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The Witches: A Lighter Take on the Classic, Dark Comedy Tale

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When HBO Max released the trailer of The Witches in early October, social media users pointed out that the film had to live up to the standards of the 1990 cult classic starring Angelica Houston.

The 2020 version, starring actors Anne Hathaway, Chris Rock, and Octavia Spencer in key roles is a modern retelling of author Roald Dahl’s classic 1983 novel of the same name.

Director Robert Zemeckis takes on the story 30 years after the original version was released. To make it more modern, he uses The Witches to bring issues of racism and othering. While he retains the essence of the book and the 1990 film version, his film focuses a lot more on comedy than on the horror element.

The context

An unnamed young boy loses his parents in an accident and goes to live with his grandmother. The grandmother tells him stories about witches, who are female demons that despise children. While they look like ordinary women, they have claws instead of fingernails, which they hide by wearing gloves. They are ugly creatures who are bald, which they hide by wearing wigs and suffer from rashes because of the wigs. Their spit is blue in colour and they have square-shaped toes, which they hide by wearing pointed shoes. They have a powerful sense of smell and can sniff out children- the cleaner a child is, the  stronger the smell.

Credits: HBO Max

One day, the boy encounters a witch while he is playing alone, but manages to escape. Soon, the grandmother and the boy travel to a hotel where they realise that there is a coven of witches, led by the Grand High Witch, who are staying at the same hotel. The boy stumbles upon an event, during which the witches come up with a magic potion that will transform children into mice. The witches find out the boy and force an overdose of the potion on him, which instantly transforms him into a mouse. The rest of the story is about how the boy and the grandmother devise a plan to get rid of the witches, using the same magic potion.

The deviations

Unlike the book, the latest adaptation sees a new setting. Set in 1960s, in the film, the boy and his grandmother live in Chicago. When he meets a witch, they immediately pack their bags and go to stay at a seaside hotel in Alabama. The film introduces the idea of racism and discrimination, but quickly drops it. Hathaway, cast as the Grand High Witch, mentions that she wants to get rid of only poor and deprived children, who will not be missed. This, however, is not carried through in the movie.

In Dahl’s book, the story is set in England. The boy lives in England and while his grandmother is in Norway, and she moves to England after the death of the boy’s parents. The book makes no mention of the time period during which the events unfold.

In the 1990 film, the boy is given a name- Luke. Dahl, on the other hand, simply referred to him as “boy”, which Zemeckis retains in his film.

The boy is also significantly closer to his grandmother in the book. He connects with her more than his own parents. This is something that is not reflected in the 2020 film, as they show the boy to be shaken and unresponsive after his parents’ death. The grandmother (portrayed by Octavia Spencer) also does not smoke cigars, as mentioned in the book.

The reason to stay at the hotel is a significant departure from the book. The frail grandmother contracts pneumonia (as opposed to diabetes in the 1990 film) and is recommended to go to the seaside to recover. In the latest version, this bit is skipped and they travel to the hotel to keep the boy safe from witches.

Credits: Warner Bros.

In the book, the grandmother loses a thumb during a childhood encounter with a witch, but she never reveals the incident to her grandson. She narrates to him horrific tales about how witches would either turn children into animals or curse them.

Both movies decide to pick one of these stories to highlight their point. The latest adaptation hints that the grandmother never directly came across a witch, but saw her friend interacting with one, which is later revealed as the Grand High Witch.

As a departure from the book, Zemeckis introduces the boy’s pet mouse Daisy, who was a girl who was transformed into a mouse by witches four months ago. In the book, the boy had two pet mice- William and Mary- with no back story.

The character of Bruno Jenkins, a gluttonous boy with distant and cold parents, makes its way to the film. After he is turned into a mouse, his parents refuse to take him back and he goes to live with the boy and his grandmother. In the book and in the older film adaptation, however, his parents take him back home.

The ending

One of the key differences between the book and the movies is the ending. In the 1990 film version, the boy returns to his human form from a mouse, which Dahl had disapproved of. While the 2020 version retains this element, it changes the final encounter between the Grand High Witch and the boy and his grandmother.

Rather than changing her into a mouse, after the boy successfully mixes the magic potion into the soup, the Grand High Witch has a full-blown confrontation with the boy and his grandmother before they transform her into a mouse. Her mistreated pet cat then eats her up.

Dahl’s The Witches is a grim comedy that has been adapted by both films, even though the latest version has toned down the macabre elements to make it a more comical and light-hearted rendition of the classic tale.

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