Roald Dahl’s legacy is a complicated one. He is a giant of the children’s literature canon. His darkly humorous novels have been a mainstay of middle grade readers for generations. In his life, he was known to be something of a curmudgeon, and generally, people were either unaware of his reprehensible beliefs during his lifetime or let him off the hook as a product of his time (1916-1990). He made several very antisemitic statements, which can be easily found through the wonders of the Internet. These statements were awful enough that his descendants, the current rights holders to his work (meaning the people who make money every time you buy one of Dahl’s books), have placed a blanket apology for these statements on Roald Dahl’s official website. This statement is undated, but the news articles about the apology place the date of its original publication at the end of 2020. Since Mr. Dahl died in 1990, he, himself, is not doing the apologizing. His family is. They are also trying to sell you something: more of Roald Dahl’s books. All of this is preface to the big news story related to him and his works that hit in February and continues to have ripple effects through today related to his estate’s decision to have his works edited by “sensitivity editors” to make them more accessible to modern audiences.
AND his books do remain popular to this day. There is currently a movie in production about Willy Wonka starring Timothée Chalamet. A movie version of the musical based on his novel Matilda was recently released. If Dahl’s works weren’t still highly marketable, these things wouldn’t be happening. That said, for quite some time, some parents have been drifting away from sharing these classics with their children. Some of this is because the books haven’t held up well to the passage of time. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, for example, contains passages that are overtly racist, making it a title that many parents choose not to read to their children (or find themselves unpleasantly surprised when they revisit a childhood favorite only to find the racism lurking there when they share it with their family). For folks who haven’t read his books recently, but remember them fondly, there’s something about his books and the dark undertones in them that hasn’t held up to the needs of many modern parents. While looking at sales numbers for Dahl’s works overtime isn’t really something readily available, one might infer that some Dahl titles are not being read with the fervor they once were.
This is not the first time Dahl’s books have been seen as needing revisions. In fact, in the 1964 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa Loompas were portrayed as being from Africa. Because within the context of the story these characters are described as “happy,” but also very much appear to be enslaved, one can see why there might have been some concerns over this particular authorial choice of Dahl’s. After conversations with groups like the NAACP, Dahl did revise the Oompa Loompa origin story in 1973. Of course, the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie came out in 1971 and had already dismantled the African origin story of the Oompa Loompas at that point. (That said, those movie Oompa Loompas were pretty darned creepy, at least that’s what 1970’s me thought. Something about the slow drone of those repetitive dirge-like songs was nightmare fodder for young me.) And, of course, in the upcoming movie version, we’ve recently learned that the first Oompa Loompa Mr. Wonka encounters will be portrayed by … wait for it, Hugh Grant. Yep, Oompa Loompas have definitely changed with the times!
But back to the present day sensitivity edits: when Dahl’s estate made the decision to update his titles, what I saw, as a librarian, was an attempt to make his works usable for a new generation of youngsters. The examples of changes shared in the news stories of the edits made as a part of the sensitivity editors work did not discuss some of the overtly problematic content in Dahl, focusing instead on words like “fat.” The uproar was immediate, and prominent authors — who are also big first amendment advocates, like Salman Rushdie — came out in opposition to the sensitivity edits. I’m not here to insert my opinion about any of this … but I do believe that when rights holders make these sorts of decisions, they are doing so with a financial impetus.
As a result of the blowback, the Dahl estate is now going to sell BOTH versions of Dahl’s works: the edited and the original. This means that libraries will likely have to order both versions, which does have the end result of more sales to the Dahl estate. My point here is that capitalism is messy, and literally no one is happy how this one came out, except maybe the people selling us stuff.
In the wake of this, lots of creatives have shared opinions about this sort of retroactive editing of older works, most recently Steven Spielberg expressed his regret over making changes when E.T. was re-released. Where is George Lucas acknowledging that HAN SHOT FIRST when we really and truly need it (IYKYK)!