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Netflix’s $500M Roald Dahl deal aims to address author’s antisemitism through charity

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It could also buy many, many Everlasting Gobstoppers

A Wonka candy bar reveals the Netflix logo in a press release image for the streaming service’s Roald Dahl deal Image: Netflix

In the pantheon of 20th-century children’s literature, Roald Dahl undoubtedly has a hall all his own. Works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda have sold over 300 million copies and have been turned into classic movies, a history that Netflix hoped to access when it acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, as well as rights to the author’s entire catalog, last fall.

The resurgence of interest that came with Netflix’s purchase also brought attention to a less-beloved side of Dahl, who died in 1990: his antisemitism, which at times blurred into Nazi apologia. Netflix executives seem aware of that burden — new details of the acquisition contract highlight an effort to verbalize “anti-hate” messaging as a way of grappling with history.

Details picked up by the Daily Mail show that Netflix is paying £370 million (about $502 million) for the rights to Dahl’s entire catalog. That money will go chiefly to Dahl’s family, including his widow, Felicity Dahl; his grandson Luke Kelly, the head of the Roald Dahl Story Company; and his daughter Ophelia Dahl. But a portion of that money — the Story Company has said “a significant part”— will also go to fund a charitable trust that will donate money in support of anti-racism, anti-hate, and children’s health efforts, although no further details explain which organizations those donations might support.

While a British World War II fighter pilot might not be the first person thought of as lenient on Hitler, Dahl told the British magazine New Statesman in 1983 that “there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on [Jews] for no reason.” The writer also told the interviewer that he hadn’t seen any Jews fighting in the war, a falsehood similar to myths in post-World War I Germany that Jews had stabbed the country in the back.

At the end of 2020, the Dahl estate released a statement apologizing for “the lasting and understandable hurt caused by Roald Dahl’s antisemitic statements,” while not referring specifically to his dalliances with Nazism. It’s unclear where the money dedicated to fighting hate and racism will be used, and whether it will be used specifically to fight antisemitism in the U.K., which saw a spike in 2021.

Meanwhile, Dahl-related projects are multiplying. When Netflix acquired Dahl’s catalog, the Story Company’s Luke Kelly and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos announced a “unique universe across animated and live-action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theater, consumer products and more.”

The first name involved was Taika Waititi, who will be the second Jew to adapt Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — Mel Stuart, who directed Gene Wilder in the classic 1971 Willy Wonka, was the first — albeit this time as a pair of TV shows. There’s also a coming Netflix version of Matilda the Musical, which was a major hit on the West End and Broadway.

Most recently, Wes Anderson, who previously adapted The Fantastic Mr. Fox, announced last week a return to Dahl, with a feature adaptation of the short story collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. That movie will feature Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley.