Publishers of recent editions of Roald Dahl’s books face backlash for censorship

by Katherine Winton (’25) | March 31, 2023

Art by Marisea Fisher (’24)

Roald Dahl, who sold hundreds of millions of copies of his books, was the author of many of the most beloved children’s books, including Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and James and the Giant Peach. Growing up with Dahl’s books, I found them both funny and entertaining, as they featured unique children with interesting senses of humor. However, people began noticing changes made to Dahl’s books that focused on updating his language to be more politically correct. The publisher hired Inclusive Minds, an organization that focuses on inclusion and equity within children’s literature, to make these updates, which many people, including novelist Salman Rushdie, described as censorship.

Several changes made to Dahl’s books focused on using more inclusive language regarding physical traits. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka, pictured as a white man, saw the conditions in which the Oompa Loompas, pictured as African Pygmy people, lived and wanted to save them. This trope, commonly referred to as the white savior complex, has long been criticized and led to Dahl’s changing the drawings of the Oompa Loompas in the 1970s. However, in recent revisions of the book, entire sections about the Oompa Loompas regarding their height and stature were removed in an attempt to make the novel more appropriate. Additionally, in novels such as Matilda and, once again, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sections mentioning a character’s (lack of) beauty were rewritten or removed. Miss Trunchbull, the antagonist in Matilda, is no longer described as having a “great horsey face,” and Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous child in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is no longer described as “fat.” In fact, the rewrites removed the word “fat” from all of Dahl’s books.

Other edits focused on Dahl’s portrayal of gender roles in his novels. In many of the books, general descriptions of people as “men” or “women,” such as the “Cloud-Men” in James and the Giant Peach, were replaced with the term “people” to be more inclusive of both gender roles and non-binary people. Stereotypical portrayals of men’s and women’s roles in the household, such as the nurturing mother and wife and the strong, providing husband and father, were either removed or edited. For example, in the book Witches, a woman could now become a “top scientist” rather than a “cashier” and “[run] a business” rather than “[type] letters for a businessman.”

Despite the good intentions of the aforementioned edits, some edits were more of a stretch, such as removing the word “black,” even when it was not being used in a racial context. Although the specific use of “black” in Fantastic Mr. Fox had a loosely negative connotation, as it described an evil tractor, it was not used in a racial context—it was simply a physical descriptor of the object. After seeing these edits, many people called the new editions of Dahl’s books “woke” and criticized the extensive rewrites to the author’s content, which was written many decades ago.

Another important factor to consider with the edits is Dahl’s opinion. While Dahl had many prejudiced beliefs (he was an outspoken anti-Semite), he explicitly stated that he did not want his novels edited from what he had approved for publication. In 1982, Roald Dahl said, “I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!” His statements expanded beyond his own lifetime, warning that if any edits were made after his death, he would send an “enormous crocodile” to harm the editors (a reference to his book of the same name). Despite the humor behind the words, it cannot be denied that the rewrites clearly go against the author’s wishes and compromise the artistic integrity of these works.

In response to the backlash that the edits, which were only published in Britain, have faced, publishers in other countries have announced that the unedited versions will continue to be sold. Overall, although there are certainly benefits, like inclusion and equality, to the edits being made to Roald Dahl’s books, the backlash against the publisher of these books is not unwarranted. Whether it is editing the works so extensively that some of the changes no longer clearly benefit the readers or going against the author’s wishes, the publisher has crossed certain boundaries, turning its changes from simple editing to censorship.

Categories: Entertainment

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