The Bowdlerism of Roald Dahl Should Prompt a Reconsideration of Copyright Law

The bowdlerism of Roald Dahl’s works is a direct attack upon our literary heritage. Should a faceless corporation be allowed to censor a set of children’s books beloved by multiple generations? But while an immediate response is required, this event should also prompt a more serious reconsideration of copyright law.

If you like what you read here, you can help by sharing what I write (I rely on word of mouth for my audience). You can also ensure you never miss a post, by entering your email address into the subscription form below.

For those who’ve missed it, Puffin has rewritten Roald Dahl’s books, making several hundred changes across the books on the advice of so-called ‘sensitivity readers’. The story has been covered widely, including by the BBC, Telegraph, Times, Guardian, Daily Mail and wider. The decision was made by Puffin, the publisher, in conjunction with the ‘Roald Dahl Story Company’, which is owned by Netflix, in conjunction with an organisation called ‘Inclusive Minds’, and applies to the latest edition of the books.

These are not minor changes, such as the change of an occurrence of ‘the n-word’ to ‘black’, but wholesale alterations to large numbers of sentences or paragraphs throughout each book, altering meanings, descriptions and tone to a significant extent. While one can usually see the ‘rationale’ that is being applied, it frequently leads the editors to some quite absurd places, notably the determined attempt to expunge any suggestion that Augustus Gloop – whose cautionary tale is entirely based around his excessive overeating – is somehow not fat. I’ve appended at the end of this piece, as examples, the list of changes from Matilda and from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The most shocking thing about this travesty is not the extent of the changes – there have been abridged and bowdlerised versions of classic works before, and some people like them – but the fact that the publisher, who owns the copyright, will be preventing the original texts from being published. It is this that takes the decision from bowdlerism to censorship; a deliberate attempt to rewrite and erase Dahl’s original text.

Should a private company be permitted to rewrite, on its own authority, the beloved works of one of Britain’s most popular children’s author? Should it be allowed to dictate that its revised versions should not just stand as an alternative to the originals, but to replace them in bookshops? Should it be allowed to say that no-one is to be allowed to purchase the original texts that Dahl wrote, unless they buy them second-hand?

It would simply not be possible to do this with an author that was out of copyright, such as Charles Dickens. Of course, a publisher could choose to publish an abridged or ‘modernised’ version. And maybe some people would buy that. But another publisher would be able to publish the original text and people could choose which they wished to buy. There could be no attempt to airbrush the initial text out of history: the new edition would be a different edition, standing alongside, rather than replacing the original.

There have been some suggestions that because this action is by a private company, not a government, we somehow don’t need to worry about. That is not an argument that stands up to scrutiny. If something is bad, it doesn’t matter who does it. Of course, a government could choose to do something even worse, such as criminalising anyone who retained the existing copies. But what Puffin is doing is bad enough: it is unilaterally erasing an author’s words and making it impossible to obtain new copies of his original texts.

It has also been said that this doesn’t matter because Dahl chose to bring out new editions of some of his works. It’s true, he sometimes did; there are also plenty of occasions when he rejected suggestions from his editors. Regardless, there is a fundamental difference. An author may choose to update or change their books – we do not insist that the first edition of The Hobbit, which is inconsistent with The Lord of the Rings, is the canonical one. That is not the same as a company, or anyone else, making changes after the author’s death – at least, not to the extent of making the original text unavailable.

The situation requires an immediate response. We know from the US that the political views of corporations are frequently only skin-deep and that, if challenged, many will retreat back to their core business of producing and selling goods and services. When the Walt Disney Company sought to actively campaign on laws being debated by the Florida state legislature over what could be taught in state primary schools, Governor Ron de Santis retaliated by publishing and passing legislation that stripped the district containing Walt Disney World of its bespoke administrative and taxation status, a move that is likely to cost the company money. Since then, Disney has been largely quiescent on political issues.

If Puffin will not back down on this matter, and refuses to allow the texts to be published in their original form, the Government should strip it of its ownership of the Dahl copyrights and place the full text of all Dahl’s books in the public domain(1). Puffin would be free to continue to publish and sell its bowdlerised versions – but any other publisher could choose to publish the original, unabridged test. Let the public decide which they wish to buy. If the British Parliament can vest the copyright of Peter Pan in perpetuity with Great Ormond Street Hospital, it can similar place the copyright of Roald Dahl’s beloved works into the custodianship of the nation, for all to enjoy.

