The trailer for The Witches
Roald Dahl's 1983 children's fantasy novel The Witches begins with a simple explanation: "This is not a fairy tale." Witches, the nameless narrator claims, are real. They live among us, demons indistinguishable from real women who are out to murder children. The boy is factual about this frightening reality, but also urgent – he is passing on the immediate threat of a global network of bloodthirsty child robbers. It's an intimate, conspiratorial prelude that draws readers in by whispering the secret truths adults normally don't want to know: Not only is the world not safe for the youth, it's also unfair, treacherous, and cruel.
As the story progresses, the narrator tells of his fateful encounter with the evil Grand High Witch – the big, bad boss of all witches around the world – along with every witch in England, a run-in that shapes his life. While on vacation with his grandmother at a seaside resort, he stumbles upon a witches conference where the Grand High Witch declares a conspiracy to turn all the children in the world into mice. (The witches disguise themselves as society against cruelty to children.) In classic Dahl fashion, there are an abundance of jokes about bodily functions, an unfriendly portrayal of a fat child as a greedy idiot and vividly drawn villains who speak in rhyme. The boy and his grandmother ultimately thwart the witch scheme, but the end is more melancholy than happy until the end: the narrator is transformed into a mouse by the witches; Even after outsmarting her, he cannot withdraw. He accepts his predicament, comforted by the knowledge that he will not survive the only person in the world who loves him, but still – it is a children's story in which the hero is doomed to premature death. Dark! It's a macabre, gripping story that has remained a perennial favorite with children since its debut more than 35 years ago. The witches, like Dahl's best work, tap into a wavelength that recognizes the dark edges of childhood in a way that so much young adult literature does not: childish and mean and honest. People who hate children think they smell like shit. Strangers with candy have bad intentions. Parents die. And sometimes children too.
The new adaptation of The Witches, released this week on HBO Max, doesn't quite advance this brutal worldview. It begins with a monologue modeled on the book opener. It is told via a slideshow that even includes snippets from Dahl's original text (including "Witches REALLY!"). But although many of the words are the same, the tone is very different. The narrator starts with a cough and then says, "Okay, where were we?" like he's a substitute teacher trying to figure out which slide of the presentation he's on. He also sounds unmistakably like Chris Rock. Because he's voiced by Chris Rock. Not a hit for rock with an excellent voice – its "Lil & # 39; Penny" commercials were meant to be played on a loop at the Louvre – but its joking, amused timbre creates a very different atmosphere here than the book's prologue. Instead of pulling the audience aside to issue a warning, it opens like a classroom talk about something that happened a long time ago. It is the first of many indications that this version of The Witches, directed by Robert Zemeckis, represents a substantial departure in sensitivity from its source material.
This isn't the first witch adaptation that deviates from the book. Nicolas Roeg directed a brilliant, evil version in 1990 with Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. It was part of a moment when riskier, more unsettling tales were all the rage in children's cinema – Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, and Zemeckis' partially animated Noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit were in a steady VHS rotation at the time – Roegs Version of The Witches Dance between Campy special effects and essentially straightforward horror. (An extended sequence in which the boy runs over a windswept cliff to escape a horde of witches is reminiscent of The Shining. His expression is as frightened as Danny Torrance fleeing from his father.) Dahl loved the casting choice of Huston, but he hated his end. In contrast to the book, the Mouse Boy hero is transformed back into a normal boy by a reformed wicked witch in the final moments of the film.
The 2020 version does not make this surrender. It keeps its mouse cub in its furry form. Nonetheless, it conveys a distinctly undahlish mood that clings more to the letter of the page than the spirit. While the 1990 book and film were both shot in England and Norway, the new film is set in Alabama in 1968. Rock's narrator is named Charlie, and his younger self is played by child actor Jahzir Bruno. As in the source material, the tragedy drives the story forward – his parents are killed in a car accident and his friendly, eccentric grandmother picks him up. In the book and the first film adaptation, "Grandmother" is a cigar-smoking Norwegian kook. In this new version, she is a lively, well-dressed southern woman, played by Octavia Spencer.
Zemeckis & # 39; The Witches transposes Dahl's story to America and gives it a bright, unusual extravagance. It is much more similar to Danny DeVito's excellent adaptation of another Dahl novel from 1996, Matilda, than the boring English coastal setting of the original novel and the first adaptation. Again, this isn't a punch – many of the best Dahl adaptations bloom from taking stylistic detours, like Wes Andersen's The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Henry Selicks James and The Giant Peach, both of which used stop motion to bring Dahls to life Words for life. The 2020 Witches do the same, but with live action, they create a gothic vibe on the Gulf Coast that offers a fresh setting and glittering imagery.
Enlarge /. To let. Anne. Hathaway. Cook. (And. Chew. Landscape.)
Such flourishes stand in stark contrast to the adaptation from 1990, in which the look back at missing girls was presented in a muted color palette and sad Norwegians longed for their lost children. It conjures up a threatening, acidic world. At some point the Grand High Witch will push a child down a steep hill in a bassinet just because she can. The witches all have strangely stained teeth and trembling, devilish faces. Huston's witch transforms herself from a statuesque vampire into a grotesque goblin with the help of an awkward and awful prosthesis. The Jim Henson Company supplied many of the images in the film that look like muppets have been pulled out of Satan's asshole. 30 years later they are out of date but still very creepy. Though the '90s Witches chose an inappropriately gentle ending, they are still often debated as one of the most terrifying children's films of all time for good reason – they capture the mind-boggling menace Dahl breathed into its story.
That doesn't mean Zemecki's version is missing when it comes to the obviously grotesque. Impossible to beat Huston's overwhelming hauteur, but Anne Hathaway chews the landscape with her own great, cartoonish menace. Guillermo del Toro is not only a screenwriter of the script, but also one of the producers of the film. The Grand High Witch's look includes some embellishments that serve as stylistic reminders of his dedication, particularly her expanding claws that resemble the Pale Man's grotesque hands, Pan's maze and the terrifying, long, single toes protruding from her square feet. Instead of Huston's outrageously deformed prosthetic cup, Hathaway's appearance is altered by CGI. Her GHW uses makeup to cover up the way her smile extends from ear to ear. In her scariest moments, Huston's witch looked like a troll under a bridge – or a Fraggle from Hell – but Hathaway's incarnation is reminiscent of something more like the creepy momo meme. It's a timely update, but still really worrying.
Not that scary
However, some of the rougher edges of history have been sanded off. In all three versions of The Witches, the grandmother tells her grandson all about sorceresses and beats fear to his heart by sharing her personal experiences with them. (She also tells him how to identify them: gloves to hide their claws, wigs on their bald heads, and shoes to cover up their hideous square feet.) In the 1990 film, the filmmakers chose the scariest anecdote in the novel: while they was doing an assignment. Her parents, grandmother's friend, were kidnapped by a witch and never seen again – except as a tiny, silent figure in an oil painting in their family house who regularly changed position within the frame. Over the years, her ghostly form aged and eventually disappeared. It's not silly at all.