An Attempt To Modernise The Classics: The Roald Dahl Controversy

An avalanche of protests has rocked the literary world in the last week. I first read about the “political corrections” made to the Roald Dahl books while skimming through the news, during my train ride back from work last week. The idea that they “have been rewritten in an effort to make them less offensive and more inclusive,” made me pause and google details about it.

Apparently, the authors’ estate and the book’s publisher, Puffin Books (a division of Penguin Random House), carried out reviews as part of modernisation, starting in 2020. The estate partnered with sensitivity readers from an organisation called Inclusive Minds, who champion diversity and accessibility in children’s literature. They checked for potentially offensive content and recommended changes, which have now come into effect.

Given that Roald Dahl’s writing has always been controversial, not just because it reflected the society it was written in but also because of his openly anti semitic views (for which his family even apologised in 2020), the review probably comes as no surprise.

However, what were some of the changes?

Well, his books are famous for leveraging the shock factor, calling colourful and nasty names to portray a villain or to create an atmosphere. So words like fat, ugly, weird and crazy that formed part of the original text have now been removed or replaced, among others.

Augustus Gloop, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is just “enormous” rather than “fat” along with Mrs Twit being just “beastly” than “ugly and beastly”. With consideration towards mental health, the words mad and crazy have also been removed. Some career descriptions for women have been updated to say scientist rather than a cashier, to reflect current social trends. All references to colour and violence have been removed or rephrased, apparently. These are just some of the changes.

On the one hand it is morally wrong to change the author’s words and however best tried, will affect the flow. Why change perfection which has been loved by generations? Changing literature is always contentious. Are we hiding our past rather than learning from it? How do we know when to draw the line and if it is enough? There is a separate debate around should we even study classics with all its follies? I had written an article about it long back and still believe they have much to offer for a mature audience.

On the other hand, I have personally faced such issues. Occasionally I have had to adjust my mindset to be more open and acceptable before reading a classic, due to the presence of not just disturbing terms but embedded sexism, racism, antisemitism and the likes, but I am an adult. I have prevented my child, when much younger, from reading some books especially on their own, as I was uncomfortable with them being exposed to and normalising the use of certain unacceptable words or outlooks. After all, I did not want them, or any child for that matter, to think that “fat” and “mad” are acceptable terms and then try to call out a child struggling with obesity or mental health as such. Some changes are for the better after all.

Roald Dahl, by virtue of being famous and the sheer scale of changes, is a more visible example. There are other minor changes which have been ongoing for a while. Another example were the very British ‘Topsy & Tim’ books where certain subtle racist images were edited out, but being targeted for a very young audience, they mostly escaped the global outrage that adults managed to generate.

However, whether all or some of it is acceptable is another matter to discuss. For example, removing references to all colours seems a bit weird. How can wearing a black cloak be controversial? I fail to understand it, but then I am ill qualified to answer anyway. Again, there is precedent for it, for example Apple updated the term ‘Black list/White list’ to ‘deny list/allow list’ on its coding platform in 2020.

The important thing to note is that the target audience for these books are children, who have a very impressionable mind. They probably do not have the mental maturity to be able to read these books and appreciate that these are unacceptable in today’s society. I have had my child point out instances of misogyny and sexism and stop reading a book because the tone and views of the author were not liked.

Why should we deprive our kids from such wonderful stories just because of a few words? Isn’t it better to give them an amended version which retains all the essence of the story with a few minor tweaks? Once they are mature enough not to be swayed by a few words, they can very well enjoy the original version.

The concept that we can wipe out unacceptable references completely is indeed preposterous. We can definitely not remove all instances of the original book, nor should it be our objective. However, having a child-friendly version of the book for kids to enjoy, as a first step, would be nice. It should, of course, be marked clearly as such.

This approach does open it up to many such versions being created, as society evolves. Maybe after a century or two, each version will become a reflection of that era, something for language experts to look back on and explore as what was acceptable then, while the story and its lessons survive the tests of time.

It’s all about keeping a fine balance. Have they amended the stories so much that they’ve changed the perception or have they merely updated the description to match what we would like to teach the young minds of today as the “perceived” politically correct views and expressions.

Once the news about the amended version of Roald Dahl’s book being available broke, there was a deluge of protest from across the globe. Authors like Phillip Pullman protested and Salman Rushdie called it “absurd censorship”. UK PM Rishi Sunak even borrowed a word from Dahl to say “we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.” So intense was the backlash that now they have said they will release both versions of this book.

As a parent facing real life problems with getting my child to read and appreciate classics, in my honest opinion, this is a much more pragmatic approach. Although I would love to know if this modernisation review was driven by a reduction in sales due to kids falling out of love with the books, or complaints about language or done proactively to make it more relevant, I don’t think we ever will.

What we do know is, this controversy has resulted in unparalleled levels of publicity for the books and am sure it will be driving up sales, both for the amended and original versions. In fact, I had recently ordered the full set for my niece (or should I say nibling?) when she turned 9 — a good age to be introduced to the wonderful imaginary world of Roald Dahl. Have any of you bought one recently by any chance? I am tempted to reread them again myself.

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