Roald Dahl, censorship, and the ‘Frankenstein Effect’

Small wonder, I suppose, that Puffin Books would eventually backtrack on their original plans. After all, their intention was to ‘sanitize Roald Dahl’: and  certainly not to ‘remind us all of how much we actually prefer his books… UNSANITISED!’

As you might have guessed from some of my other articles, over the years: censorship is not one of those things that I generally find ‘amusing’.

Quite the contrary: it usually makes my blood boil (especially, when the stated aim of the censors is to impose their own precepts of morality onto everyone else: thus appointing themselves – in all humility, of course - as ‘sole arbiters of the common good’).

On this occasion, however – and I’m specifically referring to the recent decision, by Puffin Books, to re-edit the works of Roald Dahl, so as to make them less ‘offensive’ to sensitive readers - I have to admit I found the whole affair hilarious, from start to finish.

Because there IS a funny side to censorship, after all. Actually… there are two.

The first is that censorship, by definition, will invariably have consequences that go beyond the censors’ actual intentions (and in many cases, those consequences will turn out to be the clean opposite of the desired effect).

The second is that: as a rule, the very last people who will ever be aware of those unintended consequences (until, of course, they actually occur) are – as you may have already guessed – the censors themselves.

And while the recent Roald Dahl case is very good example: it is by no means the only one. In fact… let’s start with another (perhaps more ‘archetypal’) example instead: the ‘Frankenstein Effect’, alluded to in the headline.

In case you were wondering: that’s a reference to the classic 1931 Universal horror film (directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff, etc.).… and NOT the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, upon which the movie is supposedly based (but let’s face it: it isn’t, really…)

Not, mind you, that the original novel didn’t face its own fair share of ‘censorship issues’, back in its day: but it was the 1931 Hollywood screen version that indirectly contributed to popular demands for censorship, in the United States; with the result that – by the mid-1930s – all movies had to be vetted by the ‘Production Code of America’ (aka ‘Hays Code’), before release.

So when Universal Studios decided to re-release ‘Frankenstein’, in 1937: the censors insisted on a number of cuts being made (to the ‘master-shot’, please note: which also resulted in the censored version becoming the ONLY existing version of that film…  all the way until the 1980s: when an original, unedited copy was discovered.)

Effectively, then:  for more than 50 years, the only available version of ‘Frankenstein’ was actually a censored, ‘watered-down’ cut… that was supposed to have ‘removed’ all the parts that were considered (by 1930s standards, anyway) ‘offensive to public morality’.

And among the many scenes deemed objectionable, was one where Boris Karloff’s Monster accidentally ‘murders’ a little girl, by throwing her into a lake (under the illusion that she would float: just like those flowers they were both happily playing with, a moment before…)

Ironically, however, that same act of censorship is also the reason why so many people who watched ‘Frankenstein’ – between 1937 and the 1980s - describe the experience as among the most terrifying they’d ever had, in their entire lives.

To fully appreciate why, you’ll have to watch the unedited clip for yourselves (it’s freely available on Youtube). For now: let’s just say that, in the original version, there was never any question that the ‘murder’ itself was purely unintentional… and that Frankenstein’s Monster (having only recently been brought into the world: and having been promptly abandoned by its Creator) was entirely innocent of the horrific consequences of his actions.

Not only that: but Karloff’s performance also makes it abundantly clear that the Monster was genuinely distressed – if not downright horrified – by the belated realisation that he had unwittingly ‘drowned’ that child. And this also reinforces a thematic point that is entirely consistent with Mary Shelley’s novel (even if there is no direct correlation for this scene, anywhere in the book).

The bottom line is that Dr Frankenstein’s creation – in the film, perhaps more than the novel – is actually a ‘misunderstood victim’: and NOT a villain (still less, a ‘Monster’) at all.

