Politically correct but at what cost? Roald Dahl’s books are being rewritten
In the new version of Roald Dahl's books, its characters are not described by colours, shapes and sizes, or their race, stripping the books away of their rawness.
Wednesday February 22, 2023,
5 min Read
Cardiff-born, fighter pilot-turned-writer Roald Dahl died in 1990. Long after he is gone, he remains one of the most successful children’s authors of all time, with popular titles such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and The Fabulous Mr. Fox, under his name, having sold more than 250 million copies.
Recently—in an unexpected and controversial turn of events— The Telegraph reported that hundreds of words were being changed in Dahl’s famous titles to make them more inclusive and suitable for the times we live in.
Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights of these books, has worked along with Puffin Books (a vertical of Penguin Books) and Inclusive Minds (a collaboration of campaigners and consultants who are passionate about inclusive, diversity, equality, and accessibility in children’s literature) to make these changes.
According to The Roald Dahl Story Company, these changes are small and have been carefully considered to ensure that Dahl’s books continue to stay relevant for children of this generation. Puffin further stated that they regularly review the language of their books to ensure they stay relevant.
A few distinct examples of these changes are editing and removing words like ‘ugly’ to describe Mrs Twit from the book The Twits (1980). Similarly, in the 1964 version of Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the character Augustus Gloop’s description has been edited from ‘enormously fat’ to just ‘enormous.’ In fact, in Matilda (1988), Rudyard Kipling’s reference has been edited to include Jane Austen.
The original went:
‘She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.’
But the latest version reads:
‘She went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.’
In The Twits, ‘weird African language’ has been altered to just ‘African language.’
Most of these changes, if not all, have to do with race, colour, gender, violence, and a person's physical characteristics–in a bid to make Dahl’s books politically correct. These edits are made to ensure that these books have a longer shelf life. The underlying reason for the same can be attributed to the 2021 arrangement when Netflix bought The Dahl estate, which owned the rights to the books.
In a contemporary setting, these changes may appear as necessary. However, this matter cannot be dealt with in a black-and-white manner. Dahl’s writing has always been underlined with dark humour. You can see this in the rebellious portrayal of his characters, and the books’ unexpected twists. It is these very features that made him a successful writer.
In the newly edited version of these books, characters—both humans and animals—are not described by colours, shapes and sizes, or their race, stripping the books away of their rawness. This editing is not just limited to words. Some illustrations have been censored too.
Renowned cartoonist Quentin Blake has illustrated 18 of Dahl's books. During the recent developments, reports suggest some of these illustrations have been removed to make sure that the books are safe for children.
For instance, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a sketch of Mike Teavve, one of the five winners of the golden tickets, with 18 toy pistols suspended from his body was axed from the book for this reason.
Owning a licence to old classics does come with a right to rewrite them to stay relevant. However, it does come with a risk of compromising the art itself. Salman Rushdie summarised it best in a tweet:
“Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship.”
There is no doubt that Dahl continued to make headlines long after he was gone. In the first edition of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, some characters had oppressive motives, like Willy Wonka enslaving black pygmies from the deepest and darkest parts of Africa. He later rewrote the characters in the 1960s, making them of non-Black origin. In its 1973 edition, the black pygmies were converted into fantasy creatures. More recently, in 2020, Dahl’s family apologised for his antisemitism.
Owing to the evolution and instability of the political climate across the globe, what is acceptable today, might become problematic tomorrow. But does that mean literature—long after its writers are gone—should be allowed to be tampered with?
In the interview with The Telegraph, author Matthew Dennison, who wrote Dahl’s biography, said that Dahl wished to kindle in children a love for reading; he showed them what magical wonderlands meant, and he was successful in doing so, without caring about pleasing the adults or the current social climate.
How do we, and the generations after us, ever understand a writer and their quintessential style if their brilliance is tampered with? Innocuous changes are one thing, but making hundreds of edits may often leave a piece of art far from its original form.
Literature—by design—is meant to be provocative. A more sensible move would have been to start the book with a prologue that educates its readers about what they should expect. It should remind them that it is a work of art and should be treated like one.
American writer Christopher Paolini tweeted a quote from George Orwell's novel, 1984, to reflect the current situation. It reads:
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Edited by Akanksha Sarma