More broadly, this calls into question the wider appropriateness of the current state of copyright law in the UK; in particular, the fact that copyright protections typically extend for 70 years after an author’s death. The purpose of copyright is to allow an author to benefit financially from their works – and to prevent others from altering it without their permission. It goes without saying that copyright should, therefore, last for the length of the author’s life. There is arguably a case for extending it for a short period after their death – perhaps 10, or at most 20 years – particularly for recently published works, to allow any young children to continue to be supported in case of the author’s untimely death.

It is increasingly hard to see the justification for it to last for 70 years after death. There is a real cost to a popular work remaining in copyright. One can see the flourishing of creativity around the character of Sherlock Holmes, which exited copyright (in the UK) in 2000. Now we have modern versions of Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraftian versions of Sherlock Holmes, stories about Sherlock Holmes’s fictional sister and much, much more – alongside the original stories, which are still readily available and much enjoyed. Some of these are good, some less so – and different people will disagree on which is which. But collectively they add much to human pleasure and also stimulate the economy the creative industries – crucially, without compromising the availability or canonicity of the original text.

In addition to the creative case, the travesty of Dahl’s bowdlerism demonstrates that the 70 year period has the potential to actively work against the second aim of copyright; to protect an author’s moral ownership of their own text. With many valuable copyrights owned by corporations, it can be seen that there is nothing to stop an unscrupulous company from rewriting, and actively erasing the author’s text from being readily available. This is an unconsciable situation.

The immediate priority is to save Dahl’s works. But after that, we need more fundamental rethink of for how long after an author’s death, if at all, copyright law should apply.

If you’ve enjoyed this, you can help by sharing what I write (I rely on word of mouth for my audience). You can also ensure you never miss a post by subscribing free using the box below.

(1) Most plausibly by using standard compulsory purchase/eminent domain procedures.


List of Changes in Matilda (list taken from the Daily Telegraph’s site)

Mothers and fathersParents
Your daughter Vanessa, judging by what she’s learnt this term, has no hearing-organs at allJudging by what your daughter Vanessa has learnt this term, this fact alone is more interesting than anything I have taught in the classroom
She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard KiplingShe went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck
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 outRemoved
Dickens or KiplingDickens or Austen
Hardly the kind of man a wife dreams aboutHardly the man of my dreams
His wife recognised the signs immediately and made herself scarceRemoved
Shut up, you nut!Ssshh! Not yet!
Turning whiteTurning quite pale
Matilda took the knife she had been eating withRemoved
He looked like a low-grade bookmaker dressed up for his daughter’s weddingRemoved
Beginning to go dark redBeginning to tremble
Bingo afternoons left her so exhausted both physically and emotionally that she never had enough energy left to cook an evening mealRemoved
Red in the faceHot under the collar
Female tightrope-walkerTightrope-walker
A lovely pale oval madonna faceA lovely oval face
Wonderful parentsWonderful family
Pale and pleasantRemoved
A most formidable femaleA most formidable woman
Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy foreverHer face was not a thing of beauty
Your fannyYour backside
The plain plump person with the smug suet-pudding faceThe plain person with the smug pudding face
Their children turned out to be delinquents and drop-outsRemoved
I don’t give a tinker’s tootI don’t give a flip
Well thrown, sir!Well thrown, miss!
She’s madRemoved
Mothers and fathersParents
She’s madShe’s lost her mind
Denizen of the underworldResident of the underworld
Her great horsy faceHer face
Huge overstuffed grubOverstuffed grub
Get your mother or fatherGet your family
Become a heroineBecome a hero
Small boys and girlsChildren
Save myself from going round the bendSave myself the trouble
His motherHis parents
Wobbling crazily on his one legWobbling unsteadily
Foolish abandonReckless abandon
His mother thought it was beautifulHe thought it was beautiful
An assA clown
My fatherMy family
Bunch of moronsBunch of brats
A gigantic spray-gun in my hands and start pumping itA gigantic spray-gun in my hands and start squirting them all
Ranting like a maniacRemoved
Bunch of midgetsBunch of squirts
White in the face, white as paperRemoved
Wise old birdWise teacher
A mother at home or a sister or a husbandA mother at home or a sister or a husband, or anyone at all
Sane and sensible manSensible man
I was her slaveRemoved
I had been her slaveI had been serving her
You’re madI don’t know why
A heroineA hero
Knock her flatGive her a right talking to
Eight nutty little idiotsEight nutty little boys
School matronSchool nurse
Crazy with frustrationWild with frustration
Her father’s placeHer parents’ place

