British publisher Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, has recently released new editions of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books, including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” with certain passages relating to weight, mental health, gender, and race altered. The changes have caused a debate about censorship, with critics accusing the publisher of altering Dahl’s work to make it more acceptable to modern readers.
The changes made to the books include the removal of the word “black” in the description of the tractors in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and the alteration of the character of Augustus Gloop in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” who is no longer “enormously fat” but “enormous.” In “Witches,” a supernatural female posing as an ordinary woman may now be working as a “top scientist or running a business” instead of as a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman.”
The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, worked with Puffin to review the texts, in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible. The company said the analysis started in 2020, before Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company and embarked on plans to produce a new generation of films based on the author’s books. The changes made were “small and carefully considered,” and the company said it worked to ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.” The company also maintained that its guiding principle throughout was to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.
Critics of the changes argue that the revisions to suit 21st-century sensibilities risk undermining the genius of great artists and preventing readers from confronting the world as it is. PEN America, a community of some 7,500 writers that advocates for freedom of expression, said it was “alarmed” by the reports of the changes to Dahl’s books. “If we start down the path of trying to correct for perceived slights instead of allowing readers to receive and react to books as written, we risk distorting the work of great authors and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society,” tweeted Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America.
The changes made to Dahl’s books mark the latest skirmish in a debate over cultural sensitivity, as campaigners seek to protect young people from cultural, ethnic, and gender stereotypes in literature and other media. Salman Rushdie, a Booker Prize-winning author who lived in hiding for years after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death because of alleged blasphemy in his novel “The Satanic Verses,” was among those who reacted angrily to the rewriting of Dahl’s words. Rushdie wrote on Twitter, “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”
Regardless of his personal failings, fans of Dahl’s books celebrate his use of sometimes dark language that taps into the fears of children, as well as their sense of fun.
Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74, and his books have sold more than 300 million copies and have been translated into 68 languages, continuing to be read by children around the world. However, the author is also a controversial figure because of antisemitic comments made throughout his life.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the author and the revisions to his material, Roald Dahl’s books continue to be celebrated by fans for their use of sometimes dark language that taps into the fears of children, as well as their sense of fun. While the decision to revise the language used in these books may be controversial, it is ultimately up to individual readers to decide whether they prefer the original texts or the revised editions.