Roald Dahl Books Bowdlerized
A team of "sensitivity readers" has taken the bad thoughts out of some beloved children's literature.
The Guardian (“Roald Dahl books rewritten to remove language deemed offensive“):
Roald Dahl’s children’s books are being rewritten to remove language deemed offensive by the publisher Puffin.
Puffin has hired sensitivity readers to rewrite chunks of the author’s text to make sure the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”, resulting in extensive changes across Dahl’s work.
Edits have been made to descriptions of characters’ physical appearances. The word “fat” has been cut from every new edition of relevant books, while the word “ugly” has also been culled, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now described as “enormous”. In The Twits, Mrs Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but just “beastly”.
Hundreds of changes were made to the original text – and some passages not written by Dahl have been added. But the Roald Dahl Story Company said “it’s not unusual to review the language” during a new print run and any changes were “small and carefully considered”.
Hundreds of changes is, well, a lot of changes. They mostly seem to be of the sort mentioned above—removing references that equate being ugly or fat with being evil or greedy. More on that in a bit.
In The Witches, a paragraph explaining that witches are bald beneath their wigs ends with the new line: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
In previous editions of James and the Giant Peach, the Centipede sings: “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that,” and, “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire / And dry as a bone, only drier.”
Both verses have been removed, and in their place are the rhymes: “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit,” and, “Aunt Spiker was much of the same / And deserves half of the blame.”
References to “female” characters have disappeared. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, once a “most formidable female”, is now a “most formidable woman”.
Gender-neutral terms have been added in places – where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas were “small men”, they are now “small people”. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach have become Cloud-People.
Most of these changes seem silly but, at the same time, relatively harmless. As a general rule, my preference is to leave historical works alone so audiences can enjoy them as their creators intended. Then again, there has been tinkering with the words in the Christian bible for two millennia.
Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company made the changes in conjunction with Inclusive Minds, which its spokesperson describes as “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature”.
Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, said they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity”.
A notice from the publisher sits at the bottom of the copyright page of the latest editions of Dahl’s books: “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
A spokesperson for the Roald Dahl Story 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. Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.”
The thing is, these works are supposed to be those of Roald Dahl, not so panel of busybodies trying to ensure no one is offended.
But here’s the thing: beloved as these stories are, Dahl’s sensibilities were rather harsh. A decade-old critique (also published in The Guardian) of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rightly refers to it as “a twisted Victorian morality tale.” This, despite being written in 1964—well into the second Elizabethan era.
The chocolate factory of the title is a mega-factory that relies on slave labour, with hastily whitewashed racist overtones. In its shadow lives noble Charlie. His dad works shovelling snow since he lost his job and the whole family are starving. No wonder Saint Charlie wants to win the lottery, aka find a golden ticket. And if you’ll excuse the spoiler, he totally does. So do four other kids. Unfortunately, these turn out to be the four worst kids in the world – simply by being four kids who aren’t paragons of Victorian silent virtue.
When these kids act like kids, eating the sweets that they are invited to eat and messing with stuff, they have violent, cruel accidents, which we’re meant to applaud. Ha ha, they totally deserve it for being disgustingly fat. Or for chewing gum. (Hey, wait though, doesn’t this factory make gum?) Or for watching television.
But the fate of shy fatty Augustus Gloop touches my heart the most. What chance did he have? He’s in a chocolate factory. He’s in the “chocolate room“. He’s there because he won a ticket by eating chocolate, as part of a competition which was a marketing exercise to sell more chocolate. But fat people don’t know how to behave around food, do they? He dares to drink from a chocolate river and faster than you can say, back away from the doughnuts, fatty, he is sucked into a pipe to his possible death. So c’mon kids let’s all sing along with this fat-shaming song about how much the Oompah Loompas would like to kill the “great big greedy nincompoop”.
I was never the fat kid but I thought the whole thing weird when I saw the original Gene Wilder Willy Wonka movie half a century ago. Still, it’s Dahl’s art and, it turns out, he, too, had “lived experience.” From his Wiki:
Dahl’s children’s works are usually told from the point of view of a child. They typically involve adult villains who hate and mistreat children, and feature at least one “good” adult to counteract the villain(s). These stock characters are possibly a reference to the abuse that Dahl stated that he experienced in the boarding schools he attended. Dahl’s books see the triumph of the child; children’s book critic Amanda Craig said, “He was unequivocal that it is the good, young and kind who triumph over the old, greedy and the wicked.” Anna Leskiewicz in The Telegraph wrote “It’s often suggested that Dahl’s lasting appeal is a result of his exceptional talent for wriggling his way into children’s fantasies and fears, and laying them out on the page with anarchic delight. Adult villains are drawn in terrifying detail, before they are exposed as liars and hypocrites, and brought tumbling down with retributive justice, either by a sudden magic or the superior acuity of the children they mistreat.”
