Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s fantasy novel The Witches begins with a simple declaration: “This is not a fairy tale.” Witches, the unnamed boy narrator claims, are real. They live among us, demons indistinguishable from real women, hell-bent on murdering children. The boy is matter-of-fact about this frightening reality, but also urgent—he is relaying the immediate threat of a global network of bloodthirsty child predators. It’s an intimate, conspiratorial opener, drawing readers in by whispering the secret truths grown-ups usually don’t want them to know: not only is the world not safe for the young, it’s unfair, treacherous, and cruel.
As the story progresses, the narrator recounts his fateful encounter with the wicked Grand High Witch—the big, bad boss of all the witches around the world—along with every witch in England, a run-in that shapes his life. While on vacation with his grandmother at a seaside resort, he stumbles into a hush-hush witch conference, where the Grand High Witch explains a plot to turn all the world’s children into mice. (The witches disguise themselves as a society against cruelty towards children.) In classic Dahl fashion, there’s a surfeit of jokes about bodily functions, an unkind depiction of a fat kid as a greedy idiot, and vividly drawn villains who speak in rhyme. The boy and his grandmother ultimately foil the witches’ scheme, but the ending is more melancholic than happily-ever-after: the narrator is transformed into a mouse by the witches; even after outwitting them, he cannot change back. He takes his predicament in stride, comforted by the knowledge that he won’t outlive the only person in the world who loves him, but still—it’s a children’s story where the hero is doomed to premature death. Dark! It’s a macabre, gripping tale, one which has remained a perennial favorite for kids since its debut more than 35 years ago. The Witches, like Dahl’s best work, taps into a wavelength that acknowledges the dark edges of childhood in a way that so much young adult literature does not: puerile and mean and honest. People who hate children think they smell like shit. Strangers with candy have bad intentions. Parents die. And sometimes kids do too.
The new adaptation of The Witches, out on HBO Max this week, doesn’t totally carry this brutal worldview forward. It begins with a monologue modeled after the book’s opener. It’s narrated over a slide show that even includes snippets of Dahl’s original text (including “Witches are REAL!”). But even though many of the words are the same, the tone is quite different. The narrator begins by sputtering out a cough, then says, “Alright, where were we?” as though he’s a substitute teacher trying to figure out which slide of the presentation he’s on. He also sounds unmistakably like Chris Rock. Because he is voiced by Chris Rock. No knock to Rock, who has an excellent voice—his “Lil’ Penny” commercials should be playing on a loop in the Louvre—but his jocular, bemused timbre here conjures a much different atmosphere than the book’s prologue. Instead of tugging viewers aside to offer a warning, it opens like a classroom lecture about something that happened long ago. It’s the first of many signs that this version of The Witches, directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a substantial departure in sensibility from its source material.
This is not the first Witches adaptation to deviate from the book. Nicolas Roeg directed a brilliant, nasty version in 1990 starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. It was part of a moment during which riskier, more unsettling narratives were en vogue in children’s cinema—Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, and Zemeckis’ partially animated noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit were in steady VHS rotation at the time—Roeg’s version of The Witches dances between campy special effects and, essentially, straight horror. (One extended sequence where the boy runs across a windswept cliff to escape a horde of witches echoes The Shining, his expression every bit as terrified as Danny Torrance on the run from his father.) Dahl loved the casting choice of Huston, but he loathed its ending. Unlike the book, in the film’s final moments, the mouse-boy-hero is changed back into a regular boy by a reformed bad witch.
The 2020 version does not make this capitulation. It keeps its mouse-boy in his furry form. Nevertheless, it conveys a distinctly un-Dahlian mood, adhering to the letter of the page more than its spirit. While the book and the 1990 movie were both set in England and Norway, the new film takes place in Alabama in 1968. Rock’s narrator is given a name, Charlie, and his younger self is played by child actor Jahzir Bruno. As in its source material, tragedy drives the story forward—his parents are killed in a car accident, and his kindly, eccentric grandmother comes to collect him. In the book and the first film adaptation, the “grandmama” is a cigar-smoking Norwegian kook. In this new version, she’s a vivacious, well-dressed Southern lady, played by Octavia Spencer.
In transposing Dahl’s tale to America and giving it a bright, off-kilter flamboyance, Zemeckis’ The Witches resembles Danny DeVito’s excellent 1996 adaptation of another Dahl novel, Matilda, much more than the dour English-seaside setting of the original novel and the first adaptation. This, again, is not a knock—many of the best Dahl adaptations blossom because they’ve taken stylistic detours, like Wes Andersen’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach, both of which used stop-motion to bring Dahl’s words to life. The Witches of 2020 does the same, but with live-action, creating a Gulf Shore gothic atmosphere that offers a fresh setting and glittering visuals.
Such flourishes stand in stark contrast to the 1990 adaptation, which presented its missing-girl flashback in a muted color palette, with mournful Norwegians yearning for their lost children. It conjures a menacing, sour world. At one point, the Grand High Witch shoves an infant in a bassinet down a steep hill, just because she can. The witches all have strange stained teeth and quivering, fiendish faces. Huston’s witch morphs from statuesque vamp to grotesque goblin with help from an unwieldy and terrifying prosthesis. The Jim Henson Company provided many of the film’s visuals, which look like Muppets pulled from Satan’s asshole; 30 years later, they’re dated but still powerfully creepy. Although it chose an incongruously gentle ending, the ’90 Witches is still often discussed as one of the most frightening children’s movies of all time for a good reason—it fully captures the breathtaking menace Dahl breathed into his story.
That doesn’t mean Zemeckis’ version is lacking when it comes to the flagrantly grotesque. It’s impossible to top Huston’s transfixing hauteur, but Anne Hathaway chomps the scenery with her own splendid, cartoonish menace. In addition to cowriting the screenplay, Guillermo del Toro is one of the film’s producers, and there are some embellishments to the Grand High Witch’s look that serve as stylistic reminders of his involvement, particularly her expanding claws, which resemble the Pale Man’s grotesque hands in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the horrible, long single toes jutting out from her square feet. Instead of Huston’s outrageously deformed prosthetic mug, Hathaway’s appearance is altered with CGI, her GHW using makeup to obscure the way her smile stretches from ear to ear. In her spookiest moments, Huston’s witch looked like a troll under a bridge—or a Fraggle from Hell—but Hathaway’s incarnation evokes something more akin to the ghoulish Momo meme. It’s a contemporary update, but still genuinely unsettling.
Not so scary
However, some of the story’s rougher edges have been sanded off. In all three versions of The Witches, the grandmother tells her grandson all about sorceresses and strikes fear into his heart by relaying her personal experiences with them. (She also tells him how to identify them: gloves to hide their claws, wigs on their bald heads, and shoes to obscure their hideous square feet.) In the 1990 film, the filmmakers chose the novel’s creepiest anecdote: while running an errand for her parents, the grandmother’s friend was abducted by a witch and never seen again—except as a tiny, silent figure in an oil painting in her family home, which would periodically switch positions within the frame. Over the years, her ghostly figure aged and finally faded away. It’s not silly at all.