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Like all extremely old people, he was delicate and weakLike most extremely old people, he was delicate and weak
“Tell Charlie about that crazy Indian prince,” said Grandma Josephine“Tell Charlie about that ridiculously rich Indian prince,” said Grandma Josephine
“You mean Prince Pondicherry?” said Grandpa Joe, and he began chuckling with laughter. “Completely dotty, said Grandpa George. “But very rich,” said Grandma Georgina“You mean Prince Puducherry?” said Grandpa Joe, and he began chuckling with laughter
“Prince Pondicherry wrote a letter to Mr Willy Wonka”“Prince Puducherry wrote a letter to Mr Willy Wonka”
“The crazy prince”“The prince”
A nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pumpA nine-year-old boy who was so enormous he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump
Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of doughGreat folds bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a ball of dough
Fully grown womenFully grown people
“A hundred women working for me”“A hundred people working for me”
“Okay, girls”“Okay, folks”
“She needs a really good spanking”“She needs a really good talking to”
“My mother says it’s not ladylike and it looks ugly to see a girl’s jaws going up and down like mine…”“My mother says it’s undignified and it looks ugly to see jaws to be going up and down like mine…”
… shooting up another bunch of gangsters with machine guns… shooting up another bunch of gangsters
Mike Teavee himself had no less than eighteen toy pistols of various sizes hanging from belts around his body, and every now and again he would leap up into the air and fire off half a dozen rounds from one or another of these weaponsRemoved
“Especially when they start pumping each other full of lead, or flashing the old stilettos, or giving each other the one-two-three with their knuckledusters!”“Especially when they start firing off their guns or giving each other the one-two-three with their knuckledusters!”
The man behind the counter looked fat and well-fed. He had big lips and fat cheeks and a very fat neckRemoved
The fat around his neck bulged out all around the top of his collar like a rubber ringRemoved
The fat shopkeeper shoutedThe shopkeeper shouted
The fat shopkeeper saidThe shopkeeper said
“Get all that mud off your pants!”“Get all that mud off your trousers!”
Policemen with arms linked were trying to hold them back from the gatesPolice officers with arms linked were trying to hold them back from the gates
All the children, except Charlie, had both their mothers and fathers with themAll the children, except Charlie, had their parents with them
“Who’s the big fat boy?”Removed
“Enormous, isn’t he?”Removed
“The picture of the Lone Range stencilled on his windcheater?”“The picture of the Lone Ranger stencilled on his jacket”
“He must be crazy! Look at all those toy pistols he’s got hanging all over him”Removed
“It’s moving! It’s walking! It’s a little person! It’s a little man!”“A little person!”
“It is a little man! Can you see him?”“It is a little person! Can you see them?”
“Aren’t they fantastic”Removed
“No higher than my knee!”Removed
“Look at their funny long hair!”Removed
The tiny men – they were no larger than medium-sized dollsThe little people
“But they can’t be real people,” Charlie saidRemoved
“Imported direct from Loompaland,” said Mr Wonka proudly“They come from Loompaland”
“The Oompa-Loompas spent every moment of their days climbing through the treetops”Removed
“Poor little Oompa-Loompas!”Removed
“The bark of the bong-bong tree”Removed
“You only had to mention the word “cacao” to an Oompa-Loompa and he would start dribbling at the mouth”Removed
“As soon as I discovered that the Oompa-Loompas were crazy about this particular food”“As soon as I discovered that the Oompa-Loompas loved this particular food”
“I climbed up to their tree-house village and poked my head in through the door of the tree house belonging to the leader of the tribe”“I decided to speak to their leader”
“The poor little fellow, looking thin and starved, was sitting there…”“The fellow was sitting there…”
“It’s a deal!” he cried. “Come on! Let’s go!”“Let’s go and ask the others. But I think it’s a deal!” he cried. “Come on!”
“So I shipped them all over here – every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe”“So, they all agreed to come over – each and every Oompa-Loompa”
“It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely… They all speak English now”“They’ve told me they love it here”
“They still wear the same kind of clothes they wore in the jungle. They insist upon that”“They do like jokes”
