I loved “The Witches” novel as a kid, and can remember being absolutely terrified of the Grand High Witch in the 1993 film adapation with Angelica Huston. That was an adaptation which did the source material justice, and is instantly recognisable as a Dahl story in tone and style. Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”, “Forrest Gump”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) takes on “The Witches” in this 2020 remake, and boy was this a misfire.
The plot of “The Witches” is, typically of Dahl, actually quite a sinister one; a little English boy (who is unnamed) goes to live with his Norweigan grandmother after his parents are killed in a car crash. To cheer him up, Grandmama tells him stories of real life witches who look and act just like regular women, but who secretly loathe little children and make it their mission to eradicate them with their magic. When Grandmama falls ill, her doctor suggests some time at a seaside hotel for some crisp sea air. While there, the little boy is playing with his pet mice when he is trapped in a room with dozens of women who turn out to be witches, including the Grand High Witch herself, who are plotting to turn every child in England into a mouse with a special potion. The little boy is himself turned into a mouse, but is able to steal some potion and turn the witches into mice as well. The little boy and his grandmother spend the rest of his now sadly shortened life travelling the world hunting witches.
I don’t think it’s necessary for a film adaptation to stick verbatim to its source material; that’s up to the jurisdiction of the director if he or she thinks certain creative decisions will benefit the cinematic experience. To me, every deviation from the novel made by Zemeckis has been to the film’s detriment. First and foremost, the film is not set in England anymore but in 1960s Alabama. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, it worked perfectly well for 1996’s “Matilda” to be set in modern day America. The thing is, the story only works with an underlying sense of dreariness and ominosity, and definitely doesn’t work with the distractingly cheery and irritating narration of Chris Rock and a wise cracking Grandmama (Octavia Spencer) blasting “We Are Family” and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”. The whole magic of Dahl is that any danger in the story is treated as a real and imminent, creative decisions like that cheapen and trivialise the whole idea that witches are real and that they’re dangerous!
One of the creepier elements of the book and the 1993 film were the stories that Grandmama would tell the little boy of what witches did to little children. My favourite, and probably the scariest, is where one of Grandmama’s childhood friends disappeared one day after an encounter with a witch. Her parents looked far and wide, then when they had given up hope, discovered a little girl had appeared in their newly acquired painting which hung above their mantlepiece. The little girl was always still, but would appear in different places in the painting doing different things, growing older and older until she one day disappeared completely. It’s a hauntingly beautiful and terrifying idea, and I can remember visualising myself trapped in a painting and how scary it would be. Zemeckis decided instead to have Grandmama describe how her best friend was turned into a chicken before her very eyes, set to the tune of something like Benny Hill. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t a cool magic spell and it didn’t make witches seem very dangerous at all. I felt like a little child staring unimpressed at a mother playing “Got your nose”, knowing full well she hadn’t.
Even though she isn’t actually featured in the story until almost the end, the Grand High Witch is one of the most renowned villains in Dahl’s reportoire. Angelica Huston in the 1993 version was so perfect for it that it was always going to be a thankless task taking on the role for Anne Hathaway. That being said, Hathaway is objectively woeful. The European accent is ridiculous and inconsistent, every glance and gesture is overdone and unconvincing and reeked of a precocious high school student overacting during her final dramatic piece and being pretty darn impressed with herself. Some of the special effects were impressive I suppose (Zemeckis is known for this), but the 1993 film worked just fine without such technology and it just wasn’t enough to make up for the more disappointing elements of the production.
The stories of Roald Dahl are a very specific and unique beast. They’re magical, darkly comical, exciting and most importantly, they don’t pander to its audience or assume that they can’t handle a bit of the spooky stuff. Robert Zemeckis has somehow taken “The Witches”, sucked anything that was distinctly “Dahl-esque” out of it and produced a strange, half-baked and surprisingly ameteurish film which bears little resemblance to the book or even Zemeckis himself.
By Jock Lehman