I don't quite understand why the edits to Roald Dahl's book's annoyed me but editing James Bond doesn't annoy me. It also doesn't seem to be getting the same kind of traction that the Roald Dahl edits are getting.

Why are people upset enough about editing Matilda but not James Bond?

On the surface I should be equally annoyed. I love Roald Dahl's stories as a kid and I also loved James Bond. I loved every iteration of James Bond; from Roger Moore's campy James Bond films all the way through to the more serious Daniel Craig version.

Timothy Dalton was an underrated Bond - Image : MGM

In principle I am mildly discomfited. Any change to an authors words without permission, even minor, is a slippery slope to changing the intent of the author. I don't believe it is possible to "improve" an authors work by changing any of the words. Edits of these kind have far more potential to harm the original work than help it.

As I write this essay the answer as to why I don't care as much about the James Bond edits seems fairly obvious; I didn't grow up reading the James Bond novels I watched the movies. The novels and the movies as tangentially related as the Marvel movies are to the comics; inspired by the original source material but not attempting directly translate the material exactly. I guess for me, as for many people, the movies feel more "real" than the novels. It's almost like I think that the books are attempted novelizations of the movies rather than the other way around.

As an adult I read a couple of the Bond novels out of curiosity. They were fun; easy and disposable summer reading. The only part of the novels that I remember was laughing out loud when I read From Russia with Love. Bond's Russian love interest demanded that Bond had to "promise you'll beat me James if I gain too much weight when you take me to England". It was hard to not imagine Sean Connery nodding his head and saying "of coursh my deah."

One of the best interviews of all time - watch to the end!

Maybe the reason that people collectively feel more strongly about Roald Dahl's characters is the fact that they have a stronger childhood emotional connection to these stories.

But I think its more than this...

I think that the reason people have less of a problem with these changes is that they instinctively know that there is a rational reason behind editing James Bond. My impression is that the Ian Fleming estate is not attempting to do anything to change the character of James Bond nor are they changing the language of the story to make it "nicer".

The reason I am more comfortable with the language edit is that the changes do not seem to be an attempt to make James Bond more palatable for "modern sensibilities". They are removing certain words and descriptions, particularly of black people. I think I am fine with making these changes specifically because the other controversial parts of James Bond are not being touched. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to change his misogyny or homophobia from the original novels. For all of James Bond's character flaws as a human being there has never been any indication that he is racist. In other words they aren't trying to "improve" James Bond as a person.

If the purpose of the language is to make an explicit point, as it is in Huckleberry Finn, that is one thing. Removing the word would fundamentally change the message that Twain delivering. James Bond on the other hand is not attempting to make a critical point about race relations. So keeping the language in the book it is potentially making the story about the language as opposed to the story.

It seems like the Ian Fleming estate is choosing these edits thoughtfully. According to the Ian Fleming estate

“The original US version of Live and Let Die, approved and apparently favoured by Ian, had removed some racial terms which were problematic even in mid-1950s America, and would certainly be considered deeply offensive now by the vast majority of readers. We took that as our starting point, but felt strongly that it was not our role to comb out every word or phrase that has had the potential to offend. We thus decided to apply the sensibilities of the original US edition of Live and Let Die consistently, across all the texts.”

Ian Fleming’s estate backs controversial James Bond edits
Author previously approved similar edits for the US publication of ‘Live and Let Die’

This seems to me to be a very measured and considered response and not the same as a "sensitivity screening".

I could be wrong of course - there is a very good chance that the Ian Fleming estate is taking advantage of massive amounts of free publicity to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Casino Royale to spur sales of the Bond novels. If that is the case then kudos to the Fleming estate for taking advantage of the free marketing that comes from the social media culture wars. I hope that isn't the case.

I can certainly understand the argument that authors words shouldn't be changed posthumously. I sympathize with anyone who asks "what's to stop another editor from removing other language that they think is problematic?"

I don't have a solid answer for where the line should be drawn but I think if we have convincing evidence that the author would have been willing to accept the editors changes then it is probably more acceptable to change the novel.

There is value in having a heuristic like "changing authors words posthumously is bad" but I like to take things on a case by case basis whenever I can. Too much of our collective dialogue lacks nuance and context.

I think in the context of the character of James Bond and the fact that Fleming approved similar edits when he was alive that in this case its fine. In contrast, we know from interviews that Roald Dahl would have expressly been displeased with any changes to his work. In a 1982 interview at his home Dahl expressed the following about changing his work:

“I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!” he said. “When I am gone, if that happens, then I’ll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir. Or I will send along the ‘enormous crocodile’ to gobble them up.” (1)

Illustration by Quentin Blake for Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile. Photograph: Quentin Blake

So I guess as a general rule I prefer that authors not be edited posthumously. But I don't think on the relative scale of sins its as bad if the change doesn't fundamentally alter the language of the book or the nature of the character.

I think collectively people intuitively understand that there is something different about the James Bond edits than the Dahl edits even if they don't have the time or inclination to do a deeper dive to figure out why these two situations are different.

Part of the reason that I have decided to write about things like this is because I don't know exactly how I feel about an issue until I work it out. As I finish sorting out my thoughts I think my conclusion is that when it comes to James Bond the Fleming estate made a considered edit in line with actions that the author approved of in the past where the opposite is clearly true in the case of Roald Dahl.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/feb/25/roald-dahl-threatened-publisher-with-enormous-crocodile-if-they-changed-his-words

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