Hunting Witches in Alabama in the 60’s: A Film Review of The Witches

Roald Dahl is a foundational author in my life, and the first book of his I read was The Witches. I read it when my young mind was still floating about in that weird wooliness between imagination and reality, so when the book taught me how to spot witches living in secret amongst us, I took the lessons to heart. I felt like I was being let in on a secret, that everything I knew about witches before reading the book was wrong. It is also the first book I can remember that showed me a bittersweet ending, that consequences are real and possibly permanent, and that children can be harmed. It was a literary game changer for me, and blew my still-developing mind to such an extent that I am still picking up the pieces. There are surprisingly few children’s authors who knew exactly how much kids crave darkness, and Mr Dahl, for all his other faults, had his finger right on the pulse.

This is precisely why I did not like the 1990 film adaptation. It’s is actually a fine film, and Anjelica Huston played the Grand High Witch well, but it ruined what made the story special to me in the first place: by reversing the protagonist boy’s fate. I actually swore at the screen when that happened. And let’s not get into why that witch would bother to do that good deed or how the film implied that witches are only hideous because they are wicked.

When I heard news that they are taking another crack at adapting the story to film, I was stoked and I got even more stoked when I found out that Anne Hathaway is playing the Grand High Witch (which, I shit you not, is my dream casting choice). I love her in pretty much anything, and if there was one thing good that came out of the 2010 Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, it’s Anne Hathaway’s quirky, unsettling, brief yet memorable performance as the White Queen. Casting Octavia Spencer as the grandmother was the cherry on top I never thought I needed.

Now, there are some things they did better 30 years ago, like the reveal of the Grand High Witch’s ghastly true form that still haunts many to this day. There was just so much texture (and random strands of hair) on the prosthetics that CGI still struggle to achieve today—not to mention that Anjelica Huston’s get up was probably closer in spirit to the book as well. And the mix of live and puppet mice also looked more charming and real than the ones in the 2020 film, which opted to animate them completely. As a result, they ended up looking more than a little cartoony (and in the case of Chris Rock’s character, just uncanny). I think this film was initially planned by Mr Zemeckis to be enjoyed in 3D in movie theatres as there are so many shots designed with stuff COMING AT YOU, but I guess COVID-19 put a crimp in those plans. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure the sight of Anne Hathaway’s fucked-up elongated arms reaching out towards the audience will create some new nightmares for children everywhere.

The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) and Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick)

Aside from that, it was glorious watching Anne Hathaway and her Glasgow-grinning jaw chew (and smash) the scenery to bits, rasping and hissing horrifically like she has late stage throat cancer when she isn’t using her super-extra European accent. Which accent, you ask? I can’t place it, and I bet neither can most Europeans. I also like how they extended the Grand High Witch’s lease on life and gave us an extra confrontation scene between her and the grandmother. Octavia Spencer is excellent as a sassier version of the original grandmother character, and the decision to change the boy and his grandmother’s ethnicity to African American worked for me as well—since in this film, the witches preferred to prey on children from more impoverished families, citing how they are less likely to be missed. This is a subtle reference to how in real life, 37% of all missing children in the US is black while only making up about 14% of all children, and missing white children also receive much more media attention than missing black children as well. I do wish that they included that scene in the book involving the painting though, because that was probably the creepiest thing the witches did by far. I still shudder when I read that chapter as an adult.

Grandma (Octavia Spencer) and the unnamed “Hero Boy” (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno)

Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager and Kristin Chenoweth as Mary (the boy’s mouse) are here in this film too and… well, there really isn’t much to say about them.

The most important thing is they also preserved Mr Dahl’s original ending for The Witches, the one which left such a deep impression on me as kid. That automatically makes this version superior to the 1990 film for me. I don’t know who I should thank for this, but I suspect it might have been writer and producer Guillermo del Toro (who I know has a penchant for making the bolder, darker choices). Having Chris Rock narrating the story and voicing the adult protagonist though was a less inspired choice. I don’t know why they can’t just have Jahzir Kadeem Bruno (who played the boy) do it, or better yet, just do away with the superfluous narration entirely.

A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch.

On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male. So indeed is a barghest. Both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH.

The Witches (1983) by Roald Dahl

There were many criticisms back when Mr Dahl published The Witches in the 80’s saying that it is basically the Malleus Maleficarum for children, and it does seem a little behind-times now that witches are being portrayed more positively in fiction. If you’ve read his body of work, it does seem on brand for Mr Dahl to portray a group of women as essentially demons hiding behind the trappings of feminity, but in today’s climate, I wonder if there is some transphobia thrown in as well.

… witches are not actually women at all. They look like women. They talk like women. And they are able to act like women. But in actual fact, they are totally different animals. They are demons in human shape.

The Witches (1983) by Roald Dahl

My mind only went there because the premise of the story is basically the whole argument of the modern transphobia movement in the UK, that predators are pretending to be women in order to prey on children (and other women). Even Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch addresses them as “so-called ladies”. There’s also the whole narrative surrounding how the child protagonist was forced to transform into a mouse, paralleling modern unfounded fears of medical professionals forcing children to undergo gender affirmation surgery or hormonal therapy. I am not saying that Mr Dahl intended this nasty anti-trans narrative, but it’s a valid reading of the text, in my opinion. I do like how both the book and the 2020 film reaffirms the idea that changes in appearances (even species) do not change a person’s personality. The grandmother still accepts and loves her grandchild because he is still himself in everything that matters—his own mind, brain and voice. That’s the message I am taking from this anyhow.

I am still reading The Witches with my 7-year-old, and I can see he is captivated by the story the same way I was. I wonder if it is too early to let him watch this film. I mean, he already watched Coraline to seemingly no ill effect so… Anyway, I think this latest adaptation of Mr Dahl’s beloved children’s dark fantasy novel is definitely worth a watch. Watch the actors (especially Anne Hathaway) have a ball of a time hamming it up, and watch if you disliked how they botched the ending in the 1990 adaptation. At least, those are the chiefest of my own reasons.

Rating: 4/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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