Some of Roald Dahl’s children’s books have recently been edited, according to their publisher and the Roald Dahl Story Company, to make them suitable for more modern audiences. There have been hundreds of changes made by sensitivity readers, dealing mostly with the description of characters in the books. However, the announcement has led to widespread criticism and even led to a compromise of sorts, with the publishing company also keeping the original versions available. The controversy that arose is a good reason to ask ourselves the question if we should really be rephrasing the original stories, or if that is not the right thing to do.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Roald Dahl’s legacy has been tainted by repeated anti-Semitic comments, and it should go without saying that such comments have to be condemned in the strongest of terms. However, his relatives have publicly apologised for the hurt and damage Dahl’s words have caused, and the debate here is not whether Dahl should be cancelled altogether for his personal behaviour. Instead, this debate is all about the specific words he chose to use in his books and how they might be offensive to contemporary audiences. His estate, which was bought by Netflix in 2021, has said that these changes were necessary to make the books enjoyable for all children now.
So what are some of those changes we are talking about? One character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer “fat” but has become “enormous”, and the Oompa Loompas are “little humans” instead of “little men” (more on the Oompa Loompas later). Mrs Twit from The Twits is no longer described as “ugly and beastly”, but just “beastly” and “a weird African language” in the same book is no longer “weird”. All words like “crazy” and “mad” have been removed from the books as a result of an emphasis on mental health. Furthermore, references to violence have been rewritten, like in Matilda where a threat to “knock her flat” has changed to “give her a right talking to”, and any and all references to colour have been removed or changed. These references to colour even include the BFG’s coat which is no longer black, as well as sayings like “white as a sheet” (which is now “still as a statue”). There have also been some nuances added to certain descriptions, like that the witches wear wigs because they are bald, now with the explanation that “there can be many different reasons why women wear wigs, and there is definitely nothing wrong with that”. Additionally, those same witches have been given more prestigious jobs than the cashiers or typists they were before, as part of a focus on women’s emancipation.
It should be obvious that making slight changes (or even rather major ones) can be very appropriate, and so some of these new wordings make perfect sense. What many may not know, for instance, is that in the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the Oompa Loompas were Black Pygmies from Africa that Willy Wonka smuggled to his factory to replace the white workers and get paid in cocoa beans, and that they were ecstatic about their great new life. Especially in a children’s book, I think everyone will agree the story is better off without such an implicit but clear racist stereotypical reference to slavery, and Dahl himself eventually agreed as well. Changes like this, including removing or updating outdated language are nothing new. In 2014 for example, the incredibly outdated and offensive description of Pippi Longstocking’s father as “King of [racial slur]” was finally changed into “King of the Southern Seas”, a change I think is more than just and long overdue.
However, one can wonder if we should bother modernising outdated books on different fronts as well, or whether we should let time run its course and move away from books that are out of date. There are plenty of great new children’s books being written all the time that are more of this time and much more relevant and relatable to modern audiences. Changing the original backstory of Oompa Loompas might give the book a new lease of life, but it definitely does not change the fact that their situation is still inherently questionable.
Even if we say that certain books can be made relevant again with minor adjustments, one has to consider whether or not the books remain in line with the message the author at first wanted to convey, especially if they are no longer alive to defend their work. Many literary critics and fans of Dahl agree the charm of his books partly lies in the grotesque and cruel nature of the stories and their characters. Taking away all references to violence is taking away part of the soul of the story as Dahl intended it. This is why making changes to books is inherently a difficult thing to do right. To make these outdated stories suitable to current times, it is imperative to remove racist language and any other derogatory attitudes towards marginalised groups. But does that also mean you have to remove all references to behaviour that is deemed unacceptable? Can characters not be violent anymore, or show the consequences of their undesirable actions? Especially in Dahl’s work, such aspects of the story often form an integral part of the plot and the message he wants to convey.
According to the sensitivity readers, Dahl should not call his characters fat, because that might be hurtful or confronting. However, Dahl uses this deliberately in a provocative way: he wants to show that being greedy and eating without limit is a bad thing. If his character is not “fat” anymore but instead he is now “enormous”, I think this changes very little in terms of possible offensiveness, as there is just another word being used to describe the same thing. But on the other hand, if this character is no longer fat or enormous at all, he no longer serves a purpose in the plot of the story. It seems to me there is no way Dahl could make his point without being offensive to some.
This is getting to the heart of the problem with rewriting or rephrasing someone else’s work. These are children’s books and they are in part meant as entertainment. But of course, these books also have a pedagogical function in the sense that they play a role in normalising specific behaviour and language, as well as teaching lessons about good and bad. This means for example that offensive words and phrases should be avoided so as to not teach children that it is okay to use them. But the lessons that Dahl tries to teach about good and bad might miss the mark in today’s environment. Characters are mean because they are ugly, characters that are fat are so because they are greedy and gluttonous, and characters that are bald are evil and scary. His attitudes are rooted in stereotypes and prejudice, and Dahl has structured his stories around those ideas.
As I tried to illustrate with the example of the fat character before, Dahl can in many cases not make the points he is trying to make without being offensive. But beyond that, it is important to consider exactly what point he is trying to make. Is he arguing gluttony and greediness are bad, or is he actually saying that being fat is bad and something to be ashamed of? It seems to me that implicitly, Dahl believes the latter. So if it is even possible to rewrite his work in a way that is not offensive, such changes inherently mean you change the message the author tried to convey originally. In my opinion, without a writer’s permission, no one has the right to alter the message of someone’s work.
Does all of this perhaps mean that writers should not give any descriptions of their characters? Should there be no physical characteristics at all in books and stories? Some writers might indeed choose not to do so, to make sure everyone can relate to their characters and that there are fewer risks of stereotypes and prejudices. However, such an approach might cause the story to not speak to the imagination nearly as much. This comes down to creative choices, but I do not think it is necessary to eliminate all descriptions of physical characteristics. Still, that does not mean there is any reason evil characters have to be ugly, for example.
I think in the end this debate should be settled somewhere in the middle. Changes to offensive language, words or phrases should be encouraged to not give children the idea they are acceptable. Character descriptions that are unnecessarily offensive or even discriminatory should be altered or taken out altogether. At the same time, when rewriting books or stories it is important not to alter the original message, as it is up to the writer to decide what they want to convey. In the case of Dahl, I think it is not unreasonable to assume that these are changes he would have never approved of, and take away from the original intent of his stories. If parents don’t want their children to be exposed to those outdated ideas and stereotypes, there is an unlimited number of (more recent) alternatives, and that might mean Dahl’s books will slowly be resigned to history. The way his books have been rewritten now goes too far, by altering their original message. Rewriting his work appropriately might in some cases give it a new lease of life, but eventually, I do not believe it can be effective enough to keep his stories suitable for current times.
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