As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of ‘The Times’ had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs — to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
— George Orwell, 1984
This week the story broke that the publisher of Roald Dahl’s books is editing them to remove words and phrases deemed “offensive”, and even to add wording Dahl never wrote, to bring other passages into line with the what the “sensitivity readers” (yes, that’s what they’re calling the people hired to do this) consider appropriate. That link gives many examples of specific changes; more are here.
There scarcely exist adequate words to express how absurd and stupid and alarming this is. But those best positioned to understand, authors, have been speaking out — notably Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about intolerant ideologies’ penchant for trying to suppress the expression of ideas they deem wrong or offensive. Only an intact, unmodified, original novel or film truly represents the vision and intent of its creator. Vandalizing it to accommodate the feelings or ideology of somebody else is a kind of forgery, cheating both creator and audience. If it contains words or ideas that give offense in the eyes of some, that serves as a valuable reminder that the values and beliefs of other people and earlier times are not the same as ours — and that those of the future will continue to evolve, perhaps eventually finding our own time’s dearest certainties outdated and repugnant. And for scholars of literature, only authentic original texts have any value for the study and understanding of the era and minds that produced them — updated fake versions are worthless.
Other commenters have noted that almost all substantive literature, film, TV, etc contains elements that someone might find offensive, especially works produced more than a generation or so in the past, when popular attitudes and values were different. By the standards applied to Dahl’s books, everything from Shakespeare to Conrad to the original Star Trek would have to be censored and watered down by tremulous little modern fainting-couch pearl-clutchers to be brought into line with every contemporary sensibility and fad.
But that is, in fact, already happening, at least in the realm of popular culture. It’s just that the effort has been undertaken with such abject clumsiness and incompetence that most of us don’t see it for what it is.
Many bemoan the fact that present-day film and TV is so bereft of truly new and original works, being dominated by endless remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, “franchises”, etc that piggyback on the enduring original works of past decades. In some cases, the changes made by the newer imitations are merely inane, and that’s bad enough, But in many cases, the perpetrators are quite explicit that they’re trying to “update” classic works to reflect the “real world” of today, in the name of “diversity”, “inclusion”, “sensitivity”, and the like. The race or sex of characters is changed, dialog and thinking reflect current ideas and concerns that feel jarringly out of place in the ancient era or fantasy world in which the story is set, and of course every word and phrase is chosen to fit the sensibilities of the present moment rather than those of the world of the original story — much as is now being done to Dahl’s works.
There was a time when this was not the practice. When Peter Jackson made his monumental film adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, barely over twenty years ago, he famously affirmed that he and his crew were being careful to avoid injecting their own beliefs and ideas into the story. What mattered was Tolkien’s vision and intent, not theirs. The result was an enduring epic which, while not totally faithful to the novels (no film adaptation ever is, nor can be), remains generally recognized as a masterpiece.
Last year’s Amazon-spawned atrocity The Rings of Power, by contrast, exemplifies the kind of cultural vandalism I’m discussing here. Characters and events were changed beyond recognition from Tolkien’s originals, the intricate mythos he had crafted was casually trashed at every turn, the show was laced with present-day attitudes and tropes, and in every way it evoked 2022 America rather than Middle-earth.
Other recent examples included Lightyear, The Witcher, Velma, Willow, She-Hulk, Ghostbusters, Dr Who — the list goes on. Star Trek and Star Wars have been succeeded by an endless series of increasingly-desperate sequels and reboots, trying to squeeze a last few drops of milk out of cows that were squeezed to death long ago.
Even when such works don’t make a point of shoehorning present-day ideology in where it doesn’t fit, the results are generally tepid and pointless. Contrast Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) with their recent spinoffs. The originals are recognized classics of their genre, Aliens being one of the very few sequels truly worthy of its predecessor. The newer films, if taken as canonical, would completely ruin the meaning of the originals. The dead “space jockey” skeletal creature of Alien is revealed as literally an ordinary (if oversized) man in a suit, in what must be one of the biggest letdown moments in the history of movies. The eponymous alien species discovered by the Nostromo centuries in the future was actually present in Antarctica in 1904. Those who appreciate the originals have to just ignore this stuff.
Promisingly, though, that’s exactly what people have been doing. Most of the vandalized reboots/sequels/whatever listed above flopped with audiences. People don’t like being preached at, and recoil from jarring contemporary elements in what’s supposed to be escapist fantasy. Hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, have been lost by the media companies pushing this stuff. Eventually they’ll get the message.
In the meantime, unlike in the world of 1984, they can’t really destroy our culture. We still have Tolkien’s original novels, and not all of Jeff Bezos’s money and arrogance can change a word of them as they sit on my shelf. We still have the original Alien movies, the original 1984 Ghostbusters, the original 1973 Wicker Man, the original 1995 Toy Story, the original 1982 Blade Runner, the old classic Star Trek and Dr Who shows, and on and on. Dahl’s books, in their original authentic editions as he wrote them, still exist in countless libraries and personal collections, though they may become expensive in the future if the publisher no longer puts them out.
The vandalized Dahl stories, The Rings of Power, and their ilk, being so bound to the fads and shibboleths of the present moment, will be dated almost immediately, while timeless classics like Tolkien’s novels will go on, as they have for decades already, to be discovered anew by each future generation.