How have ‘ugly’ and ‘crazy’ characters disappeared from Roald Dahl’s children’s books?
The beloved Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer fat, he’s now enormous. Mrs Twit from The Twits is no longer “ugly and beastly” but just “beastly”. And the Oompa-Loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are now gender-neutral. Welcome to 2023 where new editions of the works by bestselling British novelist Roald Dahl, whose famous books include Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, have been rewritten by publishing house Puffin in an effort to make them less offensive and more inclusive. The changes stirred a fresh controversy with big names criticising it by saying that works of literature and fiction should be “preserved and not airbrushed.”
British newspaper The Telegraph reported that Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, has made several changes to the original text in Dahl’s works, removing many colourful descriptions and making his characters “less grotesque.” The review of the works, which began as per a New York Times article in 2020, was undertaken to ensure that the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”, Puffin said. Some of the introduced changes are pertaining to how he described his characters physically. For instance, Augustus Gloop’s description has been changed from “enormously fat” to “enormous”.
Other mentions of being fat have also been removed from his other works. A passage in James and the Giant Peach used to say: “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat,/And tremendously flabby at that./Her tummy and waist/Were as soggy as paste -/It was worse on the place where she sat!” However, it now reads: “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute,/And deserved to be squashed by the fruit!/We all felt a big bump/When we dropped with a thump./We left Aunt Sponge behind us/But you needn’t remind us /That we shouldn’t feel rotten,/For we haven’t forgotten/How spiteful she could be!”
Moreover, ‘female’ characters have disappeared. Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, who was a “most formidable female” is now a “most formidable woman”. The mention of “boys and girls” has been turned into “children”. And it’s not just a change in words that has been done. In some cases, new words or paragraphs have been added. In The Witches (where witches wear wigs) Dahl had written: “You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.” Now, it reads: “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
The mention of black and white colours have also been removed from the works. The Telegraph reported that characters no longer turn “white with fear” and the Big Friendly Giant in The BFG cannot wear a black cloak. Words such as “crazy” and “mad”, which Dahl used frequently in comic fashion have also been removed from the books.
The changes in the text have elicited reactions from people across all walks of life. On Monday, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, criticised the changes. His spokesman said, “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that you shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words. “It’s important that works of literature and works of fiction are preserved and not airbrushed.” Booker Prize winning author Salman Rushdie also slammed the revisions, calling it “absurd censorship”. “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of writers’ association PEN America, also expressed her opinions on the matter, saying “selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities could represent a dangerous new weapon.”
However, Puffin and The Roald Dahl Story Company — which manages the copyright of Roald Dahl’s books — have defended the changes in the books. A representative from The Roald Dahl Story Company told The Insider: “We want to ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today. 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. Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.”
Best-selling author Andy Griffiths also argued that the changes do not affect the fundamental stories Dahl was telling. He sees the tweaks to the language as logical and indeed justified. And he’s not alone in his views. Dani Solomon, manager of Readings Kids Shop in Carlton, said the changes are minimal and help keep the books relevant, “while maintaining the irreverence and the spirit of silliness”. “The thing that makes Roald Dahl’s books so great isn’t that people are referred to as fat or awful or horrible, it’s that they’re great. The stories are fun, the kids always win and none of that has changed, it’s just a few words here or there,” she said to WAToday.com.
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that Dahl’s books are being revised. In his own lifetime, Dahl changed the description of the Oompa-Loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to take away their pronounced African features. As The Telegraph reports, “In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the Oompa-Loompas were black pygmies, enslaved by Willy Wonka from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle” and paid in cocoa beans. Dahl rewrote the characters in the late 1960s to “de-Negro” them, in his words.
Books written by Enid Blyton, the author behind the popular Famous Five and Secret Seven books, also saw changes. In 2010, her books were “sensitively and carefully” revised by publishing house Hodder to make the text “timeless”. However, the changes weren’t welcomed and by 2016, the books returned to the original language.