Roald Dahl Can Never Be Made Nice
Rewriting his novels is about corporate safetyism, not social justice.
Do you have a favorite book by Roald Dahl? I do—it’s his adult novel, My Uncle Oswald, a work defined by its unremitting misanthropy, vulgar sex scenes, and troubling sympathy for eugenics.
The negative Goodreads reviews of My Uncle Oswald tend to focus on its sexism, homophobia, and “glorification of rape culture.” Set at the turn of the 20th century, the book follows Oswald and his accomplice, Yasmin Howcomely, as they tour Europe slipping Great Men a beetle powder that turns them into uncontrollable horndogs. That allows Oswald and Yasmin to harvest their sperm in the hope of selling it to rich, childless women. It is not a subtle book.
Like most of Dahl’s work, the novel is nasty: casually cruel, even sadistic in places. In real life, Oswald would be a menace—he makes the sexist social-media influencer Andrew Tate look like Gloria Steinem. As a fictional protagonist, he’s a delight.
However, nastiness is now out of fashion. Over the weekend, the Telegraph revealed that Puffin, the British publishing house, has released new editions of Dahl’s children’s stories that have been comprehensively rewritten to suit modern sensibilities. An organization called Inclusive Minds was hired in 2020 to advise on “updating” the novels, the same year Dahl’s family quietly published an apology for the author’s anti-Semitism. (Dahl’s estate was sold to Netflix in 2021.) Reading through the extensive list of changes—such as removing a reference to Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull having a “horsey” face—I first felt revulsion: Roald Dahl without nastiness is not Roald Dahl. Something about the process feels dishonest, like an Instagram filter that flattens and smooths, trending all faces toward one idealized yet utterly generic face.
My second thought was this: If his work is really this bad, why even try to save it?
Dahl grew up in the repressed world of the British upper class in the 20th century, where his mother was happy to pack him off to boarding school and his country was happy to pack him off to war. His own feelings were unimportant. As a writer, he responded by focusing on the horrible and the uncanny, on revenge and revolution. You can see the BFG—bullied by the other, bigger giants in the book of the same name—as an analogue for the young Dahl at Repton School, small and picked on by the older boys. Miss Trunchbull, meanwhile, is a grotesque version of every teacher who gave Dahl the cane. She deserves everything she gets.
When I think back over the most memorable parts of Dahl’s work, it’s always the nastiness that lingers. At one point in the writer’s first memoir, Boy, Dahl’s father, Harald, has a broken arm that an incompetent doctor mistakes for a dislocation, tugging on the injured limb until it is permanently disabled. The awful married couple at the center of The Twits subject each other to a campaign of relentless psychological harassment. The message of George’s Marvelous Medicine is “Why not brew up all the chemicals you can find in your house and feed the resulting concoction to your grandmother?” This is not an easy fit for an era when peanut packets carry a warning that they contain nuts.
Some of the changes to Dahl’s work were therefore inevitable. Friends tell me that they find themselves, when reading his books aloud to their children, silently editing the texts as they go. (The author himself was repeatedly pressured during his lifetime to tone down some passages.) Some of the new edits are minor and defensible, such as changing the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach to be Cloud-People. Some reflect adult pieties far more than the protection of children: Matilda is no longer allowed to read the colonialist Rudyard Kipling and is given Jane Austen instead.
A few edits, though, are so contrary to the spirit of Dahl that they feel like a violation. In The Witches, for example, the protagonist’s grandmother warns him to watch out for the evil women who rule the world. They are bald, and cover this up with wigs, as well as hiding their claws under gloves. The grandmother used to say: “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.” Instead, in the 2022 Puffin edition, she warns the youngster that “there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
Have you ever read a less Dahl-like sentence? He would never have included such a wholesome teachable moment. His cold, unsettling spikiness is his defining quality as a writer. After all, the conclusion of The Witches sees the young male protagonist stuck as a mouse, with a shortened life span to match. Hardly a happy ending.
The Telegraph’s careful analysis of the rewrites shows quite how many nips and tucks the new texts have received. An earthworm’s “pink skin” is now “smooth skin,” a change for which I can imagine no other explanation than that the editors didn’t want to racialize an invertebrate. Elsewhere, references to “black” clothing have been excised. In a few decades’ time, such alterations will seem as awkward as the 17th-century poet Nahum Tate deciding that King Lear needed a happy ending, or Thomas Bowdler shaving down plays to create The Family Shakespeare. The sheer weight of the Dahl edits reveals a kind of corporate safetyism: This might offend someone, so why take the risk?
