Film of the book: ‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches’ (2020)

This unnecessary remake, directed by Robert Zemeckis, was entertaining but not a patch on Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film. I’m unsure that Roald Dahl should actually be in the title (see also: Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The story was recognisably his book but in some ways it was very different. I also couldn’t help noticing how reliant it was on CGI, but the effects were not always wisely employed, making them somehow look as dated as those from 20 years ago.

The story is transplanted from England and Norway to the 1960s American South, where a boy called Hero (it’s a cooler name than Luke, obviously) lives with his Grandma after his parents die in a car crash. She teaches him about witches and as coincidence would have it, they end up staying in a hotel where the witches are gathered to carry out their evil plot – turn all the children into mice. The narrative is reframed with an older Hero telling a group of children his story, which is revealed at the end to be a class being educated on how to get rid of the witches.

Anne Hathaway plays a very bizarre Grand High Witch with an unspecified foreign accent. There are unnecessary additions, such as her Joker-style mouth, inky blood and Mr Tickle-like extendable arms. She was scary, I suppose, but a bit over the top. Octavia Spencer was a likeable new version of Grandma, a strong and dignified churchgoing woman who believes in the power of comfort food and loving kindness. I wasn’t sure, however, about the frequent references to her Christian beliefs, especially as she seems halfway towards being a witch herself, with her herbs and crystals and numerology. The witches are more strongly demonstrated to be agents of the Devil, for example, the Grand High staying in room 666 and her cat’s name being Hades. The witches in the book are seemingly nice ladies whom no one would suspect of being evil. In this film, they march about with synchronised movements and don’t even pretend to be nice. Bruno Jenkins is a different character also, as in the book he’s thoroughly horrible, while in this film he’s not too bad, although greedy.

A few alterations were made to the plot which actually made better sense than the book. For example it turns out that the pet mouse that Luke, I mean Hero, already had, was in fact a child, Mary, who’d been transformed into a mouse. Hero, Mary and Bruno then become a team of three intelligent mice who, conveniently enough, all end up living with Grandma. Grandma herself was revealed to have a motive for destroying witches and the Grand High in particular, who’d transformed Grandma’s childhood friend into a chicken. And the cat Hades, who the Grand High mistreated for showing her up, gets his own back on her. One thing that fans of Dahl’s book should really like is that the ending is closer than the 1990 film. It reinforces what Grandma says frequently throughout the story, that it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as someone loves you.

A film poster for Roald Dahl's The Witches showing Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch.

Low-resolution poster image sourced from Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Film of the book: ‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches’ (2020)”

  1. I’ve not seen this version, but Angelica Huston as the High Witch was amazing in the 1999 version.

    1. Agreed! Glamorous and horrific. Anne Hathaway’s portrayal was over the top.

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