BY STEWART SLATER
Burning books has a long, if unpleasant, history. The Florentines in 1497 perpetrated the Bonfire of the Vanities, setting light in the main square to thousands of “deviant” works of art. It is a minor irony that one of the few works modern audiences would, almost unanimously, subject to that treatment is the film of the same name.
For burning art is no longer the done thing. Savonarola, the priest who inspired the Bonfire, has seen his name go down in history as a byword for unpleasantly intolerant religion, while his most famous heirs are the Nazis, and we all know about them.
But if the act of burning offensive art is now beyond the pale, the impulse behind it is still with us. People still wish to control what is put into the public square and if art can no longer be destroyed, then it can certainly be changed.
Thus, it emerged recently that the works of Roald Dahl were to be “updated” to bring them into line with “modern sensitivities”. Augustus Gloop, for example, one of the children who finds a Golden Ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer “enormously fat” but just “enormous” (is that really much better?). Women in The Witches are now not merely scientists, but “top scientists” in contrast to the drudgery endured by their “cashier in a supermarket” forebears.
After a backlash, the publisher decided to issue parallel versions, one reflecting Dahl’s original words, the other updated. But spare a thought for those who have bought the originals as e-books. They discovered that the texts they thought they owned (always read the small print) had been updated without any warning. A move even Orwell might have described as Orwellian had he predicted the Kindle.
Just days after this victory for common sense and/or (depending on the monarchical sympathies of your news source) Camilla, pseudo-censorship reared its ugly head once more with the news that the James Bond books were to be “updated”, with some now offensive racial terms removed and scenes re-written. For whatever reason, the audience in a strip club may appear, to modern day feminists, to be “pigs”, but describing them as such in a popular fiction is too much. For if there is any marginalised group whose feelings are worthy of our concern, it is surely those who pay to see women remove their clothes.
Neither Dahl nor Fleming was a particularly pleasant individual. There is plenty of evidence to attest to that. But the correlation between moral character and artistic merit has always been a sketchy one. Ovid’s racy behaviour so annoyed Augustus that he ended up exiled to the furthest reaches of the empire. Many of Caravaggio’s great later works were produced while he was on the run, having murdered a gangster (probably the second individual to meet their death at his hands). We may wish to believe that only good people can produce good art, but that, sadly, just isn’t true.
That some of the authors’ personal unpleasantness may have spread to the pen seems likely. Dahl seems to have been fascinated by the grotesque, macabre and transgressive. His works for adults such as Tales of the Unexpected are often unsettling while even his least “Dahlesque” children’s work, Danny Champion of the World is, at its heart, a paean to poaching. Part of the thrill of his works, particularly for children, is that they present subjects which they find fascinating (no adult, left to his own devices, would decorate a house for Halloween) but know that they shouldn’t.
There is a goody, a baddy, it is obvious who is who and the former triumphs while the latter suffers. There may be ethical instruction, but there is no nuance, no admission of the attractiveness of the macabre. Dahl was unique in recognising that children, just like adults, have a fascination with the forbidden. In contrast to the likes of Rupert (whom, even as a child, I found unbearable) or Noddy (who I only realised after watching with my daughter was an insufferable little prig), Dahl’s books cater to children as they are, not as adults want them to be.
In Bond, Fleming created a house-trained psychopath. He is not a nice person. He is not meant to be. He kills people. That is his job. When he reaches the Pearly Gates, St Peter will probably be less concerned with his use of language, and more with his truly Olympian body count (in both senses of the term). Part of his success is due to the fact that, morally reprehensible though he may be, we find such people fascinating (compare the popularity of Hannibal Lector). Bond allows us the comfort of indulging our fascination with evil, by coating it with a veneer of government-sanctioned respectability. The best cinematic portrayal of the character, Timothy Dalton’s (fight me), gives full vent to this side of the character, even or particularly when, in Licence To Kill, he sets off on an unauthorised mission of particularly bloody revenge. That an unpleasant man, in an unpleasant time, should use unpleasant language is not so much surprising as it is in keeping with the character.
It is in this that the real problem with rewriting Dahl and Bond lies. For they are both outliers, dealing with real, but less discussed parts of the human psyche, the bits which wish to rebel against the established order, the segment of our souls which is tempted to transgress. By acknowledging it, such works can help us understand it. By bowdlerising them, we merely repress it. The danger is, not so much that we degenerate into a world of SJW silliness, but that by only presenting one type of fictional character, we lose our understanding of the messiness of humanity.
This homogenising tendency was also visible in the recent adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. It may have attracted criticism for the addition of a feisty female to the cast and regular diatribes about the evils of empire, but the most fundamental change concerned the motivation for the journey. In Verne’s original, Fogg accepts a bet to see whether the mission can be accomplished. This was, of course, not good enough for the adapters who invented a backstory involving a lost love and a regretted missed opportunity. Setting off around the world may be an odd thing to do, but people do odd things. George Mallory set out to climb Everest, “Because it is there.” In the desire to make events more relatable to normal people, we lose our ability to understand those who are real but abnormal. And what is literature but an attempt to understand the world?
That Dahl and Bond do not fit with our current everyday mores then is not a reason to change them. It is a reason to preserve them.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.