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Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
There has been a debate raging within my household for months over when my oldest children (ages 6 and 7) will be permitted to watch “The Witches,” the 2020 film based on Roald Dahl’s fantasy children’s novel of the same title.
My girls have been begging to watch it ever since we read the book, which tells the story of a little boy’s encounter with the secret worldwide network of child-hating witches.
It was one of our most beloved family read-alouds last summer — probably less on account of my attempt at theatrical narration than on Dahl’s colorful characters, vibrant prose and inventive storylines.
While the book’s description of the witches was just fantastical enough to keep my kids from having nightmares, I suspect that the movie’s depiction might be a bit too scary for them right now.
That’s OK. Changes are to be expected with movie adaptations.
But alterations to the original text? That is never something we should expect, let alone accept.
Yet here we are.
It seems that Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, in preparing new editions of Dahl’s books, felt the need (and believed it had the right) to update the author’s words in some apparent bizarre attempt to make them more “sensitive” and “inclusive.”
According to Puffin, this was to ensure that the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
Or as the London Telegraph described it, the publishers “have given themselves licence to edit the writer as they see fit, chopping, altering and adding where necessary to bring his books in line with contemporary sensibilities.”
Some changes seem trivial — in one instance, “your fanny” has become “your backside” — or peculiar, such as eliminating a reference to the pimples on the witches heads (so as not to offend actual witches?) Others are clearly wrought with a progressive agenda in mind, such as an overhaul of language used to identify people by gender, including the frequent replacement of “mother” or “father” with “parent.”
Many of the changes soften language that characterizes appearance.
There are, for example, 59 alterations to the text of “The Witches,” several of which include references to size, gender and physical attributes — apparently “fat,” “mad,” “ugly” and even “woman,” in certain contexts, are no longer acceptable descriptions of witches, even in a children’s fantasy novel.
The textual changes include strange (and often out-of-context) additions as well.
In “The Witches,” one change is a transparent attempt to pay homage to women in STEM, which wasn’t even a thing at the time the book was first published.
Text that once read: “Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman,” now reads, “Even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business.”
And in the novel “Matilda,” references to the writings of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad are eliminated and replaced with references to Jane Austen and John Steinbeck.
Because it’s somehow problematic to a child’s emotional development to acknowledge that these writers even existed?
It’s worth noting that Dahl, who died in 1990, was known to have edited his own texts during his lifetime. Even so, he was said to have been particular about his language choices. And it’s hard to imagine he isn’t agitating in his grave over the latest modifications to his works.
There is deep irony, of course, in knowing that many of the same elements in society who push for language “inclusivity” to protect kids from the purported “emotional harm” caused by words in children’s fantasy novels, are indifferent to or even supportive of efforts to to expose children to age-inappropriate content elsewhere.
Indeed, efforts to increase LGBTQ inclusivity are often introducing sexual content (sometimes explicit) into children’s literature at younger and younger ages — long before they are emotionally prepared to handle it.
And those concerned about the harm of “fat-phobia” or the over-emphasis on physical appearance might first consider addressing the scourge that social media is having on young girls, for example. The dramatic increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation are coming from somewhere, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it isn’t “James and the Giant Peach.”
The silver lining to this exercise in bowdlerization is that the outrage that has erupted in the days since the changes were announced has borne fruit. Penguin, Puffin’s parent company, announced that, based on the debate that erupted, it will make both the updated and the classic texts available to readers.
“We also recognize the importance of keeping Dahl’s classic texts in print,” the publisher said in a written statement. “Readers will be free to choose which version of Dahl’s stories they prefer.”
The solution is acceptable, but it is indeed a strange development when readers can choose which version of a children’s classic best suits their sensibilities.