I was a huge Roald Dahl fan when I was a child, reading all of his books I could get my hands on, even buying a copy of The Witches when it came out in 1983 when I was seventeen. I read it with great delight, then watched the movie adaptation when it came out in 1990 starring Angelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, despite the protests, and now the current movie recently released on October 22 on HBOMax, with Anne Hathaway taking the role of the Grand High Witch and Octavia Spencer in the role of the grandmother.
First off, to address the protests from 1990, it should be acknowledged that using the term witch as a negative is offensive to many members of the Wiccan faith. Other pagans prefer to view witch more like the word scientist where there are both ethical scientists and mad scientists. Or, to quote The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Suffice it to say that The Witches as presented in Dahl’s book and both movies — with a couple of notable exceptions — are very bad witches indeed, what in D&D terms would be called hags, similar to the three different hags we’ve showcased here at Avaaz with the Book of Beasts this month: the Cuca, the Soucriant, and the Pesta.
Spoiler warning hereafter for details from all three versions of The Witches. Dahl’s witches, like D&D hags, are not human, but rather than fey (like the Cuca and the Pesta) or undead (like the Soucriant), these witches are fiends, like the classic D&D Night Hag, demons with only superficial resemblance to human women.
Rather than use shapeshifting or illusion, Dahl’s witches use conventional clothing to disguise themselves. Their feet have no toes and are blunt and square, making them extra uncomfortable to force them into fashionable pointed-toe shoes. Their hands end in claws instead of fingers, so they disguise them with full-length gloves, and their heads are completely bald so they wear wigs to disguise them, leading to horrible itchy wig rash.
That is the final detail for the average Dahl witch, but in both the original book and the first movie, the Grand High Witch is so old and evil that she must disguise herself with a mask. Angelica Huston plays the unmasking scene beautifully, in similar fashion to the original illustration by Quentin Blake.
But for the new movie, cinematographers Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro added a different wrinkle, namely that witches can open their mouths far wider than human women, their grins splitting practically ear to ear, but they hide this with thick pancake makeup rather than masks. Anne Hathaway takes great advantage of this, using it as she chews the scenery with an even more over-the-top performance than Angelica Huston.
Plus, while it is established in both the book and the first movie that Dahl’s witches can smell children — which smell like dog poop to them — with the current movie and CGI, their nostrils can now distend inhumanly wide when they’re on the trail of a stinky brat.
The Cuca, the first of our hags for the Book of Beasts, share’s the ability to smell children and an obsession with them, but rather than wanting to eat them like the Cuca, Dahl’s witches wish to destroy children by other means, usually transformation into various animals. Indeed, the plot of the book and both movies involves the Grand High Witch gathering the other witches together for a convention at a hotel where she unveils her plan to have all the witches open candy shops where they will sell chocolates which will turn children into mice.
Sadly, the only flaw in the new movie is that it drops the wonderful line from the book and the first movie where one of the witches points out to the Grand High Witch that children aren’t the only ones who buy chocolate and adults might buy it too, to which the Grand High Witch replies, “Well then, that’s just too bad for the grown-ups!” However, in exchange for the loss of that great line, in the new movie, the Grand High Witch has an ice-cold brass bra, which is a hilarious sight gag.
The other differences? The original book and movie take place at a seaside hotel in England in the present day and the little boy’s grandmother is Norwegian. For the new version, the little boy is Black, from America — Chicago, specifically — while his Black grandmother is from Alabama, which is also the setting for the hotel, with the story taking place in 1968, making for some awesome period costumes and lush cinematography. Bruno, the other little boy turned into a mouse, is British in all three versions. The new movie also adds a girl mouse named Daisy who was formerly a little girl named Mary, voiced by Kristin Chenoweth.
The most major difference, however, in all three versions, is how it tackles the question of “Are you a good witch?” In the book, both Dahl and the boy’s Norwegian grandmother are unequivocal: There are no good witches. All witches are irredeemably evil, which makes it all the more delicious when they all get turned into mice with their own potion dropped into the hotel’s soup. In the first movie, however, there’s a twist, where one young witch, who is very badly treated by the other witches, repents her evil at the end, drives off in a hot sportscar, and drops by to demousify the hero boy who’s the narrator.
The new movie? There’s a good witch in the form of Grandma, who’s more following the African American hoodoo tradition and is a healer of some note, having small divinatory powers and various herbs and potion. However, Grandma’s magic is not strong enough to break the witches spell, so the children are left as mice as in the original book, but at least live longer than regular mice, which is fortunate because the talking mice and Grandma end up going off as witch hunters at the end.