Roald Dahl books facing censorship

Critics are accusing the British publisher of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books of censorship after it removed colourful language from works such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda” to make them more acceptable to modern readers.

A review of new editions of Dahl’s books now available in bookstores shows that some passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race were altered. The changes made by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, first were reported by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Augustus Gloop, Charlie’s gluttonous antagonist in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which originally was published in 1964, is no longer “enormously fat,” just “enormous.” In the new edition of “Witches,” a supernatural female posing as an ordinary woman may be working as a “top scientist or running a business” instead of as a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman.”

Salman Rushdie is one of several literary figures to express disapproval about the changes made to the children’s books. Reacting on Twitter, the Satanic Verses author wrote on Saturday (18 February): “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

Comedian David Baddiel posted a screenshot of one of the changes to a passage in The Twits. Though the version republished in 2001 reads: “You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth”, the new edit takes out the reference to a “double chin”. American author Michael Shellenberger also criticised the changes, deeming the edits to Dahl’s words an example of “totalitarian censorship”.

“The publisher of the books of the late Roald Dahl has made hundreds of changes to them, supposedly to make them more palatable to ‘sensitive’ audiences,” he wrote. “This is totalitarian censorship and should be broadly condemned by authors & publishers.” Another figure who has spoken out against the changes is Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of literature and human rights organisation PEN America. In a multi-tweet thread on the topic, she detailed her qualms over the changes made to Dahl’s books. “The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle,” one of her tweets reads. “You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas (as has been done to Dahl’s work).”

The changes 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. Critics complain revisions to suit 21st century sensibilities risks undermining the genius of great artists and preventing readers from confronting the world as it is.

The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it worked with Puffin to review the texts because it wanted to ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”

The language was reviewed in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective which is working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible. Any changes were “small and carefully considered,” the company said.

It 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.

Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74. His books, which have sold more than 300 million copies, have been translated into 68 languages and continue to be read by children around the world.