Rewriting Roald Dahl: ‘absurd censorship’ or a sign of the times?

References to weight, mental health, gender and race have been changed having been deemed offensive to modern readers

Roald Dahl
Dahl made a number of anti-Semitic comments in later life
(Image credit: Ronald Dumont/Getty Images)

A series of revisions to Roald Dahl’s books to make them more palatable for today’s readers has become the latest skirmish in the culture wars.

The alterations to the stories were made by the late author’s publisher Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company, now owned by Netflix, with sensitivity readers hired to scrutinise the text. Content deemed offensive, “such as references to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race were removed or rewritten”, said Sky News.

“Augustus Gloop is no longer fat, Mrs Twit is no longer fearfully ugly, and the Oompa-Loompas have gone gender-neutral,” said The Telegraph, who first broke news of the changes.

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In an apparent reference to the author’s anti-Semitism, Salman Rushdie decried the revisions, saying on Twitter: “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’’

‘Small and carefully considered’

The changes to Dahl’s books come as campaigners “seek to protect young people from cultural, ethnic and gender stereotypes in literature and other media”, said The Guardian.

The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it worked with Puffin to review the texts because it wanted to ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today”. The language was reviewed in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a “collective working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible”, said The Guardian. Any changes were “small and carefully considered”, the company said.

“When publishing new print runs of books written years ago, it’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details, including a book’s cover and page layout,’’ the company said. “Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.”

‘Cultural purging’

“This is a cultural purging,” said Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator. “They can doll it up in the language of ‘sensitivity’ and ‘inclusion’ as much as they like, but to the rest of us it still smacks of a Stalinist correction of wrongspeak,” he added.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a community of more than 7,000 writers advocating for freedom of expression, tweeted: “Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.”

Matthew Dennison, Dahl’s biographer, told The Telegraph that the author, who was born in 1916 and died in 1990 aged 74, chose his vocabulary with care. Dahl would have “recognised that alterations to his novels prompted by the political climate were driven by adults rather than children”, said Dennison.

In many ways Dahl’s stories “aren’t brilliant in spite of the darkness; they are brilliant because of it”, said The Times’s deputy literary editor Laura Hackett. It’s true that Dahl “was a very nasty man – a racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic bully”, she adds, and that editors “rightly made him remove offensive content” at the time but “if we are to stop reading children’s books by authors who are nasty people… we’ll be left with very few books at all”.

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