Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
“You can’t say anything these days,” the enthusiastic refrain most associated with people who habitually say whatever they please, has received an unexpected injection of credibility.
Roald Dahl’s books for children, some of the most beloved works of fiction ever written, have had a makeover. According to a notice from their publisher, Puffin, sensitivity readers have “reviewed” the stories’ language, and in some instances, altered it to “ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
The idea isn’t new, and it’s not necessarily bad. Remember the Oompa Loompas, the live-in workforce Willy Wonka trafficked from the “deepest and darkest part of the African jungle” in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”? In Dahl’s original version, published in 1964, they were Black pygmies. His 1973 rewrite, published after the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder, recasts them as “little fantasy creatures.” A welcome improvement, I’m sure we can agree.
This posthumous overhaul has gone much further, however. The monstrous tractors in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which we can safely assume did not come from “darkest Africa,” are no longer “black.” The earthworm in “James and the Giant Peach” isn’t pink, doesn’t have “lovely pink” skin but “lovely smooth skin.” No one is “pale,” Mrs. Silver, of “Esio Trot,” is “kind,” not “attractive,” and the word “fat” has been exorcised across the board.
At best, the effect has been to add a little harmless balance to the books. Making the Small Foxes in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” female rather than male has no material effect on the narrative or prose. But many of the changes obfuscate the intended meaning. The worst of them serve to reinforce prejudices, rather than banish them.
Take Augustus Gloop, from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” A description of him from the 2001 edition reads: “a nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up by a powerful pump.” The 2022 version says: “a nine-year-old boy who was so enormous he looked as though he had been blown up by a powerful pump.” It also adapts “Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of dough,” to “Great folds bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a ball of dough.”
The edits don’t alter the reader’s mental picture of Augustus Gloop. He is clearly a fat child. Singling out the word “fat” as offensive misdiagnoses the problem. “Fat” is — or ought to be — a neutral descriptor, and it’s being reclaimed as such by fat activists and writers. Removing it implies that there is something embarrassing about that label in particular, and reactivates a taboo many people are making a passionate effort to shift.
This retroactive application of shame rears up again in “The Witches.” In one paragraph describing the witches’ dedication to hunting children no matter what they’re up to, a sentence has been changed from “Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” to “Even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business.” In Dahl’s day, women were less likely to do certain jobs than they are now, and we can accept in good faith that things have changed for the better. Here’s to everyone typing their own emails! However many people still work as cashiers, which is perfectly respectable. The “upgrade” to “top scientist” might be intended as aspirational, but it also bears a trace of snobbery.
Other updates might have flown under the radar had they not been so poorly written. In “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Each man will have a gun and a flashlight” has become “Each person will have a person and a flashlight.” “Badger sat down and put a paw around his small son” is now “Badger sat down and put a paw around the small badger.” One suspects that Dahl would be every bit as offended by an editor unable to swerve unnecessary repetition as he would by the inference of sexism.
More to the point, this recurrent clumsiness indicates a less discerning eye for detail than one would hope for from the arbiters of correctness. Why can’t Mrs. Silver be attractive? Who’s to say that attractiveness is wholly physical, or that being attractive and being kind are mutually exclusive? The implication that such things are true erases the nuances that give characters depth, and flattens the edges that give writing character. In some cases, the quest for seemliness strips Dahl’s words of meaning altogether. In the 2022 version of “George’s Marvellous Medicine,” a line describing the miraculous effects of George’s potion is changed from “Look at you! You’re standing up all on your own and you’re not even using a stick!” to “Look at you! You’re full of beans!”
Like all literature, Dahl’s work is a product of its time, but its modern refurbishment has only served to prove that today’s writers and editors are every bit as fallible as those of the past. Such a fearful approach to historic books, one that treats each volume as though it may be the only one a child will ever consume, undermines the whole point of reading. The takeaways children glean from fiction depend on a much broader context, from their upbringing to their education to popular culture and, of course, other books. Being a huge fan of witches in general as a child, my lasting impression from Dahl’s less flattering portrayal was that hotel conference rooms ought to be avoided at all costs.
I doubt that high schoolers of the future will be forced to study “Of Mice And People,” but the anxiety over the effect outdated references and representations could have on kids neglects the possibility of more positive input from elsewhere. Publishers’ success ought not to be predicated on yassifying classics into relevancy, but instead on nurturing wonderful new writers that can offer readers a rich and varied diet of influences and ideas. Attempting to squeeze old work into new molds is a messy solution that seems doomed to fail. If Dahl is destined for obscurity, allow him to fade into it.