THAT IT COULD BE DONE AT ALL is unfathomable. That professional publishers and editors, supposedly the possessors of post-graduate degrees in English Literature, could even contemplate sanctioning such a desecration is astonishing. Surely, this must be one of those stories we read on “The Onion” website – preposterously funny satire?
No. Wrong on all counts. This story is true.
The publishers (Puffin Books) and current holders of the copyright (Netflix) have colluded in the re-writing of Roald Dahl’s books for young readers. That’s right, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, the whole Dahl catalogue, has been purged of words and attitudes deemed inimical to the moral sensibilities of these very strange times. Words like “titchy, “tiny”, and (with the most extreme prejudice) “fat”, have been purged from the pages of Dahl’s books.
Not at the behest of Dahl’s young readers, of course, they thrill to Dahl’s spiky, misanthropic and just plain naughty vocabulary. Even the dark and scary aspects of Dahl’s work are lapped-up by his young readers – in much the same way that they thrill to the dark and scary elements of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The occasional spine-tingle is a crucial part of the reading experience – at least, it used to be.
And this is important because ….. ? With a stricken North Island to nurse back to health, why should anyone care about the re-writing of Roald Dahl’s books?
The answer, of course, is that children need to know that the world can be an extremely dangerous place. They need to know that it is filled with quirky, alarming, and sometimes downright dangerous people. Children need to be able to reach back into their internal libraries for the sort of role models Roald Dahl specialised in creating: not always good; not always nice; but without doubt clever, brave, and entertainingly resourceful.
When disaster strikes, it matters – a lot – that it does not strike a society raised in the carefully nurtured belief that there are no disasters. That dishonest, abusive and downright dangerous people do not, in fact, exist. That being raised to recognise moments in which behaving sweetly simply will not cut it, is a good thing, not a bad thing. Moments when the resourceful trickster is a better role model than the politically-correct goody-two-shoes who would never dream of calling anybody “fat”. Call them Roald Dahl moments.
Literature, and all the other forms of cultural expression, are not supposed to make us good people, they are supposed to make us real people. That is why when well-meaning people (or so we must assume) decide to “rectify” the works of artists who care about reality, we should all be very worried.
It’s happened before, of course, back in 1818 when a Dr Thomas Bowdler decided that the works of William Shakespeare contained a surfeit of reality, especially in regard to the vexed questions of sex and death, and that the Bard’s opus would be immeasurably improved by getting rid of all the naughty bits.
“Bowdlerism”, as this improving censorship became known, was embraced with enthusiasm by the Victorians. That is to say by the middle-class Victorians, who looked askance at both the debauched antics of the British aristocracy, and the honest rutting of the working-classes. They were firmly of the view that the behaviour of such persons was unlikely to improve without those in possession of a proper understanding of appropriate human conduct showing them a better way.
As if the gross exploitation of Victorian Capitalism, and the impoverished lives of its victims, could magically be made to vanish by sanding-off Victorian society’s jagged edges. As if purging the artist’s work of everything that made it real and compelling could possibly make its ultimate consumers better persons. Protecting people from reality doesn’t make them good, it only makes them stupid – and dangerously vulnerable to those who wield the censor’s blue pencil.
Roald Dahl, being dead, cannot object to the behaviour of those in whom he entrusted the safe-keeping of his art. But living artists have no cause for complacency. Once the formerly rock-solid reverence for an artist’s work disappears – as it so evidently has among Dahl’s publishers – no writer, dramatist, poet, painter, sculptor, or cinematographer, alive or dead, will be safe. While we, their audience, will remain, thanks to our censorious middle-class betters, innocent ignoramuses.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 February 2023.