But there isn’t actually a Puffin Books or a Roald Dahl Story Company.
Once a beloved children’s books publisher, Puffin is just another of the brands owned by Bertelsmann, the German ex-Nazi giant book monopoly, also the force behind much of literary wokeness, which publishes Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”, Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”.
And the Roald Dahl Story Company is owned by Netflix. The largest television streaming producer and book publisher decided that it would be best to monetize Dahl’s books by giving them a woke makeover.
What’s happening to Dahl isn’t a new phenomenon.
Another arm of Bertelsmann was caught purging Dr. Seuss books that its author actually wrote and replacing them with new “inclusive” books by “diverse” writers that he didn’t write. Classic children’s authors have become corporate brands with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. The Hollywood executives who are now in charge of Seuss or Dahl have no more of a problem going back and rewriting a book than they do asking a screenwriter to change a script.
Bertelsmann and Netflix go back and “regularly review the language” in books and then rewrite it the way that the entertainment industry can decide that Superman ought to be black, that his son ought to be gay or that ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ needs to become, ‘Truth, Justice and a Better Tomorrow’. That’s what reducing literature to intellectual property does.
Copyright, originally meant to protect the rights of the author, has instead allowed Hollywood to buy up the work of authors and then butcher them. Netflix paid an estimated $686 million for the Roald Dahl Story Company. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which already has deals with Netflix and major studios, is considering its own total sale that would probably top $1 billion. Amazon paid $500 million for the rights to make The Rings of Power: a woke pastiche of Tolkien.
Companies are not paying that kind of money just to keep books from the 30s or 40s in print.
As Netflix put it when describing its Dahl deal, it’s out to build “a unique universe across animated and live-action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theater, consumer products and more.” Copyright on the books will lapse, but Netflix, Bertelsmann, Disney, and other giants are looking to turn authors into a “universe”, much like the Marvel Universe which has taken over theaters and made Disney fantastically rich, while disposing of their actual works. They’ve done this for so long with comic books that it probably never even occurred to the executives that there would be any pushback when they began doing it to children’s books. But there’s more at stake with books than with Spider-Man.
And yet it’s not hard to see how we got here.
Amazon built the base of its massive monopoly by gobbling up retail channels for books by, in part, turning them from physical matter made out of dead trees into a digital file on its proprietary Kindle devices. Electronic books are easy to seamlessly edit in a way that would be obscene to do to an actual book. A word here, a few words there and no one will notice.
Our affection for books, the conviction that they are something sacred, is closely linked to their physicality. When we look at a copy of the First Folio, we experience a connection to Shakespeare and the history of English drama and literature. At New York’s Public Library, flanked by its grand lions, you can find a writing desk used by Charles Dickens.
This is the sort of thing that matters if you believe that books are a state of communion, rather than a holographic palimpsest that can be infinitely reinvented as generations of literary theory has taught. If a grad student’s interpretation of Frankenstein has as much validity as what Mary Shelley actually meant, then why not go a step further and rewrite not just movie adaptations, but the book itself? Or argue that Shakepeare was really a black woman? Literary theory has devalued the author and the endless efforts to find new things to say about old works gave way to wokeness by applying leftist lenses that updated them in line with the new politics.
What’s happening to Dahl and other authors is just the implementation of academic theories.
One of the characters in a New York Times ad is described as “imagining Harry Potter without its creator”. The ad was promoting the paper’s story about sexual identity activists eliminating J.K. Rowling from their universe. What is a book without its author? Nothing. Every work is rooted in the identifiable tastes, values and idiosyncrasies of writers. But if you come to view authors as creators, rather than writers, and books as participatory linchpins of imaginary universes, prompts for the ‘headcanon’ of their fans, then the writers disappear.
That’s how Black Panther, the work of two Jewish guys from New York, working off crude pulp ancient African fantasies like those of H. Rider Haggard, was reinvented as a black nationalist proto-history that the cultural establishment pays tribute to. The idea of Wakanda is compelling to those who fantasize about their origins in an advanced African master race, the reality of Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee) and Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby), ruins that glorious fantasy.