While his whimsical fantasy stories feature an underlying warm sentiment, they are often juxtaposed with grotesque, darkly comic and sometimes harshly violent scenarios. The Witches, George’s Marvellous Medicine and Matilda are examples of this formula. The BFG follows, with the good giant (the BFG or “Big Friendly Giant”) representing the “good adult” archetype and the other giants being the “bad adults”. This formula is also somewhat evident in Dahl’s film script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Class-conscious themes also surface in works such as Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World where the unpleasant wealthy neighbours are outwitted.
Dahl also features characters who are very fat, usually children. Augustus Gloop, Bruce Bogtrotter and Bruno Jenkins are a few of these characters, although an enormous woman named Aunt Sponge features in James and the Giant Peach and the nasty farmer Boggis in Fantastic Mr Fox is an enormously fat character. All of these characters (with the possible exception of Bruce Bogtrotter) are either villains or simply unpleasant gluttons. They are usually punished for this: Augustus Gloop drinks from Willy Wonka‘s chocolate river, disregarding the adults who tell him not to, and falls in, getting sucked up a pipe and nearly being turned into fudge. In Matilda, Bruce Bogtrotter steals cake from the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and is forced to eat a gigantic chocolate cake in front of the school; when he unexpectedly succeeds at this, Trunchbull smashes the empty plate over his head. In The Witches, Bruno Jenkins is lured by the witches (whose leader is the Grand High Witch) into their convention with the promise of chocolate, before they turn him into a mouse. Aunt Sponge is flattened by a giant peach. When Dahl was a boy his mother used to tell him and his sisters tales about trolls and other mythical Norwegian creatures, and some of his children’s books contain references or elements inspired by these stories, such as the giants in The BFG, the fox family in Fantastic Mr Fox and the trolls in The Minpins.
At the end of the day, I suppose, whoever owns Dahl’s intellectual property (he died in 1990) has the right to do what they wish with it. If they think this makes the books more appealing to today’s kids—or more likely to be acquired by schoolteachers and librarians—it’s their call.
Still, while getting rid of fat-shaming may well make the books more appealing to a modern audience (kids are, alas, much fatter today than they were when they were written) we shouldn’t pretend that these are small tweaks. The entire storylines depend on knowing that the characters are fat and getting, well, their just desserts.
I thought he was in the French Confection?
If they do it to the Brothers Grim, why not Dahl? @Michael Reynolds, see the future of your works!
Of course, the
urchinsthat lap up these books, often love just the things that adults are trying to protect them from.
@Sleeping Dog: The Brothers Grimm is a slightly different problem, in that they’re in the public domain and people are free to do what they want with them. Here, they’re being presented as authentic works when they’ve been rather significantly changed.
I gather the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books have been changed multiple times over the years to appeal to more modern readers. The kids have no stake in authenticity, I guess.
I definitely remember that as a kid one of the things that appealed to me about Dahl’s books was their dementedness. A lot of them are basically cathartic revenge fantasies against bullies of various kinds. But as you alluded to in your comment about the Brothers Grimm, dementedness isn’t exactly new in children’s stories. Of course, many of the classic fairy tales evolved from stories that weren’t initially intended for kids, but the fact that they were eventually presented that way is telling; in particular, it’s striking how common the theme of child abuse is in “children’s stories” up to the present day.
Nowadays, I’ve detected varied reactions to Dahl’s books. Some people are nostalgic about them (especially when it comes to the film adaptations), others aren’t sure what to make of him. There’s a passage from The Twits that has become something of an Internet meme in recent years, about the relationship between “ugly thoughts” and a person’s appearance. But what a lot of people forget is that it comes right after a bizarre rant about how dirty and disgusting men with beards are–which seems even more suspect when you square it with the knowledge of Dahl’s virulent anti-Semitism.
And speaking of which… James links to a discussion of this, but it’s worth reiterating that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was bowdlerized almost as soon as it was published, due to an outcry over the originally racist depictions of the Oompah-Loompahs as African pygmies.
This is another example of why copyright terms need to be shortened, so we’re not dependent on the whims of one particular corporation to access the work of an author who’s been dead for 33 years.
