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Roald Dahl's New Editions of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', 'James and the Giant Peach' And Others Have Been Edited For Sensitivity

Mar 12, 2024

By Jordan Hoffman

The children’s fiction written by Roald Dahl will undergo modification in its next printing, according to a report by the Daily Telegraph. Puffin Books, the British children’s division of the Anglo-American publisher Penguin Random House owned by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, has hired sensitivity readers to grab their red pens and make “hundreds of changes to the original text” on titles like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and others so that they “can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

Specifically, the word “fat” has been excised from Dahl’s corpus. Augustus Gloop, the voracious German boy with an insatiable sweet tooth from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is now referred to as “enormous.” Willy Wonka’s tuneful factory workers, the Oompa Loompas, are not referred to as “tiny”, “titchy” or “no higher than my knee,” but merely “small.” Moreover, they are not “small men” but “small people.” Mrs. Twit of The Twits is no longer described as “fearfully ugly.”

In addition to changes or omissions to the text, new lines have been inserted. In The Witches, for example, after it is revealed that Dahl’s witches wear wigs to cover their baldness, upcoming versions will read “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

Other changes include swapping out the phrase “boys and girls” to “children,” calling Cloud-Men (in James and the Giant Peach) “Cloud-People,” young Matilda now reads the work of Jane Austen instead of Rudyard Kipling, and Mr. Fox (of Fantastic Mr. Fox) has three daughters instead of sons. The words “crazy” and “mad” have been removed from descriptions across the board as have, apparently, the use of the colors white or black as descriptors. The Big Friendly Giant of The BFG no longer wears a black cloak, and characters no longer turn “white with fear,” according to the report. (The Telegraph followed up in an article with an expanded list of alterations—"old hag" out, “old crow” in—which can be read here.)

In 2021, Netflix finalized a deal to purchase the Roald Dahl Story Company with an eye toward a shared universe of properties and a $1 billion production plan. The cost of the acquisition was reported at $686 million. At the time, Netflix boasted that Dahl’s books continue to grow in popularity worldwide with “one new book sold every 2.6 seconds.”

Puffin's changes to future publications of the books commenced in 2020, prior to the Netflix deal and when the Roald Dahl Story Company was still run by Dahl's heirs. However, the Netflix deal initiated in 2018.

Dahl was born in 1916 in Wales to wealthy Norwegian parents, was educated in England, and later worked in Kenya and modern-day Tanzania on behalf of Shell Oil. He joined the Royal Air Force during World War II, and was a squadron leader. His first published work (inspired by a conversation with “Horatio Hornblower” creator C.S. Forester) was a story about his wartime adventures. He died in 1990 (and was ranked Forbes’s highest paid dead celebrity in 2021) and did not avoid criticism in his own lifetime.

The Oompa Loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were, in the original 1964 text and illustrations, presented as exaggeration of pygmy peoples from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle.” By 1972, when Dahl published the sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the description of the factory workers in the new work and in reprints to the original was adjusted to having “golden-brown hair” and “rosy-white” skin, and appearing more like dwarfish hippies. In the 1971 film version, they had orange skin, green hair, and white eyebrows.

Furthermore, Dahl had more than once made statements that most would consider to be antisemitic. Most notorious was an interview in 1983 in which he said “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere.” He added, “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” In a book review that same year he perpetuated many an antisemitic trope by asking why the United States was “so utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there that they dare not defy them?”

In 2020, the Dahl family apologized, writing that “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.”

By Bess Levin

By Bess Levin

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The statement continued, “We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”

That same year, Warner Bros. and Anne Hathaway apologized when a number of paralympians took to social media in revolt following the release of the film version of The Witches, in which Hathaway, playing a villain, had missing fingers.

How classic works of entertainment adjustment to the sensitivity of modern times is an ongoing debate. On Disney+, one can still watch early animated shorts and features that include racial stereotypes, but not without first seeing a 12-second, unskippable warning. HBO Max did something similar with Gone With The Wind.

The reaction to the Dahl news (dare we call it “Willy Woka”?) on social media was extreme, with few, thus far, coming out in strong support, and many others comparing the move to the book 1984. Some responses were a bit more humorous.

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