Roald Dahl’s books get controversial rewrite, with critics condemning the move as ‘absurd censorship’

February 21, 2023, 4:25 PM UTC
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka surrounded by Oompa-Loompas in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Everett Collection

Long-deceased novelist Roald Dahl is back in the news, and it’s creating quite a row.

New releases of his classic children’s books—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Fabulous Mr. Fox among them—have been edited to better fit the modern sensibility of readers. (And likely, Netflix viewers. More on that below.)

Among the substitutions or rewrites tracked by a team of journalists at the Telegraph are references to gender, race, weight, and mental health.

Some examples:

– Augustus Gloop, the antagonist in the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is no longer “enormously fat,” just “enormous.”

– “Black” no longer describes the tractors in the 1970 novel Fantastic Mr. Fox. Now, they are “murderous, brutal-looking monsters.”

– The witches in Dahl’s dark novel, The Witches, underwent a significant overhaul and day-job upgrades. “Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” is now “even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business.”

Critics have piled on, saying that the edits are unacceptable. “Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship,” novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted

The Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC), which controls the rights to the books and is now owned by Netflix, said they worked with publisher Puffin Books to approve the changes to ensure “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.” The review, conducted in partnership with children’s literature consultancy Inclusive Minds, began before the Netflix acquisition, said RDSC.

But this is not the first time a rewrite was deemed necessary.

The original Willy Wonka manuscript was rife with unapologetic themes of white supremacy, Samboism, and chattel slavery. For example, Wonka described the factory workers as “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa Loompas,” whom he kidnapped from Africa and who were happy to be enslaved in exchange for cacao beans.

It gets much, much worse.

Somehow, we all missed that the Oompa Loompa characters from the beloved 1971 film starring Gene Wilder were short-statured actors in blackface. I’m guessing the folks at Netflix haven’t.

While it’s important to debate context, history, and meaning in classic literature—we’ve been here before with Mark Twain, after all—perhaps the bigger controversy isn’t the need for another update but the longstanding lack of investment in a diverse array of quality authors.

That, it seems to me, is the luxury modern readers and streamers simply can’t afford.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

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On Background

Every culture has a classic canon
One helpful way to address the thorny issues associated with revising a problematic past is to embrace the full spectrum of classic thought and expand the idea of “canon." 

“Classic literature can teach us so much about the past—how people lived, what they thought, and what they wanted to change,” writes reviewer Teresa Preston in the introduction to this astonishing list of 100 must-read classics written by people of color from all over the world. “I have nothing against Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Orwell, and the like, but there’s so much more for lovers of classics to read.”

This list includes one of the first-known Arabic novels, which may also be one of the earliest examples of science fiction—Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn Al-Nafis (1277). But Preston surfaces names that should be as well-known as Dahl’s at every turn: Lu Xun's The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China (1921), Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Queen Liliʻuokalani (1898), and  Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (1868), who worked as a seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln. I got you started; just 96 more to go.
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Parting Words

“So I shipped them all over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely. They are wonderful workers. They all speak English now. They love dancing and music…Aren’t they delightful? Aren’t they charming? But you mustn’t believe a word they said. It’s all nonsense, every bit of it!”

Willy Wonka, in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

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