The suite of children’s novels written by iconic British writer Roald Dahl in the 1960s and 1970s has undergone extensive revisions enacted by its publisher less than two years after the intellectual property was purchased by Netflix for appropriation into video streaming format.
The issue came to light in Feb. 17 reporting by UK-based The Telegraph, which found that 10 of Dahl’s books had undergone significant editorial surgery for revised 2022 editions.
Among Dahl’s famous works that underwent alterations were James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Changes to the text revolved around the inclusion of modern woke sensibilities in passages that previously carried colorations that may be perceived as invoking race, sexuality, obesity, and gender roles, among other themes.
‘Hundreds of edits’
The Telegraph stated there were 59 changes to the book The Twits alone, and “Across the new editions, there are hundreds of edits, some bigger than others.”
Some example modifications to the text of James and the Giant Peach were found in sentences printed in the 2001 versions that were phrased like, “Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short” being transformed to, “Aunt Sponge was quite large and very short.”
“They looked like midgets from another world beside it [the giant peach]” was also revised to read, “They looked like ants beside it.”
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Certain sentences, such as, “In another minute, this mammoth fruit was as round and large and fat as Aunt Sponge herself, and probably just as heavy,” were simply removed entirely.
Another example of an entirely removed sentence was, “A few women screamed. Others knelt down on the side-walks and began praying aloud. Strong men turned to one another and said things like, I guess this is it, Joe, and Good-bye, everybody, good-bye.”
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the name of the character “Prince Pondicherry,” an East Indian Prince who asked Willy Wonka to build a factory, was revised to read “Prince Puducherry.”
Phrases such as, “Fully grown women,” and quotes such as, “‘A hundred women working for me’,” and, “‘Okay, girls’,” were harmonized to gender-neutral forms “Fully grown people,” “‘A hundred people working for me’,” and, “‘Okay, folks.”
Another quote in the book that was subject to editorial sensibility modification was, “‘My mother says it’s not ladylike and it looks ugly to see a girl’s jaws going up and down like mine…,’” which was changed to, “‘My mother says it’s undignified and it looks ugly to see jaws to be going up and down like mine…’”
In Matilda, the phrase “turning white” was changed to “turning quite pale,” while the comment, “Your daughter Vanessa, judging by what she’s learnt this term, has no hearing-organs at all,” was modified to read, “Judging by what your daughter Vanessa has learnt this term, this fact alone is more interesting than anything I have taught in the classroom.”
The Telegraph states that the revisions to Dahl’s speech is disclaimed by the publisher, Puffin Books, in the new versions, albeit in a small notice appended to the bottom of the copyright page.
“Words matter…the wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today,” the notice read.
The Telegraph took the liberty of giving an opinion on the changes to Dahl’s classics when it stated, “The publishers have given themselves licence to edit the writer as they see fit, chopping, altering and adding where necessary to bring his books in line with contemporary sensibilities.”
Mergers and acquisitions
Dahl, who passed away in November of 1990 at the age of 74, has had his intellectual property passed on through The Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC), which was acquired by Netflix in 2021, according to Variety.
Financial Times stated that the deal was worth “more than” £500 million ($686 million USD at the time) to Netflix. In a 2018 article, FT also reported that Netflix and RDSC had entered into an agreement to turn Dahl’s books into specials for its streaming platform.
Variety noted that the buyout was in the works since 2018 and quoted Dahl’s grandson and Managing Director of the RDSC, Luke Kelly, as stating that “these stories and their messages of the power and possibility of young people have never felt more pertinent,” in a blog post at the time co-authored with Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.
“As we bring these timeless tales to more audiences in new formats, we’re committed to maintaining their unique spirit and their universal themes of surprise and kindness, while also sprinkling some fresh magic into the mix,” the post added.
While the article stated that all 26 employees of the RDSC would “retain their positions” and that the company would “function as an autonomous unit within Netflix,” Variety noted in a follow up January of 2022 article that Kelly, along with fellow Operations Director Claire Wright, had resigned from their positions.