J.K. Rowling was a cult figure when she was misinterpreted as using Harry Potter to champion children who felt different before discovering their inner powers, not in the traditional hero’s journey sense, but in the sexual one, and was canceled when she made it clear that she was not on board with most of that. Harry Potter became a universe whose corporate overlords made it clear that Rowling was no longer welcome around the works that she had written.
Dahl and Seuss are not around to be canceled. That makes them easier to rewrite. Their corporate overlords reduce them to a style and a sensibility, a rhyme scheme and some silly words, and ultimately a brand like Macy’s or McDonald’s that are universally familiar, but don’t require us to actually think about Rowland Hussey Macy or Richard McDonald. Writers become the founders of fictional universes who can be set aside, much like Rowland or Richard were.
A fundamental difference is that literature is not a fast food chain. The ‘property’ element of intellectual property rests on copyright that no longer serves authors, but corporations. Congressional Republicans and Democrats passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act which created a century of copyright and extended it to fifty years from the death of the author. This wasn’t done to benefit writers and artists, but to benefit Disney. Perpetual copyright armed Hollywood with vaults full of intellectual properties while unleashing a cultural war on America.
The solution is fundamentally reforming copyright law.
Wokes can’t create anything original and enduring. Peak TV and the billions spent in a handful of years, more than Hollywood had spent for decades on TV shows and movies, proved it. Netflix, Amazon and other giants are investing billions to lock down classic works because they don’t expect the new properties that they sank millions into developing to last past a few years.
Abusing copyright allows them to parasitically feed off the writers of the past while draining their work to comply with the politics of the present. Most of these intellectual property franchise ‘universes’ are woke ‘fanfic’ whose massive budgets can’t compensate for their hollowness. Incapable of creating enduring works, even when they have the rights to popular classics, they have to settle for constantly reinventing them politically as a distraction.
Copyright, meant to ensure the centrality of the authors in a publishing environment tilted toward publishers, has instead made them marginal figures while handing control to corporations who own ‘universes’. Some authors, like Rowling, are fortunate enough to at least enjoy the financial rewards of the arrangement, many others labor as sharecroppers in the corporate “universes”. Disney, on taking over Star Wars, decided to stop paying royalties to the writers who had been producing Science Fiction novels in that setting. Copyright had come to mean that writers have obligations to companies, but that companies had few if any obligations to writers.
All of this was bad enough when it came to movies and comic books, but turns into outright book burning when applied to literature. Netflix can do whatever it likes with its properties, but there’s no reason that books that are eighty years old should be anyone’s property.
If Netflix and Bertelsmann want to create a version of Dahl’s works in which you can’t turn two pages without hearing about the evils of fat-shaming or the importance of affirming all gender identities, they can do that. And anyone else should be able to do it too or publish the originals. Copyright on Dahl’s books doesn’t serve the author, who died in 1990, his grandson, a mediocre children’s story writer who lives in America and sold the whole estate, or even preserving the original works, which are being drastically altered. There isn’t a single good argument for itt except that Hollywood paid Congress a lot of money to pass a Mickey Mouse bill.
Copyright should exist to protect writers and books, or it should not exist at all.
Models developed in Hollywood and the comic book industry, always nightmares when it came to the rights of authors (Superman co-creator Joe Shuster sold off his rights for $130 and was reduced to delivering packages to the DC office while struggling to pay medical bills) are now being rolled out to classic works of literature by massive Big Tech and Hollywood monopolies.
Reforming copyright would rob them of their vast hoards of intellectual property whose language they review on an annual basis to ensure compliance with best practice DEI policies and release them to the public. It would force companies to reckon with the cultural bankruptcy of wokeness that has seen them blow through over $100 billion while creating not a single classic.
And it would remind all of us that the books we read are grounded in the work of real people. Many writers were flawed, dysfunctional, bigoted, and otherwise unpleasant human beings. Art flows from those complexities and it is impossible to edit them out by committee without losing the soul of a book. The wonder of a book lies in the duality of its aspirations and imperfections. The woke pursuit of political ideals, like Soviet literature, has produced nothing worthwhile.
And it never will.