Tinker with Roald Dahl and you destroy his voice, says Griselda Heppel

Oh Puffin books. For heaven’s sake. Is this how it’s going to be, from now on? 

Writers date, of course they do. Orphans are no longer sent home from British India to live with reclusive uncles in Yorkshire (The Secret Garden), or imprisoned in the workhouse, from which they might escape to join a band of pickpockets (Oliver Twist).

Yet no one is suggesting – I hope – that the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Charles Dickens should be rewritten to suit the sensibilities of present day children (as perceived by adults, of course). So why Roald Dahl? 

Dahl’s style has always been irreverent, bordering on the crass, and children love it. If you, as a teacher, don’t think it suitable for children, don’t teach it. Give them Eva Ibbotson and Joan Aiken instead. Or Katherine Rundell, Jacqueline Wilson, Malorie Blackman, Rick Riordan, Jill Murphy, J K Rowling, Robin Stevens. There’s a whole host of wonderful children’s writers out there who will not distress you by using words like fat, ugly, horsey, bald and mad. At least I don’t think they will. 

You cannot make such wholesale changes to a book without trampling all over the writer’s voice, rendering it blank and neutral. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, with the author as some kind of mechanical conduit. They are the product of a writer’s imagination, and the words he/she uses to tell them build the world in which they take place. Change ‘fat little brown mouse’ to ‘little brown mouse’ in The Witches, and the tone switches from affectionate humour to twee. Similarly, replacing the delightful image of a ‘great flock of ladies’ with the clumsy ‘great group of ladies’ kills Dahl’s nimble prose stone dead. And what for? What’s wrong with flock? Will sheep and geese be offended? 

Some of the changes are downright bizarre, having more to do with an urge to correct Dahl’s grasp of facts than a genuine concern not to upset readers. Why can’t the little boy, narrating The Witches, exclaim: 

 “‘But what about the rest of the world? What about America and France and Holland and Germany? And what about Norway?’” 

Safe to assume Roald Dahl knew the world contains more
than five countries. Photo by Pixabay:
Well, someone at Puffin has decided that, because the rest of the world is made up of more than five countries, everything after ‘rest of the world’ has to be cut. Strange such a howler got through the original editing process, really. 

Except that it isn't. 

Because time was when editors were able to spot when it's the character speaking, not the writer. The young narrator is naming all the countries he can think of, rendering the line charming and expressive of his personality. Now it's just boring, all charm destroyed. 

I do remember reading The Twits with my children and worrying, at first, that by describing how ugly Mr and Mrs Twit were, Dahl was making fun of people’s appearance, something they could do nothing about. But he wasn’t. He makes clear early on that the Twits weren’t born ugly, they became so over the years by being nasty people, so that meanness and selfishness overtook their features. For him, their ugliness was a moral matter; by removing ‘ugly’ from Mrs Twit’s description, this new edition destroys the point he’s making. 

The most worrying aspect of Puffin’s decision to feed all of Dahl’s work through the mill of sensitivity readers is the precedent it sets. No author will be safe; the most careful ones writing today will fall foul of the censors in 20 years’ time (or less), as what is deemed acceptable to say and write is constantly evolving. The idea that publishers will have carte blanche to tinker with any author’s work so that ultimately no one will remember what’s real and what’s been cosmetically enhanced fills me with horror. Whatever became of copyright?


The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel

BRONZE WINNER in the Wishing Shelf Awards 2021 

By the author of Ante's Inferno  

WINNER of the People's Book Prize


Peter Leyland said…
Censorship, oh how outrageous it is Griselda and in children's books from another age too! As a one time teacher of that younger age group I know how much Real Dahl was loved. I particularly enjoyed teaching Revolting Rhymes but the list is endless. Thanks for a post which is really asking publishers to be sensible in making their judgements. Fashions change but there is always the next generation of writers who will upset somebody's sensitivity.
I couldn't agree more. My kids loved his books and it seems to me incomprehensible that the publishers should choose to change the voice of a writer with such a distinctive one.
Susan Price said…
I've never liked Dahl and I came here to disagree and argue that there is a case, somewhat, for censuring what children are exposed to. We censure what they see, read and hear all the time, as a protection. Adults are a lost cause, after all (though it could be argued that some of them wouldn't be quite as lost if there had been more censorship of the ideas they'd been exposed to as children.)

But your post has won me over, Griselda. Not being a Dahl fan, I'd not followed the news very closely and your post makes it clear that the newspapers (surprise!) have not been entirely truthful. The changes you quote do seem extraordinarily tin-eared and pointless.

I can't for the life of me understand why 'a great flock of ladies' has to be 'corrected' to 'a great group of ladies.' The latter is utterly leaden, while the former not only sounds better when read aloud, but conveys a sense of movement and sound too.

And what, as you say, is wrong with 'a flock of ladies'? If I was out and about with a number of my friends, I think I'd be more insulted by being called 'a lady' than part of 'a flock.' I'm sure I've seen a gathering of priests referred to as 'a flock of black birds.' Is that wrong too?

Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you all!

I'm proud I won you over, Susan, especially as I'm not a huge fan of Roald Dahl either but you completely got my point that the sensitivity readers have effectively rewritten his books because they don't like his style. I always thought the whole point of being a fiction writer was that your editor would make (valuable) suggestions but would never dream of rewriting your work because they preferred their own way of putting things. The Daily Telegraph published an entire list of all the changes and all I can say is, the books must be a lot shorter now because whole passages have been, not rewritten (bad enough) but removed. If they'd stuck to taking out a few offensive terms I could perhaps have gone along with it (after all, Dahl recast the Oompa Loompas himself when their original racist stereotyping was pointed out to him).

Here, for fun, are two more examples of the changes made:

Women were screaming and strong men were turning white in the face and shouting, “It’s crazy! This can’t happen!”

Replaced with:

All over the dining room people were screaming, looking panicky and shouting, ‘This can’t be happening!”

(The Witches)

And this brilliant description of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda has been removed altogether:

She wore heavy make-up and had one of those unfortunate bulging figures where the flesh appears to be strapped in all around the body to prevent it from falling out.

We're doomed, I tell you, DOOMED! (Me, not Dahl.)
I'm not a big Roald Dahl fan, but this treatment of his works seems crazy. He had an editor, the stories are of their time. 'Modernising' them in such a way risks smothering the very spark that made/makes them so popular today.

If his work is no longer deemed suitable for today's readers, then I'm sure there are plenty of experienced authors willing to write fresh new stories for the same market.

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