One of the inadvertently funniest amendments is a passage in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which once explained how the Oompa-Loompas—whom Dahl originally wrote specifically as African “pygmies”—had come to work for Willy Wonka. “It was easy,” the deranged capitalist inventor used to say. “I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them.” In the newly sanitized version, Wonka instead tells his audience that the Oompa-Loompas were volunteers and “they’ve told me they love it here.” Yes, the sensitivity readers have somehow re-created a classic trope from colonial literature: If these slaves are unhappy, why are they singing all the time? Thank you for the clarification, Mr. Wonka, and now perhaps your PR firm could explain why the Oompa-Loompas aren’t allowed to leave the factory.
Many writers I know have reacted strongly to the news of the rewrites, probably because we know how powerful editors can be. Almost everyone who covers difficult, sensitive subjects can tell you about a time they received a “hostile edit” in which the process of publication felt like running uphill through sand. In such cases, the editors introduce so many caveats and concessions to other people’s perspectives that the work ceases to feel like yours. Those kinds of editors—whose highest goal is a piece that won’t cause any trouble—presumably approach a dead author’s work with an appropriately Dahl-esque glee. Finally, a writer who can’t fight back!
Also, let’s not be cute about it: Sensitivity readers, including those at the company that edited the Dahl books, are a newly created class of censors, a priesthood of offense diviners. How can any one person be an expert in all of the fields covered by modern publishing? It’s an impossible request, and so instead, too often the industry resorts to identitarian deference—one member of an ethnic or racial or sexual minority gives the “minority view.” (Inclusive Minds told the Telegraph that its Inclusion Ambassadors have a range of “lived experience,” and that the company does the bulk of its work at the development stage, only rarely suggesting changes to existing works.)
Given the zeal with which the American right is currently targeting books such as The Handmaid’s Tale, the cultural left should be extremely cautious about championing the censorship of literature, particularly when that censorship is driven by business prerogatives rather than idealism. The Dahl controversy will inevitably be presented as a debate about culture—a principled stand in favor of free speech versus a righteous attempt to combat prejudice and bigotry. But it’s really about money. I’ve written before about how some of the most inflammatory debates, over “cancel culture” and “wokeness,” are best seen as capital defending itself. The Dahl rewrites were surely designed to preserve the value of the “IP” as much as advance the cause of social justice.
In their cruelty, lack of empathy, and blithe assumption of Western superiority, Dahl’s novels share many of their flaws with the books of Ian Fleming, born eight years earlier and a survivor of the same vicious public-school system. The writers knew each other, from their mutual involvement in wartime espionage, and their estates pose the same problem: They are money machines, but the original works embarrass their current owners. Fleming’s James Bond was a suave misogynist prone to slapping women and making disparaging remarks about “Chinamen.” Today’s audiences would recoil from that version of 007.
Now add in the pressure from activist groups and cultural critics who write with an explicit social mission—such as the video-game websites that agonized over reviewing Hogwarts Legacy because of its connection with the novelist J. K. Rowling—as well as the pressure from China to create depoliticized content suitable for its citizens. In these conditions, the gravitational pull for companies wishing to make blockbusters is toward blandness: Delete anything anywhere that might upset anyone. But you can’t do this to Dahl—the offensiveness is braided through the work so tightly that unpicking the individual strands is impossible.
A more honest stance would be that it’s time to take Roald Dahl’s work, put it on a Viking longboat, and sail it flaming into the sunset. Plenty of people are writing new children’s books; whatever we lose by discarding Dahl can be gained elsewhere. A form of Darwinism is rampant in the literary canon. Most authors who were best sellers in their day are now forgotten. Who reads Samuel Richardson’s Pamela now, except first-year literature students? Where are the Netflix adaptations of Hannah More’s pious-conduct books or the gratuitously blood-soaked plays of John Webster? The three best-selling books of 1922—the year when Ulysses was published—were If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson, The Sheik by Edith M. Hull, and Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington. Like most literature, those titles couldn’t escape the age in which they were written.
But Dahl staggers on, embarrassing the cultural gatekeepers by remaining popular despite being so thoroughly out of tune with the times. The work does so because of the dirty secret that children, and adults, like nastiness. They enjoy fat aunts and pranked teachers and the thrilling but illegal doping of pheasants. Today’s corporations want to have it all, though. They want the selling power of an author like Roald Dahl, shorn of the discomforting qualities that made him a best seller. They want things to be simple—a quality that we might call childlike, if Dahl hadn’t shown us that children can be so much more.