Steven Spielberg, one of Hollywood’s most powerful filmmakers, has weighed in on a cultural debate about whether to change books, films and television shows to make them more palatable to contemporary sensibilities, calling such revisions “censorship.”
Most of the discussion in recent weeks has been about publishers excising references to the race and physical appearance of characters in the work of deceased authors like Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and Ursula K. Le Guin. But film and television directors, including Spielberg, have also made revisions to published work.
Spielberg said in 2011 that he regretted replacing the guns that federal agents carried with walkie-talkies in the 20th anniversary edition of “E.T.,” and he later brought the guns back for its 30th anniversary release. The director went even further on Tuesday at a forum sponsored by Time magazine, condemning all such alterations to artwork.
“No film should be revised based on the lenses we now are either voluntarily or being forced to peer through,” he said, adding that all movies were “a signpost of where we were when we made them and what the world was like.”
Asked about the changes to Dahl’s novels, which included the removal of descriptions of characters as “fat,” Spielberg said, “Nobody should ever attempt to take the chocolate out of ‘Willy Wonka.’ Ever. And they shouldn’t take the chocolate or the vanilla or any other flavor out of anything that has been written.”
“For me it is sacrosanct,” he continued. “It’s our history, it’s our cultural heritage. I do not believe in censorship that way.”
In recent years, streaming services have removed nudity and cigarettes from films and film posters. Sometimes, the artists themselves have made post-release edits, such as George Lucas’s notorious reversal of a shootout between Han Solo and Greedo in the first “Star Wars” movie. In 2020, at Tina Fey’s request, four episodes of her sitcom “30 Rock” that used blackface were taken out of circulation; last year, Beyoncé adjusted lyrics from her album “Renaissance” that activists had called ableist.
Because entertainment is increasingly consumed digitally, it has become easier for producers to alter content, which has sometimes left viewers — who may not technically own what they paid for — without the ability to view the original.
In 2019, Netflix deleted a graphic scene from the first season of “13 Reasons Why,” two years after it released the show. Though DVDs for that season are available, most viewers are Netflix subscribers who would not be able to watch the original easily.
“What I find troubling is the ease with which history can be rewritten with digitally distributed works,” Aaron Perzanowski, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who studies digital ownership, said in an email.
“There may be good reasons for edits in some cases,” he added, “but from the perspective of cultural preservation, media criticism and historical context, it’s a troubling trend.”