This is about adults, right? Dahl’s logic is for kids and the books are the farthest thing a kid will get from didacticism. There’s no underlying lesson except that the adult world is for the most part vile and so is everything else and that’s why kids love them. People are absolutely horrible except for a few orphans and weirdos.
Well…no. There’s plenty of moralizing in his books, like the sweet disposition of Charlie Bucket contrasted with that of Veruca Salt and the other brats he comes to the factory with, as well as the contrasting behavior of the parents. His books always divide the world into good and bad people, and we watch as the bad people (including children) are subjected to gruesome deaths or quasi-deaths. There’s definitely an element of guilty pleasure, but it isn’t as nihilistic as you’re suggesting.
Nihilism is an adult word. His books are for kids and they get kids–and so does the illustrator, Quentin Blake. They’re not about meaning or teaching lessons, any more than actual fairy tales are about meaning or teaching lessons.
For me the important part here is that this is not being forced upon the company by government. This is being done by a company which thinks it will improve sales.
These seem like pretty dumb but mostly minor changes. Things to justify a process of sensitivity readers existing, rather than to actually do anything meaningful.
All-in-all, I would rather they left it alone.
I think it’s fine to modify the text when the language and culture has changed so much that the difference between the author’s language and the current language is going to get in the way of understanding or appreciating the work.
I expect Huck Finn is a hard novel to teach to high school students because of the frequent use of the n-word which was not great at the time (but the right word in context of the characters), but is now a basically unspeakable slur. Twain did not mean to evoke the modern sensibilities, and younger readers aren’t always going to be able to make that distinction — particularly in a classroom where it’s going to be dragged down to the level of the most immature kid in the room.
It makes sense that it gets changed. And, it’s less bothersome because the original is available. For completeness sake, there should probably be another version that adds more n-words (ok, not really).
Dahl wrote in a stilted style meant to evoke an earlier time, and a weird distance between the language and the subject. Replacing “female” with “woman” is just wrong.
On the other hand, I’m glad fat and ugly people can now enjoy it.
I do actually see some reason to look at the spots where fat is just used as a shorthand for gluttonous and lazy with no self-control, and adjust those.
That, however, seems more like a description than any particular judgment on te character. Had they been short and tall, it would have been fine, and fat and thin aren’t that far. Seems like a dumb change.
But I’m all for gender inclusive Umpa Lumpas. Now young girls can dream of growing up to become an Umpa Lumpa. And non-binary kids. This is America, land of opportunity, and anyone can be an Umpa Lumpa, toiling away in a factory at the whims of an eccentric rich person.
Veruca Salts’ song Seether kicks ass. Prime late 90s riot grrl.
Off topic, but I’ve always enjoyed Roald’s work – even though I identify as a a (short) fat ugly person (or at least that’s what I see in the mirror first thing in the morning).
Also, IIRC, Mr. Dahl was, at best, a misanthropic churl. But again, so am I.
But at least Puffin was able to find work for sensitivity readers. who’d otherwise be toiling away washing windshields on streetcorners.
Late to the thread, as per usual, but my and my 9 year old’s 2 cents. I’ve read her many of the books, stopping when something in the text is showing its age. Its not that being fat is bad, but that only bad characters are fat, and my kiddo picked up on that rather early. Same for ugly, and the weird poor is noble trope in almost all of the books. So I asked her how she feels about the books being changed. First, she wanted to know more about the changes before she decided, making me quite proud. Then after some consideration, she said “I agree with it, because it will let more people enjoy the books, people that otherwise would not read them because of those words.” And I find it hard to disagree with her.
As an example of OMG what were they thinking , a Delta Airlines ad from 1973 aimed at the military (50% off standby fare) “For the guy that has a girl in every city.” I’ll note the first listed (DFW-SFO) at $50 would be $336 today inflation corrected, times 2 for Round trip ($672 in 2023 dollars) – for standby, so regular coach tickets were $1344. Today I’m seeing (Fri-Sun weekend trip) as low as $286, but more realistically $538. Anyway, look at the ad for a laugh at “Your Miami Minx.”
Times, they were different then.
On one hand, I can see why “correcting to be more inclusive (or at least not offend people)” is…appropriate. On the other hand, I think kids should read unabridged material in order to understand the social culture of a period of time and what was considered “appropriate” and “non-appropriate” back then.
On the third hand, this does seem a bit of a “First World People’s Problem”.