Arts and Entertainment

Rewriting Roald Dahl: Controversy in Censorship

Many Roald Dahl classics face censorship in order to promote inclusivity when addressing sensitive topics.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Hyun (Benjamin) Hur

Beloved children’s author Roald Dahl made a name for himself through stories filled with eccentric characters and extraordinary plots, inventing unprecedented fantasies and magical wonderlands. Though Dahl passed away in November 1990, his books spark controversy even today; late last February, Puffin Books began to release modified versions of Dahl’s stories, editing words and phrases to suit modern readers. This issue quickly became politicized, contributing to the broader dialogue surrounding censorship in children’s books.

The prestigious author’s censorship seems initially surprising; Dahl has been recognized as one of the best storytellers of the twentieth century, winning awards including the Edgar Award for Best Short Story in 1954 and 1960 for Someone Like You and The Landlady, respectively, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1983. Dahl’s creative stories resonate with children’s imaginations and are filled to the brim with wit and humor. He often writes from a child’s perspective, which allows younger readers to insert themselves into his stories. His books populate classroom shelves across the world, and many of his stories, such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda, have become part of the cultural canon, popularized through a slew of movie, musical, and TV adaptations.

Despite Dahl’s global popularity, his discriminatory behavior has been denounced time and time again. It was only in 2020 that his estate, the Roald Dahl Story Company, formally apologized for his inconsiderate commentary over the years. However, his anti-Semitic views are undeniable; in a 1983 interview with the New Statesman, Dahl trivialized the conditions of World War II concentration camps, stating, “I mean if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers I’d rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me; but [the Jews] were always submissive.” Unfortunately, these prejudices are baked into several of his stories. For example, The Witches has been criticized for its grotesque depictions of women who enjoy kidnapping innocent children and printing counterfeit money; they could be interpreted to represent the “greedy” Jew abducting and murdering Christian children.

Brutality is another recurring theme in his books. Though Dahl’s stories are generally for elementary-level readers, favorites like Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Twits center around torture and hunting. In The Twits, Mr. and Mrs. Twit persistently enjoy inflicting animal cruelty: they apply glue to tree branches to catch and cook birds, as well as force their caged monkeys to hold a handstands for hours.

Dahl’s more problematic depictions range from specific lines—like the Grasshopper from James and the Giant Peach claiming, “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican”—to entire characters—like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s mischievous Oompa Loompas, clearly inspired by African Pygmy tribes. The plot paints Willy Wonka as a savior, who freed the Oompa Loompas from their dangerous homeland and invited them to work at his factory instead, incentivizing them with unlimited cocoa beans—their favorite food.

Censorship in Dahl’s writing often regards complicated topics like race, gender, obesity, and violence, which he tends to address in an inflammatory manner. To inform these edits, his estate partnered with Inclusive Minds, an organization that aims to promote diversity within children’s literature. The group’s mission statement is not to redefine texts, but rather to “provide valuable input when it comes to reviewing language that can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” Specific edits range from changing a description of Augustus Gloop—a fellow golden ticket winner in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—from “enormously fat” to simply “enormous,” to changing a reference to The Witches’ titular characters from “old hags” to “old crows.” Dahl’s manner of writing has grown outdated; these negative phrases can be enthralling to children who have never heard them before, potentially reintroducing them into the younger generation’s daily vocabulary. Though many of these revisions are valid, it is important to distinguish Dahl’s British sense of humor—heavy satirical commentary—from offensive descriptions, maintaining the original tone of his words while removing those that are derogatory.

As Dahl’s stories are intended for children, applying limited censorship seems appropriate and reasonable, but also results in relatively redundant edits. The aforementioned change from “enormously fat” to “enormous” lacks a profound effect. Minor adjustments, such as replacing references to “mothers” and “fathers” to “parents” or “family” are arguably futile, especially due to the large number of other children’s books published with similar wordings. Rather than targeting offensive language, this edit attempts to address exclusion. It is important to note that Dahl’s time period largely conformed with heteronormative family structures, so the lack of diversity within his fictional households was considered socially acceptable. To censor his portrayal of families is debatably an attempt to rewrite the past and its discriminatory social standards.

Changes in Dahl’s work sparked backlash among his older audience of parents and nostalgic adults. Laura Hackett, deputy literary editor of London’s Sunday Times over-exaggerated the censorship as “botched surgery,” stating that she would rather have her children “enjoy [the original copies of Dahl’s stories] in their full, nasty, colorful glory.” Hackett implied that the censorship of Dahl’s work is absurd and weakens his originality. Though his books may seem unpleasant, she argues for the preservation of his stories over modern day values of wokeism. Other readers argue the contrary, claiming that it is important to develop a more inclusive environment, and that the edits have not bowdlerized the text.

Unsurprisingly, censorship continues to be a controversial issue in literature. The drive for filtration against discriminatory representations gets labeled as cancel culture and wokeism by those who view this censorship as unnecessarily destructive to the original text’s integrity. Dahl’s writing is part of the enduring censorship conflict because his texts are growing outdated to the extent that they introduce partialities and themes largely condemned in today’s society. Children nowadays still receive exposure to implicit and explicit biases, racial discrimination, derogatory language, stereotypes, and more in the media, but they manifest in different forms than Dahl’s stagnant writing. Fortunately, both editions of Dahl’s books will be available to readers. Those who wish to embrace the stories’ “full, nasty, colorful glory” and parents who wish to impart woke values in their children will have a choice between the two versions.