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On Literary ‘Plastic Surgery’

Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916 – November 23, 1990), the popular English author of children’s literature and short stories, enjoyed fame during his lifetime. He has been brought to justice nearly 32 years after his demise, and the legendary children’s author has also been sentenced in the trial… Hundreds of changes have been made to his words, descriptions and even characterisations so that everyone can enjoy his literary works today.

A four-decade-old conversation between Dahl and Irish-born British figurative painter Francis Bacon (October 28, 1909 – April 28, 1992) has recently gone viral. The meeting took place at the author’s Great Missenden residence in Buckinghamshire. In response to Bacon’s question, Dahl reportedly said that if the publishers would make any changes to his works after his death, he would want Thor, the God of Thunder, to hit them on their heads with his hammer. Or else, he would send a huge crocodile to swallow them.

Hundreds of Dahl’s expressions related to weight, beauty, mental health, violence, gender and race have recently been changed. For example, the character Augustus Gloop of his 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was enormously fat. Now, he has become enormous. Instead of being a supermarket cashier or a typist of a businessman, the seemingly ordinary, as well as supernatural, lady of his 1983 novel The Witches can run a company now or be a top scientist. Similarly, the Cloud-Men of his 1961 novel James and the Giant Peach have become Cloud-People. Furthermore, The Twits‘ (1980) Mrs. Twit was ugly and beasty in the past. Now, she has become only beasty. Dahl mentioned in his 1978 novel The Enormous Crocodile that the animal used to eat an entire class of children. Now, that crocodile eats only small children. Matilda, the main character of the 1988 novel of the same name, used to enjoy books penned by Rudyard Kipling. Now, she loves to read Jane Austen. It seems that words, like mad or crazy, have also been deleted in order to increase the social awareness about mental health.

It may be noted that Dahl’s works have been translated into at least 68 languages. At least 300 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide. According to Forbes, Dahl was the world’s highest earning author in 2021 (posthumously). As expected, censoring his works has triggered a controversy. Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie (b. June 19, 1947), the Indian-born British-American novelist, has expressed serious concern over censoring Dahl’s works, stressing that it is Unreal Censorship. For her part, Laura Hackett, the Deputy Literary Editor of London-based The Sunday Times, has stressed that it is a horrible surgery. Pen America, a US-based free-speech organisation with a membership of about 7,500 authors, has expressed concern, as well. Even British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is against such censorship.

There is nothing new in such an attempt of plastic surgery in literary works. In 1807, English Physician Thomas Bowdler (July 11, 1754 – February 24, 1825) had published The Family Shakespeare, an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare‘s 20 plays, edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler. The brother-sister duo had claimed that their version was more appropriate than the original one for 19th Century women and children. Since then, the term Bowdlerising has been used to explain the act of removing material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective. It is mainly applicable to literature, films and television contents.

Enid Mary Blyton (August 11, 1897 – November 28, 1968) is another such English children’s writer, whose works underwent Bowdlerising. Her books have been worldwide bestsellers since the 1930s, with more than 600 million copies being sold. So far, Blyton’s books have been translated into 90 languages. Still, her works, especially The Faraway Tree (1951) and Famous Five (1942) series, have been criticised and debated over the past four decades. In 2021, the US media reported that six books penned by Theodor Seuss Geisel (March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991), an American children’s author and cartoonist who was popular under his pen name Dr. Seuss, would go out of print, as those publications were racially insensitive. Tintin in the Congo and And Then There Were None, a mystery novel by English writer Agatha Christie, have repeatedly been accused of racism.

Interestingly, Roald Dahl’s writings underwent some changes during his lifetime, with his consent. Oompa-Loompas were described as black pygmies in the original 1964 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, they became characters with green hair and orange skin in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, directed by Mel Stuart. Later, they became small imaginary creatures in the 1973 edition of the publication. All these changes were made under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and children’s literature professionals.

An author can give consent to publishers to make changes in his works during her/his lifetime. However, bowdlerising literary works after the demise of the author is a different issue altogether. Whether such editing of literary works should take place, especially after the demise of the author, is a matter of Ethics. It is a fact that Roald Dahl faced criticism repeatedly for his anti-Semitism. Once, Sir Salman Rushdie reportedly said that Dahl was no angel… however, his writings should not be changed. During their much-publicised 1982 meeting, Dahl told Bacon that there should be no change in the original works of an author after her/his death. He also prayed to God that it would never happen to him.

In this context, one may recall that a case was filed in a Belgian court with a request to ban the publication Tintin in the Congo on the grounds of racist references to Africans. The Belgian court dismissed the case in 2012, stating that the book was written at a time when colonial ideas were prevalent. The court further said that the publication was not intended to create an intimidating, hostile, insulting or humiliating environment. The question arises here: Can this judgement of the Belgian court serve as a template in different situations? Perhaps, a book should be considered as a representation of a specific historical period. Here, timing is particularly important, as it is the real character.

In fact, a book reflects the history and culture of a particular period of time. However, any sort of censorship hides the critical outlook in the literary world. Many are of the opinion that instead of censorship, books can be prefaced with a disclaimer that they reflect their time (of publication) and may not be relevant to the present. In that case, matured people could help children understand the characteristics of the past, instead of trying to rewrite history. Otherwise, people may also bowdlerise the works of Milton, Voltaire or Machiavelli in the future. Then, they will no longer be fundamental works.

Meanwhile, the UK-based Puffin publisher has decided not to bowdlerise Dahl’s works anymore. Puffin has announced that it will publish the unedited original version, along with the revised version, allowing readers to choose which one they prefer. The move may be considered as a victory for the critics, or as an opportunity for the publishers to boost their business by publishing two sets of books.

There are some people in the society who want Dahl’s original works to be changed. Also, there are some who believe that censorship undermines the Freedom of Expression. The scenario presents an Unreal Purification to both the young and senior readers. Edited and Unedited – two versions of books are like the social coexistence of readers with two different mindsets.

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