There is a piece in yesterday’s New York Times about how Puffin Books and Roald Dahl’s estate are set to release newly edited editions of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda, ” “James and the Giant Peach” and seven other titles in an effort to make them “less offensive and more inclusive.” For example, references to “mothers” and “fathers” have been updated to “parents” or “family.”
From what I’ve read in the past about Dahl and his thoughts on censorship, I don’t think he would approve. Does that matter? Should it matter?
This is primarily a financial decision, calculated to sell more of Dahl’s work by making it seem more “inclusive.” Another example of financial opportunism comes to mind, only it was presented under the veil of artistic license, and not under the banner of social justice.
In 1997, George Lucas released new versions of the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, VI). I read, at the time, that he would never release the original versions again, stating that the new versions matched his original vision and intent that he was unable to execute some twenty odd years before. Of course, he did release the originals in a raw, unmastered form on DVD as bonus discs to the second DVD release of the new versions. Anything to get fans to shell out a few extra bucks for yet “another new version” of the same films, right?
What’s more, there were the theatrical releases of the new versions, which drew many children-fans-as-adults (and their own children) to the theaters to enjoy seeing these on the big screen. A perfect set up for episodes I-III, and a box office sweep to boot.
If it seems like I took all this personally, I did.
When I was a boy, my dad took me to see Star Wars. I hadn’t seen a commercial for it on television, and we went on the recommendation of a neighbor who thought I would like it. I knew it had something to do with outer space, but that was it. From the opening sequence to the ending, I was speechless with wonder. I loved every second of it. To young me, it was perfect. When we came home, the real world seemed a little dimmer to me. I wanted to get into the world I had just experienced. I made drawings of what I had seen to try and hold on to it. I haven’t had that experience since. I’m not alone, either – lots of kids my age had the exact same reaction and relationship to A New Hope.
That summer, and during a second run of the film, I saved my money and rode my bike to the theater as many times as I could. I think I saw it about 17 times or so.
Seeing Star Wars as a young person made a permanent impression on me, and has certainly influenced the arc of my life. That seems like a very dramatic thing to write when I read it back, but it’s true.
Lucas didn’t just remaster the old films, he changed them, re-edited them, and added scenes, music and effects. Lucas maintains that it is his prerogative to do this, and I suppose it is. Yet, I haven’t rewatched any of the modified versions since he changed them. I did not find the changes to be an improvement. They did not add significant value to the work. It ruined them for me. And then he ruined everything else with episodes I-III, but mesa thinks that’s a different matter.
When art becomes embedded into our culture, the original work (no matter how brilliant or flawed) no longer belongs to the artist. I don’t mean trademarks and copyrights – I mean the non-monetary value of the thing itself. Lucas can continue to ruin his films all he wants (and he will certainly continue to grind out plastic Star Wars crap destined for our landfills because there are still a few pennies to be made), but I maintain that the originals, or some form of them, belong to us.
When I go to see a band that I liked in the 80’s, they play their fan favorites, and any hits they might have had back then. Bands like Fishbone earn their living from live shows, and they have to play “Party at Ground Zero” every night. And, bands like Fishbone and the Cure seem to genuinely enjoy playing their catalog, given the intensity they bring to each show. As I watched the Psychedelic Furs play “Ghost in you,” I wondered if they are sick of those songs. Certainly, Richard Butler is in a different space in his life. Does he still feel the way he did when he wrote those tunes? Songs are time capsules, both for their author, and for the listener. Songs evoke a particular place in the past. That’s part of their magic. I don’t think replacing the original version of “Ghost in you” (or whatever) to match the songwriters current state of mind, or to make use of some new technology, would fly.
The original A New Hope and what it meant to young me, belongs to me. It should not be edited away. Nor should it be made unavailable. The same holds true with Roald Dahl’s work. Many of us grew up with these stories, warts and all. I have vivid memories of listening to my fifth grade elementary school teacher read James and the Giant Peach during school recess, and I delighted to find myself transported into Dahl’s story. What’s more, as I reflect upon that memory, James and the Giant Peach helps to mark a place in time during my life. Just as A New Hope did. Dahl, Mark Twain, and many others mark time and history with their work. We don’t have to continue to read their words, or even publish new copies, but I’m not sure anyone has the right to change them.
As an aside, I think Gene Wilder is the definitive Willy Wonka. I don’t much care for the Burton/Depp version (we’ll see what Timothée Chalamet can do), but the great part is Burton and Warner Bros. gave us new interpretations without modifying or eliminating the original.
Please note that I’m not making commentary on the social upheaval we as a country are grappling with, for many changes are long overdue. For my part, I know black lives matter, LGBTQ+ people deserve the same rights as non-LGBTQ+ people, and women should have control over their bodies. I do not think there should be billionaires, and everyone should have the same access to excellent healthcare and education. I actively participate in my own examination of identity, bias and privilege, and am better for it.
This post is commentary on creative censorship, and a culture’s right to its art.
Does art have a right to evolve? I think it does, just as we as people have a right to evolve. As humans, we must evolve and take care of each other, all of Earth’s animals and inhabitants, and the environment, or we won’t be here much longer.
I don’t necessarily mind new edits to writing, films and art. But please call them “new editions” or something similar, and leave the originals intact. Changing the original material to suit a private agenda reminds me of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 rewriting history, only someone is tampering with our culture materials, and not political and military history.
It seems to me that editing Dahl’s stories posthumously will do little to advance the over arching conversations around social justice. I believe that the truly harmful work will be (and should be) weeded out by the culture itself, and not people hoping to earn a few more bucks.