February 21, 2023
An investigation by The Telegraph recently revealed a plethora of changes have been made to the many popular works of the late author Roald Dahl to make them more palatable for today’s audience. Dahl is the author of such famous stories as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Big Friendly Giant, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. He is known for his unorthodox style of children’s writing that is sometimes not politically correct; this includes the use of blunt, vivid descriptions of people and things that definitely carry judgments along with them and the sometimes unpleasant or disgusting situations in which his characters find themselves. The edits are meant to cater to a perceived change in the tastes of the audience, as many of Dahl’s descriptions and attitudes are no longer considered sensitive to the feelings of certain demographics. “Across his beloved children’s books, hundreds of the author’s words have been changed or entirely removed in a bid for ‘relevancy,’” The Telegraph found.
The Roald Dahl Story Company now manages the rights to Dahl’s books. In a statement about the changes they said, “Any changes made have been small and carefully considered…to ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.” In other words, they are worried readers will be offended and not buy their books so they are changing anything that they deem offensive. The rather long list of edits that can be found in the Telegraph article indicate the changes are not small or carefully considered however, given many of them impact the weight Dahl ascribed to certain attributes and topics.
For example, in the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (click here for synopsis if unfamiliar) the character of Augustus Gloop is meant to be despicable and unattractive to the audience because of his gluttony, lack of self-control, and unhealthy lifestyle (also the enabling of it by his equally repulsive parents, derelict in their duty to properly guide him). This is also evident in the 1971 film based on the book (Dahl wrote the screenplay). Dahl meant to communicate to the audience that this is something they should definitely not find appealing or even tolerate. To quickly accomplish this in the novel he described the character in physically repulsive ways to match the unvirtuous behavior he wished to condemn. The edits remove not only much of this colorful physical description, but even the simple description of “fat” (the don’t want to be accused of “fat shaming”). Their intended goal appears to be to take the focus off of Augustus Gloop’s physical size as a result of his gluttony, and instead focus on his “greed.” For example, here are three such edits highlighted in the Telegraph article that show the difference in descriptions between the 2001 and 2022 (edited) versions;
Taking the focus off of the results of Gloop’s gluttony and shifting it to his greed and insubordination alone amounts to a soft censorship of a particularly distasteful kind – one that disrespects the works of the original author by putting words in his mouth while erasing or softening the impact of his actual message. This immoral action seeks to achieve the selfish purposes of the censors (profit) by using the author’s name recognition and works against his will and intent. In this particular case it also creates a redundancy in the story; each child character that suffers a tragedy in Willie Wonka’s factory is meant to represent a certain set of traits/vices/behaviors of which Dahl wished to pass negative judgment. They are all generally selfish and insubordinate to varying degrees, but the character that is meant to really represent greed – wicked, nasty greed – is Veruca Salt.
Augustus Gloop’s purpose is to make the irrational act of gluttony and the physical consequences of it seem unheroic and self-defeating. To this point, at the end of the story Gloop, after accidentally being sucked up a pipe, is described when leaving the factory as “changed.” “He used to be fat! Now he’s thin as a straw.” His experience in the factory represents a transformational moment and the potential for anyone to willfully shift their behavior away from the sinful and towards the virtuous.
The edits they have made to these stories remove Dahl’s soul from his works. He was not always nice or pleasant on the surface, but that was part of who he was and it helps shape his works and their meaning. He clearly wished for the reader to think a certain way about larger ideas, behaviors, or actions via the traits he gave to the characters that embody them. This might include questioning the legitimacy or worth of the ideas, actions, or behaviors on the one hand, or appreciating the often unappreciated on the other. To change the descriptions is to change his meaning. Such acts to make his works more PC also contradict what Dahl considered the reason children are attracted to his stories. “A child doesn’t have the concentration of an adult, and unless you hold them from the first page, they’re going to wander, and watch the telly, or do something, else. They only read for fun; you’ve got to hold them.“ Who can deny children are not captivated by his descriptions?
If readers want only niceties, they ought to indulge in the many Disney-esque versions of fairy tales that have been created over the years. Dahl’s works are more akin to Aesop’s fables, which are particularly caustic and sometimes reflect the harsh realities of the world. Sometimes the moral lessons can be applied to a given situation, other times they may not be practical. Unlike those originally unwritten fables which must be crafted into written form by modern authors, Dahl’s specific words are a matter of record and ought not be changed to suit modern preferences and norms. As for the merits of those modern preferences and norms, that depends on the specific case. We have made genuine moral progress in some ways, in others we seem to be enabling vice. For better or worse however, an author’s work reflects their particular view in their time and we ought to keep this in mind when we consider them today and in the future. Say what you will about the approach to addressing it, but it ought to be recognized that gluttony is objectively bad for the human health and soul. From Socrates (via Xenophon) and Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics), to the Bible on towards Dante (Inferno – Divine Comedy), thinkers and writers have highlighted this particular behavior as unvirtuous, sinful, and contrary to human nature/form. Shall we also edit or ignore these past works to cater to the relatively massive masses of today (pun intended)? Do we ignore Augustus Gloop’s self-destructive behavior and pretend it isn’t a problem to protect his fragile emotional state and indulge the body positivity movement of today? Something tells me doing the former leads to the latter.
Actor/director Danny DeVito directed the film version of Dahl’s “Matilda.” I think he captured the essence of Dahl’s storytelling and its impact on developing a child’s understanding and growth when he said, “Dahl will lead a child out onto a windy limb and then suddenly he’ll place a ladder underneath and the child will be able to get safely to the ground.” Let’s not make the limbs more sturdy or remove them completely in favor of chauffeuring the child throughout life comfortably or as they see fit.