“The men, as you can see for yourselves across the river, wear only deerskins. The women wear leaves, and the children wear nothing at all. The women use fresh leaves every day…”Removed
“But Augustus was deaf to everything except the call of his enormous stomach”“But Augustus was ignoring everything”
Mrs Gloop, going white in the face and waving her umbrella aboutMrs Gloop, waving her umbrella about
Mr Wonka turned around and clicked his finger sharply, click, click, click, three timesRemoved
Immediately, an Oompa-Loompa appeared, as if from nowhere, and stood beside himAn Oompa-Loompa appeared, as if from no where, and stood beside him
The Oompa-Loompa bowed and smiled, showing beautiful white teeth. His skin was rosy-white, his hair was golden brown, and the top of his head came just above the height of Mr Wonka’s kneeRemoved
He wore the usual deerskin slung over his shoulderRemoved
“Now listen to me,” said Mr Wonka, looking down at the tiny man.“Now listen to me,” said Mr Wonka, looking down at the man.
“How long could we allow this beast/To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast/On everything he wanted to?/Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do./However long this pig might live,/We’re positive he’d never give/Even the smallest bit of fun/Or happiness to anyone”“For one such child as vile as he/Bad things happen, wait and see!/We cannot say we are surprised,/Augustus Gloop had been advised./ But then he took another sip/And now he’s going on a trip.
“So what we do in case such/As this, we use the gentle touch,?And carefully we take the brat/And turn him into something that/Will give great pleasure to us all -/A doll, for instance, or a ball,/Or marbles or a rocking horse”“Cover your eyes and cross your toes,/Whoosh, swoosh and off he goes!”
“But this revolting boy, of course,/Was so unutterably vile,/So greedy, foul, and infantile,/He left a most disgusting taste/Inside our mouths, and so in haste/We chose a thing that, come what may./Would take the nasty taste away”Removed
“She wants a good kick in the pants,” whispered Grandpa Joe“She needs to learn some manners,” whispered Grandpa Joe
“He’s crazy!” they shouted. “He’s balmy.“He’s barmy!” they shouted.
The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing like madThe Oompa-Loompas were all rowing frantically
“I tried it on an Ooma-Loompa yesterday in the Testing Room”“I tried it myself yesterday in the Testing Room”
“And when I do, then there’ll be no excuse anymore for little boys and girls going about with bald heads!”“And when I do, everyone will have as much wonderful hair as they could wish for!”
“Little boys and girls never do go about with…”“Little boys and girls don’t want to grow beards and moustaches…”
A few queer rumblings were heardA few strange rumblings were heard
She shot out a fat handShe shot out a hand
Her huge, well-trained jawsHer well-trained jaws
Watching her huge rubbery lipsWatching her lips
“I’ve tried it twenty times in the Testing Room on twenty Oompa-Loompas and every one finished up as a blueberry.”“I’ve tried it twenty times in the Testing Room and every time, someone finished up as a blueberry.”
“Thereafter, just from chewing gum,/Miss Bigelow was always dumb,/And spent her life shut up in some/Disgusting sanatorium”Removed
“I gave some to an old Oompa-Loompa”“I gave some to an Oompa-Loompa”
“The Oompa-Loompas all adore it. It makes them tiddly”“The Oompa-Loompas all adore it”
“They’re as drunk as lords,” said Mr WonkaRemoved
Mrs Salt was a great fat creature with short legs, and she was blowing like a rhinocerosMrs Salt was so out of breath, she was blowing like a rhinoceros
He watched his fat wife go tumbling down the holeHe watched his wife go tumbling down the hole
Hundreds of Ooma-Loompa children no more than four inches high playing in the streetsHundreds of Oompa-Loompa children playing in the streets
Charlie experienced a queer sense of dangerCharlie experienced a strange sense of danger
“But he’s a midget!” shouted Mr Teavee“But he’s tiny!” shouted Mr Teavee
Waving his pistols in the airRemoved
He turned away and clicked his fingers three times in the air. An Oompa-Loompa appeared immediatelyAn Oompa-Loompa appeared and stood beside him
“Follow these orders,” said Mr Wonka“Follow these instructions,” said Mr Wonka
Beating their tiny drumsBeating their drums
“Or better still, just don’t install/The idiotic thing at all”Removed
Something crazy is going to happen now, Charlie thoughtSomething bizarre is going to happen now, Charlie thought
“He used to be fat! Now he’s thin as a straw!”Removed
“How healthy she looks! Much better than before!”“How healthy she looks!”