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Roald Dahl Shouldn't Be Censored, But Not For The Reason You May Think

The answer to damage done isn't to act as though it wasn't

By Conor MatthewsPublished about a year ago 3 min read
Roald Dahl Shouldn't Be Censored, But Not For The Reason You May Think
Photo by Jessica Loaiza on Unsplash

There's few persistent things about childhood that transcends generation, nationality, and class as IP rediscovered or reintroduced. Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles, Scooby Doo, Tom and Jerry, The Muppets are just a few that come to mind. Among them, every so often, is Roald Dahl.

It's hard not to have some sort of fond memory for his work, which continues to be adapted and kept alive as recently as Matilda: The Musical. Whatever it is there's always something alluring about fun stories about winning a chocolate factory, having psychic powers, outsmarting farmers, and even escaping witches.

But like many authors who write for children, Dahl is (or was) an tragically an adult. He had his prejudices, his outdated views (even at the time), and his more unsavoury moments. I'm not here to say cancel or don't cancel; you're able to decide for yourself. Likewise I'm not going to call his English publishers, Puffin, out for changing the wording of his books and characters to make them more palpable to more sensitive readers. Others are doing that. No, my concern is more with the motive behind the action.

Roald Dahl is, as dirty as it may sound, a brand. Like I said; there's a successful musical at the minute based on just one of his books. Hollywood can't help themselves but make and remake films based on works like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Roald Dahl is/was also a person with his own problems and issues. One can try to reconcile these two uncomfortable bedfellows by following in the footsteps of Warner Brothers and Disney, who put disclaimers before their back catalogue of work, briefly mentioning they acknowledge the offense, apologise for it, but state how to pretend it didn't happen is to pretend there wasn't harm done. Puffin have chosen instead to simply rewrite the offending pieces, ironically only further drawing attention to them.

Puffin want the brand but not the man.

Yet if Puffin wanted the whimsy and charm of Dahl but with the sensitivity and inclusivity of the modern day, shouldn't they have sought out fresh voices? How many BAME (Black, Asian, Middle Eastern/Multi-Ethnic) writers have the same inventive imagination as the man who inspired them but haven't had the chance to show it? How many women can write a new Matilda but without body shaming?

This is part of a much larger and depressing trend in all forms of media production. Where the old masters and heroes would be replaced by the new wave, inspired by style but refined by modern sensibilities, we have seeped further and further into nostalgia for a past that we wish to pretend was more savoury than it really was. Fitting, since the word nostalgia comes from Greek for "Despair For Home", and was once medically considered a form of depression.

Part of reinventing works is the usage of irony, especially when the artist may have disapproved of it. HP Lovecraft's work is being reframed through the black experience to counter-act his overt racism. Shakespeare is returning to his roots with gender reversed/neutral/blind casting. And some may excuse Hogwarts Legacy's ties to JK Rowling with the fact you can play as a trans character and talk to a canonically trans NPC. But these shouldn't take up the space that should be reserved for new works, especially from creatives who are part of these communities and identities that publishers and productions are trying to sell themselves to.

I heard a comedian (I apologise, I can't find the Youtube video anywhere anymore, so I can't even credit them), tell a joke about Huckleberry Finn. The joke is about a publisher who says they are going to print the name of a certain character as "N-Word Jim", so as not to be offensive. The comedian retorts that if they didn't want to be offensive, why not just call him just Jim. It cuts to heart of this issue-

There's nothing wrong with the intention. The intention is good. But surely the answer to damage done isn't to act as though it wasn't; it should be to allow for people to have their say, especially when they have been unheard for so long.



About the Creator

Conor Matthews

Writer. Opinions are my own.

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