In case you’ve been living under a rock, there have been a lot of news stories written about Roald Dahl in recent weeks, specifically about the decision by his publishers to rewrite some of the text in line with modern sensibilities. A lot of people somehow seemed to think Netflix was to blame. After a massive outcry that included commentary from notable authors, self-aggrandizing blowhards, and pretty much everybody on Reddit, Puffin has now caved and will be publishing the “classic” books alongside the updated versions.
I found out about the changes on February 14th when I was contacted by someone at the Telegraph who said they were writing a feature about Dahl and wanted to chat to a Dahl fan about “his strange/spiky appeal.” There seemed to be some sort of a time crunch (in hindsight they were obviously aiming to get the scoop) so I was on a call with them in less than an hour. After asking me some general questions about Dahl’s appeal, the interviewer told me that his books were being edited to be more politically-correct and asked me to comment on that. I realised at once that this was a minefield. If I criticised the changes (which I hadn’t even seen; they didn’t give me any examples), it would be like I was defending Dahl’s archaic prejudices and attitudes. If I supported the changes, I’d be opening myself up to attacks from the right-wing troll brigade… and I know too many women who have found their physical safety compromised by angering these folks online.
So I tried to thread the needle. I explained to the interviewer that Dahl himself had edited his books during his lifetime to remove problematic imagery, like changing the Oompa-Loompas to be fantasy characters rather than black pygmies from Africa. The interviewer was surprised by this and said that he hadn’t known about it. I also pointed out that towards the end of his life, Dahl’s editors worked with him extensively to shape the stories and tone down certain aspects, like altering some of the descriptions of the flesh-eating giants in The BFG and tweaking Fantastic Mr. Fox to make it less of a glorification of stealing. (These changes are documented in several of the Dahl biographies.) Even so, the published books still have some insensitive language, but so do lots of other famous works of literature (like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). I said that I would be disappointed to see the books changing, but that I trusted Felicity to have his best interests at heart.
When the resulting article was published, I was honestly relieved that it didn’t quote me very much. The whole thing blew up in a culture war as I guessed it would, and several other journalists messaged me wanting to get my feelings about it. I turned them all down, mostly because I was travelling for work anyway but also because I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the changes.
Looking over the list now, I find some of the changes completely unobjectionable. Changing “mothers and fathers” to “parents”? Sure! I can see where that would make the book more inclusive. “Cloud-Men” to “Cloud-People”? I’m on board with that. But of course, the majority of edits go further than that. Pretty much every reference to fatness, ugliness, or gender roles has been either altered or excised. Mentions of specific countries have been removed. Some of the insults have been deleted. Whole stanzas of poems have been rewritten. And this, I agree, goes way too far. I do not support the changes… but probably not for the reasons you might guess.
Dahl was not a saint. He was a product of another time, and his books are a reflection of that. His attitudes towards women, people he considered unattractive, and certain races were wrong and indefensible. And if his writing is altered, it’s letting him off the hook. Ever since he died in 1990, it feels like there has been a concerted effort to sand down his more troublesome edges and turn him into just a twinkly grandfather. Anyone who’s read a biography of him or any of his adult stories knows that he was a lot more complicated than that. He had a lot of issues, and sometimes they seep into the stories. It’s important that we acknowledge those and call them out. Anything else is bowdlerizing.
That said – I don’t have kids. I’m also a white, cis-gendered person with lot of privilege, and when I was a child reading these books, certain language sailed right past me. Greek people being greasy in The BFG? I’m not Greek, so it was just a funny pun to me. The whole Wings/Wong bit in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator? Also just silliness. All the little jibes about how monstrous bald women are in The Witches? I could see that for myself in the illustrations. Nowadays I cringe to think of a parent reading those books to their child and having to decide whether to skip over or deal with those passages.
Ultimately I’m glad the original books will still be published, but honestly, my feelings about Dahl are so different than they were when I started this website back in 1996. I’m grateful that his family have apologised for some of his truly appalling statements, but I don’t think the solution is to turn his stories into something they weren’t. I like his books in spite of the problematic aspects – because they turned me into a voracious reader; because I found them wickedly funny and imaginative; because there are certain passages and images that imprinted themselves on my soul – but I certainly wouldn’t recommend them to everyone. If his books don’t appeal to a modern audience, then that’s fine – no author is entitled to an audience forever.