “Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company”, the latter being the owners of Dahl’s rights. This is significant, because in 2021 the RDSC was bought out by Netflix. According to a statement from the RDSC, the review was initiated by Puffin and themselves in 2020, before the buyout. However, Netflix’s announcement at the time of the acquisition states that it “builds on the partnership we started three years ago” (i.e. 2018) “to create a slate of animated TV series”; this is going to include “a series based on the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (with Taika Waititi, Thor fans!). All in all, it seems likely that Netflix wanted to square off anything that might have created bad press for their forthcoming Dahl properties.

Bad press meaning what, though? There’s no suggestion (that I’ve seen) that the books were marred by the anti-Black racism seen in the characterisation of the original Oompa Loompas (more on whom anon), or by Dahl’s personal antisemitism. I haven’t got access to the original Telegraph feature, but here are some of the changes listed in the (many) articles which have been written about it.

Before After
fat (Augustus Gloop) enormous
ugly and beastly (Mrs Twit) beastly
“Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat
And tremendously flabby at that,”
“Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute
And deserved to be squashed by the fruit,”
“Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire
And dry as a bone, only drier.”
“Aunt Spiker was much of the same
And deserves half of the blame.”
most formidable female (Mrs Trunchbull) most formidable woman
“So I shipped them all over here – every man,
woman and child in the Oompa Loompa tribe!”
“So, they all agreed to come over – each and every Oompa Loompa.”
“I wish I was a grown-up,” Nigel said.
“I’d knock her flat.”
“I wish I was a grown-up,” Nigel said. “I’d give her a right talking to.”
“You’ve gone white as a sheet!” “You’ve gone still as a statue!”
Bunce, the little pot-bellied dwarf Bunce

We are no longer told that witches disguise themselves as women so successfully that a witch might be “working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” without anyone knowing; instead, the hypothetical undercover witch might be “working as a top scientist or running a business”, a change which inadvertently cranks up the paranoia in an already rather queasy conceit – not only are witches everywhere, they’re running everything! The grandmother in The Witches doesn’t tell the narrator that if he tries to pull off a woman’s wig to see if she’s a witch he’ll get into terrible trouble, but reminds him rather sententiously that women can wear wigs for many reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with them doing so. Elsewhere, Mike Teavee’s eighteen cap guns have been written out of the text and edited out of the illustrations; Matilda reads Jane Austen and John Steinbeck instead of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling; the Smallest Fox in Fantastic Mr Fox expresses his appreciation of cider before, rather than after, taking a drink; and all descriptions of people as “fat” or “ugly” (or “female”) have been removed or replaced. There are a lot of changes, and it’s hard to identify any overall rationale to them, unless it’s to remove anything that a liberal parent in 2023 might be embarrassed or reluctant to read out.

But I’m less concerned with the reason for the changes than with the fact that changes have been made, and a lot of them; the new, post-2021 edition of any of these books won’t be the same text as the pre-2021 edition. This isn’t the kind of thing we would want happening to Jane Austen (or Joseph Conrad); as a matter of fact it isn’t the kind of thing that happens to other early- and mid-twentieth century authors – Dorothy L. Sayers or Josephine Tey, for example – and if anyone tried it on we can easily imagine the reaction. By extension it seems like a bad thing to be happening to Roald Dahl. Doesn’t it?

Counter-Argument 1: “Oh come on, these are kids’ stories…!”

Not buying that one. You can keep your hands off Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit, Noel Streatfeild and Alan Garner, and in a very real sense wasn’t J. R. R. Tolkien…

CA 2: “Oh come on, you’re not putting Esio Trot and George’s Marvellous Medicine alongside The Hobbit?”

I’m saying whatever kids read is important enough to take seriously as literature – or at least, if there is a literature/trash threshold, it’s well below the Esio Trot level. And you don’t rewrite books that you take seriously as literature.

