A case of censorship: revising Roald Dahl’s books

Kate Farr, DN Design
Kate Farr, DN Design

Kate Farr is a second-year journalism major and writes “Face to Face” for the Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. 

In a country that prides itself on free speech and press — both of which can be found in the First Amendment — rampant censorship is not a foreign concept.

A majority of free speech is protected — including hate speech — besides those few instances of true defamation, threats or “fighting words.” Seems pretty simple. 

But not everything can be clear-cut or black and white. 

More often than not, a lot of us find ourselves stuck in the gray area between two lesser goods. I found myself in this region recently. 

In February of this year, many of Roald Dahl’s famed children's books were re-released in Britain, but not without some rewrites and revisions first.

Following outspoken criticism against the original manuscripts from political figures such as Queen Camilla and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, hundreds of potentially offensive words were cut from the author’s books before the new additions found their way to bookstore shelves.

Dahl, who died in 1990, wrote acclaimed classics like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda” throughout the length of his almost 50-year career. However, over 30 years after his death, Dahl’s books have found their way into public scrutiny due to controversial language found within their pages.

Most of the revisions are minute, such as updating references of “mothers” or “fathers” to non-gendered terms like “parents.” Due to current social sensitivity, references to physical appearances, along with racial and gender identities, were also altered to include more appropriate and contemporary wording.

These revisions began in 2020 before Netflix acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, which subsequently gave the company creative freedom over the late author’s works. In an email statement on behalf of the company, Rick Behari, a spokesman for Netflix, said that revisions in language and details are not unusual when running new versions of older stories.

According to Netflix’s statement after its acquisition, “We’re committed to maintaining their unique spirit and their universal themes of surprise and kindness, while also sprinkling some fresh magic into the mix.”

These edits were permitted by the Roald Dahl Story Company, but with the author’s copyrights and trademarks being purchased by Netflix, is this just another profit-seeking corporate ploy?

Unsurprisingly enough, this is not the first time Dahl’s works have faced heavy criticism. Since the 1970s and 1980s, critics have pointed to books like “The Witches” as misogynistic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as giving into racial stereotypes or his adult short story book “Switch Bitch” as being sexually crude. 

These criticisms came during his lifetime, so any alterations following backlash had to be done by him with his consent. The books remained untouched. But that’s not the case today.

Should we be updating any and all literature, especially posthumously, for readers today? Is it pushing a certain agenda that not everyone stands on common ground with? Or, could measures of censorship even be promoting an all-or-nothing mindset?

Judy Blume, author of books like “Superfudge” and “Freckle Juice,” spoke about her own experiences with censorship, as well as her opinion on the censorship of Dahl, in a recent interview with Variety. Blume, who had books censored due to writing about topics like menstruation and female masturbation, said she didn’t believe publishers and Dahl’s estate should be making revisions based on contemporary sensibilities.

“What do I think about rewriting the Roald Dahl books?” Blume said. “I think if Roald Dahl was around, you would be hearing what he thinks about that. Whatever he is, whatever he’s accused of being, there’s a lot of truth there. But the books are the books. Kids still love the books, and they love them the way he wrote them. So I don’t believe in that.”

Dahl’s books were written in a cultural period where turns of phrase like “fat” or “old hag” weren't considered outwardly or universally offensive. But in our more “woke” culture, as some might call it, many are pushing for literature and media to be inclusive for everyone, supporting a distinct means of political correctness.

Throughout history, blasphemous language, sexual depictions and controversial descriptions have been cut from literary existence long before the protest seen in our 21st century society.

Expurgation, also coined bowdlerization, is a censorship style that involves purging noxious, offensive or lewd content from artistic work or other forms of media or writing. Prohibitions that involved reworking, or even burning materials, have occurred since the 13th century.

Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was even edited to exclude 25 of the original books of gospel.

As a society, we have had many grueling periods of book banning and censorship. From Thomas Bowdler’s sanitized collection of William Shakespeare plays to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” archival literature has faced edits and expulsions as human culture has experienced an ebb and flow of what is OK and what is not.

In many accounts, these events — like the 1973 book burning that set fire to 36 copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” by North Dakota school officials — have become shrouded in regret and even regression.

Art and all its intricate pieces — even those of which may only be acceptable in a certain timeline of history — shouldn’t be altered in the interest of modern convenience, nor at the expense of individual ideologies or beliefs.

While the rights of Roald Dahl’s stories have been transferred to another entity — like a Van Gogh sent to a museum outside the Netherlands — it doesn’t give it the right to change parts of a story.

We shouldn’t see a modern artist painting over Ronald Harrison’s “The Black Christ” or an editor scrawling revisions for Ernest Renan’s “The Life of Jesus” because they don’t agree with certain religious narratives.

In my own junior English class in high school, we were all given copies of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” If we forgot our own unblemished copies at home, we were sent to the school library to check it out or scavenge the bookshelves of other classrooms. In a few of the school’s versions of “To Kill A Mockingbird” the N-word was completely blacked out by marker, erasing it from the pages where it once stood.

But during the period in which this book takes place, the use of the N-word gave us a greater lens into the counterculture of the time. Even if someone scrawled it away, it doesn’t mean that word never existed. It doesn’t erase from history the stigma, oppression and strength behind the word.

We can’t place anything and everything into the categories of good or bad. By throwing all literary or artistic compositions that don’t fit modern narratives into this category of badness, we are further breeding ignorance and hatred.

More often than not, we will never be able to find a common ground that everyone can agree on. As much as we may wish for it at times — almost to remove any ambivalence from our society — not everything can be definitive, simplistic or clear-cut. The world is not a simple or perfectly coherent place.

While it was announced that classic versions of Dahl’s works would be published by Penguin, giving readers the choice of owning the pre-revised books in an archival state, it’s not wrong to question whether or not posthumous edits like these are acceptable or even beneficial.

It’s not wrong to question whether or not this deconstruction of creative works seems to be seeking to promote binary thinking — what is purely good or bad.

Keeping these books how they were originally written, and giving the public the ability to still purchase and read them, is keeping a primary source to exhibit how language has changed over time, how depictions of people have changed. They could one day be a historical archive of a time gone and passed on.

We can clarify and contextualize art and literature. But it isn’t ours to tidy up or make more “acceptable” in the eyes of everyone. 

Art — in its many visual, musical and written mediums — is not ours to control.

In this rift between critics, revisionists, those who find the edits to be of little importance and those who believe the edits to symbolize a sensitization of free press, I find myself yet again floating in this moral gray space.

Contact Kate Farr with comments at kate.farr@bsu.edu.


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