The two were replaced by “Reginald Thompson, an attorney for Netflix Studios, Stephen Zager, VP associate general counsel at Netflix, and Bernadette Hall, general manager at TRDSC,” Variety stated.
After The Telegraph broke the story, a spokesperson for Puffin Books, the children’s division of Penguin Random House, was paraphrased as admitting that “the analysis started in 2020, before Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company” in comments to the Associated Press. However, the representative brushed it off as saying the edits were “updates.”
“When publishing new print runs of books written years ago, it’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details, including a book’s cover and page layout,” Puffin stated.
Both Puffin and The Telegraph stated that a company called Inclusive Minds, which AP described as “a collective which is working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible” was contracted to work on the changes to Dahl’s literature.
A co-founder of the company told The Guardian in Feb. 18 reporting on the changes to Dahl’s writing that their work “aim[s] to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity.”
The About Us section of the Inclusive Minds website states they “do not edit or rewrite texts, but provide book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.”
‘Harmonization’ in the West
The post-mortem alteration of Dahl’s work to suit the current politically correct culture is analogous to a long used censorship approach employed in Communist China to squelch any narratives or complaints that the regime deems a threat to social stability, and thus, its power.
Such censorship has been known as “harmonization” or “to harmonize” (和諧) in China since the early 2000s, based on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rollout of a so-called “harmonious society” in reference to the fast-developing online culture.
The term has been lampooned by internet users and dissidents, who for a time used the similar-sounding “river crab” (河蟹) to avoid internet search blacklists; others noted that the characters used in the CCP’s “harmony” are pronounced exactly the same as 和邪, which means “to abet evil.”
Roald Dahl himself received some criticism and calls for censorship during his life, usually in reaction to comments of his deemed antisemitic.
Dahl fought in World War II as a Royal Air Force pilot, and was severely wounded in a crash. After making a partial recovery he went on to shoot down at least two German bombers.
In the postwar decades, Dahl came to criticize the Jewish state of Israel for carrying out policies in the Near East that he believed echoed the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jews in Europe. “They killed 22,000 civilians when they bombed Beirut,” he told The Independent in 1990, referring to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
At the beginning of a piece Dahl wrote in 1941, when he was flying for the RAF in Palestine against the Nazi-controlled Vichy French regime, he said that “Hitler happened to be in Germany and the gas-chambers were being built and the mass slaughter of the Jews was beginning.”
“Our hearts bled for the Jewish men, women and children, and we hated the Germans,” he added.
The second paragraph read, “Exactly forty-one years later, in June 1982, the Israeli forces were streaming northwards out of what used to be Palestine into Lebanon, and the mass slaughter of the inhabitants began.”
“Our hearts bled for the Lebanese and Palestinian men, women and children, and we all started hating the Israelis,” Dahl added. “Never before in the history of man has a race of people switched so rapidly from being much-pitied victims to barbarous murderers.”
Dahl, who died in 1990, made other comments in his latter years that came under fire. Among other things, he decried the censorship of information deemed unfavorable to Israel or the Jews.
In his interview with The Independent that the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel was “hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned,” according to a Letter to the Editor published in The New York Times at the time. “
“There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media—jolly clever thing to do—that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel,” Dahl added.
In a later interview prior to his death, Dahl told the New Statesman that a “trait in the Jewish character … does provoke animosity,” speculating that it could be “a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews.”
“There is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason,” he said. His 1983 article contextualizes this in noting that the empathy he felt for the Jews after World War II had turned “into hatred and revulsion” due to the actions of Israel.
While Dahl’s statements have provoked protest, many see them as being in character for a man who preferred colorful yet frank opinion over avoiding sensitive moral issues for fear of controversy. “Must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?” he continued in his 1983 piece.
Due to the controversy stirred by Dahl’s late-life statements, RDSC’s website hosts a special page titled “Apology for Antisemitic Comments Made by Roald Dahl,” which states that both the author’s family and the company “deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by Roald Dahl’s antisemitic statements.”
“Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations,” the apology added.
An article by Time magazine notes that “Dahl’s children’s books aren’t considered notably anti-Semitic.”