CA 3: “This is old news, though – and authors themselves aren’t precious about their text, not when there are good reasons not to be. Notoriously, And Then There Were None originally had a different title, but it was renamed – presumably with Agatha Christie’s approval – within two months. Dahl himself rewrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after approaches from the NAACP, which was concerned about the racist portrayal of the original Oompa Loompas.”

Yes, and it’s very much to his credit. The point when Roald Dahl died, however, is the point beyond which Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could no longer be revised by its author.

CA 4: “Authorial intent? Seriously? Are you telling me the words on the page of even the first edition of one of Dahl’s books were identical to the words he originally wrote? Have you any idea how many stages a book like that goes through, how many people get to look at it and make – sorry, suggest – changes? When it comes to mass-market publishing, the author is dead and has been for some time. By the same token, it’s not unusual for the text of a book to get a few tweaks when it’s reprinted.”

Fair enough, but the author Roald Dahl – like (say) J.R.R. Tolkien but unlike (say) J.K. Rowling – is also dead in the sense of being dead. Authors may not write every word that comes out under their name, but for anything that appears in their lifetime, we can assume that they have at least approved it. Past that point, we know for certain that they haven’t. (And what we’re looking at here is more than a few tweaks.)

CA 5: “So that’s it, the text is sacrosanct and should be preserved for evermore? What’s next, should kids be reading Little Black Sambo?”

I’m not saying any existing text should be preserved for evermore. Philip Pullman’s comment on the current brouhaha is instructive:

“If it does offend us, let him go out of print. That’s what I’d say. Read Phil Earle, SF Said, Frances Hardinge, Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman. Read Mini Grey, Helen Cooper, Jacqueline Wilson, Beverley Naidoo. Read all these wonderful authors who are writing today who don’t get as much of a look-in because of the massive commercial gravity of people like Roald Dahl.”

If it offends us, let it go – there are plenty of other authors. It’s harsh, but I think it’s correct. When I was a kid I was a huge fan of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books, some of which – sadly – prominently feature an African character for whom ‘problematic’ is barely an adequate word. You won’t find those books in the kids’ section of bookshops now, and I find it difficult to regret that, as fond as my memories of some of them are. J. P. Martin’s Uncle books are both masterpieces of unhinged inventiveness and unabashed hymns to the nobility and refinement of the hugely wealthy; personally I’d love to see them back in print, but I’m not sure where they could be shelved.

So no, I’m not saying everything should be preserved, or even everything that I liked. Dahl’s books have qualities that you won’t find in Jacqueline Wilson or Michael Morpurgo, but so do the Uncle books, so do the Doctor Dolittle books, so does The Wind on the Moon, so does The Log of the Ark… Times change, readers change; new books appear, old books disappear, and sometimes with good reason. But what I am saying is that any existing text that is preserved should be preserved unchanged.

CA 6: “It isn’t a big deal, though – it’s not government censorship, just a private company making an informed decision about what will and won’t sell.”

I don’t think anyone’s said that it’s government censorship. What it is, is a capitalist business rewriting children’s literature on the basis of what will and won’t sell. I think that is a big deal, even if some of the changes are hard to object to.

CA 7: “You said it yourself – you don’t actually object to the changes. There’s a reason for that – the changes are basically correct. They’re in line with the way that contemporary sensibilities have developed. Sure, there’s a minority who just want everything to stay the same, and we can have a bit of sympathy for them – we all have fond memories of the books we read as kids, after all – but most people realise that things have to change. Readers didn’t want racially-caricatured Oompa Loompas by 1971, so the book was changed – and today’s readers don’t want colonialism and body-shaming, so the book’s changing again.”

This is begging the question – to be precise, begging two different questions. We don’t know that the changes that have been made are appropriate to changing contemporary sensibilities. We know that Puffin and RDSW – Penguin Random House and Netflix – brought in an agency called Inclusive Minds to do a sensitivity reading of the Dahl corpus, and that these are the changes that resulted. In other words, we can be fairly sure that changes appropriate to changing sensibilities were what they were trying to achieve, but whether these actual changes do that is anybody’s guess; maybe it would be truer to today’s sensibilities to make a lot more changes (or just not reprint the books any more). Alternatively, maybe the mark to hit would actually involve making a lot fewer changes – perhaps take out the bit about women working as secretaries and leave it at that – although in that scenario Puffin and Netflix might not feel that Inclusive Minds had given value for money.

