There have been plenty of Roald Dahl books turned into movies — 14, in fact — but in my eyes, none is more iconic than the 1990 adaptation of The Witches.
I still remember the feeling of utter dread and terror it filled me with after watching. I was so scared that I couldn’t even look at the color purple without experiencing a shudder. My mother actually had to remove a Kerplunk! box from the eyeline of my bunk bed because the hue reminded me too much of the terrifying eyes of those child-killing "demons in human shape."
I had already read the book, of course. It’s practically illegal for any British child not to have absorbed Dahl’s complete collection of stories, but seeing the witches for the first time on screen, in all their purple-eyed glory, with bald heads and toeless feet (and in the Grand High Witch’s case a grotesque visage), was enough to give me nightmares for a few months at least.
The Witches is a timeless book and movie about the enterprising strength and brilliance of independent women. At first look, it might seem like a misogynist portrayal of the female sex — positioning them as ugly, cold, and in need of being destroyed in order to suppress their domination of the world — but that is far from the case.
Dahl’s witches are representative of a progressive, socialist movement that looks to enrich and improve the lives of its members. When the Grand High Witch convenes with the British coven at Hotel Excelsior (Headland Hotel in the book), she shares her wisdom freely, including the recipe to her Formula 86 delayed-action mouse-maker potion, as well as her witch-made money in order for them to buy the businesses that they need in order to achieve their life goal. Yes, that goal is to turn all children into mice and kill them, but still, the depiction of women working together and supporting one another is a strong image of female solidarity and empowerment that transcends both the page and the screen.
It also dispels the archaic notion that a woman’s number-one role in life is to be a mother. One could argue that their genocidal feelings toward children are a metaphor for exactly this, that the killing of the children symbolizes the killing of a gendered stereotype that has for too long kept women in the domestic sphere.
Let’s also not forget that while the main protagonist of the story might seem to be the little boy Luke, it’s his grandmamma Helga who is the real hero. She’s the retired "witchophile" (witch hunter) who gives her grandson everything he needs to know in order to recognize a witch and survive an interaction. Every other man in the film is portrayed as useless or ignorant in comparison (see the hotel manager, Bruno Jenkins, and his dad), while the one male who was brought up by a strong, intelligent female serves a useful purpose despite getting turned into a mouse.
And as heroes go, Grandmamma is pretty atypical. Usually these types of fairytales see a young maiden take on an evil foe, but in this case it’s a pensioner with a missing finger who is instrumental in the defeat of these demonic beings. Clearly, it’s no coincidence that Mai Zetterling’s Helga and Angelica Huston’s Miss Ernst both have “grand” in their other monikers, because these two women showcase some of the greatest attributes that the female sex has to offer: strength, intelligence, ingenuity, ambition, and, in Grandmamma's case, love.
The Witches is one of those great movies that, despite getting rave reviews upon release, fared poorly at the box office, though in the 28 years since it has become a cult classic and will soon be remade for a 21st-century audience. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Angelica Huston playing the Grand High Witch, as she really did make the role her own, but the new adaptation could certainly appease fans of the book, as well as the late Roald Dahl.
The author was "utterly appalled" with the movie because it gave his story a Hollywood ending. One can forgive the recharacterization of Luke from British to American, but not the way screenwriter Allan Scott allowed the little boy to become human again thanks to a disillusioned witch, played by Jane Horrocks, who doesn’t actually appear in the original novel.
Even as a fan of the film, I always felt a bit cheated by this ending, which should have seen Luke live out his life as a mouse with his grandmamma as they go on a mission to take down the witches of the world. She tells her grandson that there is no cure and he probably has only nine years left to live, but he’s OK with that, which is something quite progressive to see in a children’s book: the finality of life and acceptance of death.
Variety reports that the remake will be more faithful to Dahl’s book than the 1990 movie, which is certainly reassuring. I have no doubt that new director Robert Zemeckis will do both the book and the original film justice, since he has a solid history of making horror movies like What Lies Beneath, The Frighteners, and Thirteen Ghosts. However, I’m hoping that he matches the effort he will no doubt put into scaring the new young audience as he does in continuing the feminist message these iconic witches have been spearheading on the page since 1983.