In the censored version, however: the same scene fades ominously into black, at the precise instant when Boris Karloff physically lunges towards the little girl…. only to ‘fade back in’, at a point where the girl’s father is already carrying her lifeless body towards the Burgermaster’s office: to demand justice for her callous, cold-blooded ‘murder’…

I need hardly add, of course, that the impact is not only ‘different’ from the original version… but the complete opposite. Suddenly, it appears as though the Monster – far from the ‘innocent, child-like victim’ of the original – is not just a terrifying villain, by any standard… but a child-murderer, no less! And who knows? Possibly a ‘child-molester’, too! (After all: if you cut the scene at the critical moment… there’s no telling what Karloff might have actually DONE to that child, before ‘throwing her into the lake’)…

And hey presto: an act of censorship that was intended to ‘tone down’ the ghoulish violence of the original… only succeeded in making ‘Frankenstein’ an infinitely scarier, lewder, and more macabre movie, than even James Whale himself had originally intended…

With the result, naturally, that the 1937 re-release proved to be so spectacularly successful – among a general public that evidently WANTED to see precisely that sort of thing, in horror movies – that the queues outside movie theatres reportedly extended for miles… and miles… and miles (and the ‘Frankenstein’ reruns themselves kept running for years… and years… and years….)

On all counts, then, the ‘Frankenstein Effect’ illustrates just how counter-productive censorship always ends up being, in practice. Not only did the Production Code of America result in much more (suggestively) frightening/disturbing films, than the ones it tried to censor; but it also ensured that more people – INFINITELY more people – would actually watch all those ‘lurid’ movies, to begin with.

Right: at this point, you might be wondering where Roald Dahl even comes into any of this, at all.  So let’s fast-forward to (roughly) last week: when The Daily Mail carried a story about how Puffin Books decided to employ ‘sensitivity readers’, to… well, ‘do to Roald Dahl, what the Production Code had done to American cinema in the 1930s’.

The idea was to sanitize Dahl’s (gloriously ‘un-PC’) works, so that they no longer offend the squeamish sensitivities of any reader who might object to such ‘immoral’ adjectives as: ‘fat’; ‘ugly’; ‘short’; ‘stupid’; ‘male’; ‘female’, etc., etc. etc.

That, at any rate, was the censors’ intention. What actually happened as a consequence, however, was… rather different (so much so, that Puffin has only just announced that it will be publishing a collection of ‘unedited Roald Dahl works’, after all.)

Within a week, the Daily Mail ran another article on the subject: this time under the headline: “Hold onto your Roald Dahl books, because they could be worth a fortune one day - and 'unedited versions' are already listed for nearly £7,000 on eBay…”

Now: I myself happen to be the proud owner or at least six or seven (obviously unedited) Roald Dahl titles: including one – ‘The Witches’ – that I distinctly remember buying, from an animal charity shop in Sliema, for the grand total of… ‘75c’. (And the original price is still there, in pencil, on Page One).

So if the same copy were to suddenly fetch a price of, say, ‘E7,000’, on today’s market – just because it is an original, unedited version: of the kind that Puffin Books originally intended to ‘phase out of printed existence’, altogether - as far as I can work out, that would represent a value-increase of around… wait for it… 10,000%!!!

And while I am certainly no expert in Economics: I know enough to assert that – in a free and unregulated market, anyway – the price of any given item, will always be dependent on two specific factors: demand, and supply.

So for the asking price of any book (or indeed, anything at all) to suddenly shoot up by around 10,000%...  it can only mean that: a) popular demand for that book must have skyrocketed, from one day to the next, and; b) that the supply (in this case: ‘availability of printed copies’) must have suddenly become more ‘restricted’, than it was before.

And on both those counts: it was Puffin’s decision to censor Roald Dahl’s works – instead of just ‘leaving them well alone’ - that was directly responsible for what can only be described as a ‘market-anomaly’. But the best part of it all, is that: Puffin Books itself will never see a single centime of profit, from any transaction that will ever be made – on e-Bay, or anywhere else – involving the sale of second-hand, unedited copies of Roald Dahl books.

Effectively, then, the publishers only succeeded in promoting a massive resurgence of interest, in precisely the more ‘objectionable’ aspects of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction (you know: the parts that they themselves were actually trying to ‘tone down’)… while at the same time, generating a massive (in theory, anyway) ‘windfall’, for people who are lucky enough to own original copies of Roald Dahl… but not, it seems, for themselves.

Does that sound like a ‘intended consequence’, to you? Because it sure doesn’t, to me…

Small wonder, I suppose, that Puffin Books would eventually backtrack on their original plans. After all, their intention was to ‘sanitize Roald Dahl’: and  certainly not to ‘remind us all of how much we actually prefer his books… UNSANITISED!’