In any case, there’s a more important question here, which is simply the question of whether any changes should be made to a published book after its author’s death – and this counter-argument does nothing to answer that.

CA 8: “But what kids read is important – you said so yourself. Perhaps adult readers can skate over Josephine Tey’s right-wing politics or Dorothy Sayers’ casual antisemitism, but we don’t expect children to have that level of sophistication. Roald Dahl’s books are full of potentially hurtful allusions to appearance and body shape, and much else that could inculcate unthinking prejudices in child readers.”

Roald Dahl’s books are full of a number of things, including spite and cruelty; it’s worth remembering that he was not, in many ways, a nice guy. More importantly, the remorseless nastiness of some of his characters (and of what happens to them) is of a piece with the heightened, fairytale quality of his world-building – you should see what happens to people in some of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. Dahl’s narrators label people fat and ugly for the same reason that Miss Trunchbull calls her pupils ‘midgets’ – not despite the offence it could cause but because it’s offensive.

I think we should recognise the work that cruelty and spite – and dark themes and characters generally – can do, in children’s as well as adult literature; and, as far as imbibing prejudice from the page is concerned, we should probably have more trust in children’s reading ability. That said, if any of Dahl’s books (as he left them) turn out on repeat viewing to be really toxic, there’s always the option of not reprinting them. Otherwise, hey, publisher, leave that text alone – just like Dorothy L. Sayers, just like J.R.R. Tolkien.

CA 9: “You’re paying an awful lot of attention to what’s basically yet another anti-“woke” culture-war feature in the Telegraph. Shouldn’t we resist this scaremongering, the same way we resist all right-wing attempts to drum up a moral panic?”

If we should ignore culture-war journalism, then we should ignore this story – as in, not react to it at all: if we should avoid getting dragged into culture wars, then we should avoid getting dragged into this one. (How many demonstrations in favour of vaccination have you seen, or in favour of the World Economic Forum? Not our circus, not our monkeys.)

More specifically, if we think there’s an issue here we should take our own position on whatever that issue actually is, rather than look at what the Right’s saying and take the opposite position. Calling the Telegraph piece a culture-war feature is fair enough, but it doesn’t mean the analysis in it is necessarily wrong, let alone that the Left should be rallying to the defence of [check notes] Bertelsmann and Netflix.

At the end of the day, the rewrites – which is to say, the fact that they’re happening at all – are bad news for children’s literature. I hope all concerned take note of the reaction in the press – which has been substantial and global – and draw their horns in sharpish.



  1. Posted 20 February 2023 at 15:50 | Permalink | Reply

    The telegraph piece is here

  2. Posted 20 February 2023 at 16:01 | Permalink | Reply

    “if any of Dahl’s books (as he left them) turn out on repeat viewing to be really toxic, there’s always the option of not reprinting them.” – this is what the current initiative is aimed at *avoiding*, though – the changes are (I think) primarily designed to stop teachers in particular from deciding that aspects of this work are too problematic to teach and thus to set and thus to buy. For instance there’s a lot of grumbling about changing the BFG’s coat from being ‘black’ – but in fact it’s a systematic description of the BFG initially as black – e.g. the third iteration of “Something very tall and very black and very thin”. There’s enough there to dissuade a teacher from picking this book because of its – even if unintentional – association of ‘black’, a word typically now used to describe skin colour, with something to be feared. A teacher in e.g. Hackney is not going to think this suitable in a primary setting and they’d probably be right because of what it perpetuates, even if unknowingly. This is changed to ‘dark’, a word not often used with skin colour any more. I am ambivalent on the changes as I think Dahl’s work is irredeemably unpleasant and perpetuates so many phobias as to be unworthy of remaining canonical, but this is why they’ve been made, purely for profit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: