“Every writer should be his own censor.” Readers might be surprised to learn that this statement came from the mouth of the author Roald Dahl, in an interview given in 1989 less than a year before he died. “I don’t hold with all this ‘I’m a member of the Society of Authors’ stuff,” he went on. “They seem to think that unlike other people they have a God-given right to publish exactly what they want. All of us should exercise a degree of censorship. In my children’s books, there’s a wild degree of censorship.”
This was a characteristically hypocritical declaration from Dahl – his biographer, Donald Sturrock, writes that “almost everyone who knew him agreed that he had precious little capacity” for being his own censor. Few would agree that Dahl’s gleefully vindictive books bear the marks of censorship to “a wild degree”. At least, until recently. An investigation by the Telegraph has revealed that hundreds of changes have been made to the most recent editions of Dahl’s books, published by Puffin (the children’s division of Penguin), which edit out or rewrite potentially offensive language.
The changes range from the removal of outright racist stereotypes to the deletion of the word “fat”, gendered phrases (be it “chambermaid”, “females” or “hag”) and references to “pink” or “white” skin. In some cases, these are minor tweaks to one or two words in a sentence. Others are far more interventionist, including entire songs rewritten in James and the Giant Peach, or new sentences added in The Witches which explain that there are myriad reasons why people might wear wigs. Some of the changes to the stories are understandable – few would defend preserving sentences containing racist stereotyping in The BFG, for example. Others are harder to understand: where is the logic in removing the word “black” from a description of an item of clothing?
The author Salman Rushdie characterised the edits as “absurd censorship” and said the publishers should be “ashamed”. (Dahl did not show Rushdie the same support in his lifetime – he was one of the few writers who criticised Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses.) A statement from the Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the rights to his books, insists: “Any changes made have been small and carefully considered… to ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”
This overhaul of Dahl’s work comes soon after the Roald Dahl Story Company was acquired by Netflix in 2021, cementing a relationship that began when the streaming platform bought the rights to several of Dahl’s works in 2018 and announced an “imaginative story universe” to come. In 2020, the Roald Dahl Story Company quietly apologised for Dahl’s anti-Semitism on its website. Although the company was keen to insist that the process of editing the latest editions of the books began before the Netflix purchase, it feels unlikely the timing is purely coincidental. At the time of the acquisition, Netflix said its Dahl universe would emphasise the books’ “messages of the strength and possibility of young people and of the power of kindness” – a description that does not seem wholly representative of Dahl’s naughty, chaotic stories. “A belief in the growing relevance of this message and its positive impact is at the heart of everything RDSC does.”
The problem for the Roald Dahl Story Company is that the fiction of Roald Dahl is nasty – therein lies both its appeal to children and what we as parents or adults find jarring or even repulsive about his work and his personal life. Dahl’s biographers describe him as a “bully” who could be misogynistic and anti-Semitic. His fictional characters are monstrous hypocrites depicted with vindictive glee – from the “flabby” Aunt Sponge to the “formidable” Miss Trunchbull with her “massive thighs” to the “indecent” bald, claw-fingered villains of The Witches. In The Twits, he explicitly writes that bad thoughts “show on the face” – making it “uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it”. These vivid grotesques are often defined by their appearances in ways we might find misogynist, fatphobic or simply cruel. It also makes them immediately legible, and thrillingly subversive, to children.
Dahl was no stranger to such criticisms in his lifetime – he worked with editors to soften the violent, amoral landscape of his stories, sometimes pushing back against their feedback (“I am not as frightened of offending women as you are,” he wrote to one editor with concerns about the sexism of The Witches) – but often accepting changes, too. The depiction of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – originally black pygmies from “the African jungle” happily enslaved by Willy Wonka – was deemed racist by contemporary critics: revisions were made to editions throughout the 1970s. Still, Dahl rarely apologised for the sheer nastiness of his writing. “The only way to make my characters really interesting is to exaggerate,” he said. “If a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty and very bad and very cruel. And if they’re ugly, you make them extremely ugly.”
Now “relevance”, “kindness” and “positive impact” are the qualities corporations demand of children’s media. And intellectual property and expanding “universes” of content designed to appeal to children and nostalgic adults are some of the most financial valuable assets in Hollywood. In this media landscape, it is more appealing to retrofit existing literature to harmonise with these values than it is to invest in new stories. The Roald Dahl Story Company has a vested interest in sanitising Dahl’s fiction to ensure it remains “relevant” for new generations, has uncontroversial mass appeal and, most importantly, keeps making money. The new adaptations of Dahl’s works may be gentler, lovelier, more palatable than the originals. But cosmetic changes to his stories cannot alter their spirit. For better or worse, the books themselves will remain spiky, problematic and unapologetically nasty.
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon