A group of four children reading children's books.
Image credit: Anastasia Shuraeva/Pixabay

On 18 February 2023, Puffin Books, who hold the rights to Roald Dahl’s children’s stories, announced a series of changes to the original text. The aim was to remove problematic language and update the books for a modern audience. Nine days later, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd announced they were reissuing edited versions of Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ novels with a content note stating, “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace.”

While many in the industry were nonplussed, the media response – reporting the views of individuals like Salman Rushdie, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Queen Consort Camilla – was swift and amplified. There have been cries of artistic betrayal, of ‘wokeness’, and of attacks on free speech.

It is undeniable that our social, cultural, and legal contexts have changed. Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953) and Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) were published before the 1965 Race Relations Act was passed. Publishers may therefore deem the content of these books inappropriate for modern readers. But what can be done? Why choose to change the material?

Three approaches have commonly been taken by publishers and production companies in response to problematic content, each with merits and drawbacks.

1) Leave the texts as they are but provide additional context, for example with a new introduction, or a disclaimer

This was the approach taken by Disney, who added a non-skippable message before films like Dumbo on Disney+ that problematic stereotypes “were wrong then and are wrong now.” The message continues: “Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

As an English Literature academic, many of the texts I teach contain problematic stereotypes. It’s my job to help students understand the (sometimes difficult) history of English literary culture by sharing with them the context and language to talk about these texts.

But how to make sure someone watching Dumbo, or reading an Ian Fleming novel is going to properly consider the disclaimer? How many parents, reading a Roald Dahl story to their child, skip over the foreword? While this might seem a straightforward option, it’s tricky to measure the impact.

2) Allow problematic authors to go out of print

The author Philip Pullman suggested that Dahl’s books should be allowed to “fade away”, arguing that readers should be encouraged to engage with contemporary authors “who don’t get as much of a look-in because of the massive commercial gravity of people like Roald Dahl.” Many books from the same period languish in archives, libraries, and second-hand bookshops, written by authors who may have been as popular as Fleming and Dahl in their time, but who are now largely forgotten. Should Fleming and Dahl join them?

The challenge is that publishers and production companies are unlikely to allow either author to join their out-of-print peers. Both authors represent enormous financial returns for their respective estates. When it comes to popular and genre fiction, money is often at the forefront of decision-making. As David Mitchell points out, the media furore around Roald Dahl’s books will probably make even more money for Puffin, especially as the publisher is planning to publish both revised and original versions of Dahl’s stories.

This is not to critique popular and genre fiction as a literary form – just because something makes money doesn’t mean that it’s bad. But it does mean that Philip Pullman’s suggestion, that we gently retire authors like Dahl, is unlikely to happen.

3) Change the text

While the edits proposed to Dahl’s books might have made headlines, this is not the first time such changes have been proposed. Hachette made amendments to their Enid Blyton texts in 2010 (although these were reversed in 2016) and Ian Fleming himself agreed changes to his manuscripts for an American audience. While seen by many as superficial, J. K. Rowling attempted to retrospectively signpost racial diversity in her Harry Potter novels.

Books are edited – both before and after they are published. It’s extremely tricky to point to one ‘true’ original – is it the author’s first draft? The manuscript with an editor’s inked comments in the margin? The first published edition? Changing a text has been standard practice in publishing for centuries and it is therefore unsurprising, given the challenges of the first two options, that it is the choice taken by Dahl and Fleming’s publishers.