The New Adaptation of The Witches Is Almost Too Much Fun

Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s fantasy novel The Witches begins with a simple declaration: “This is not a fairy tale.” Witches, the unnamed boy narrator claims, are real. They live among us, demons indistinguishable from real women, hell-bent on murdering children. The boy is matter-of-fact about this frightening reality, but also urgent—he is relaying the immediate threat of a global network of bloodthirsty child predators. It’s an intimate, conspiratorial opener, drawing readers in by whispering the secret truths grown-ups usually don’t want them to know: Not only is the world not safe for the young, it’s unfair, treacherous, and cruel.

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We’re Still Fighting Over This Ranking of Roald Dahl Movies As the story progresses, the narrator recounts his fateful encounter with the wicked Grand High Witch—the big, bad boss of all the 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 into a hush-hush witch conference, where the Grand High Witch explains a plot to turn all the world’s children into mice. (The witches disguise themselves as a society against cruelty towards children.) In classic Dahl fashion, there’s a surfeit of jokes about bodily functions, an unkind depiction of a fat kid as a greedy idiot, and vividly drawn villains who speak in rhyme. The boy and his grandmother ultimately foil the witches’ scheme, but the ending is more melancholic than happily-ever-after: The narrator is transformed into a mouse by the witches; even after outwitting them, he cannot change back. He takes his predicament in stride, comforted by the knowledge that he won’t outlive the only person in the world who loves him, but still—it’s a children’s story where the hero is doomed to premature death. Dark! It’s a macabre, gripping tale, one which has remained a perennial favorite for kids since its debut more than 35 years ago. The Witches, like Dahl’s best work, taps into a wavelength that acknowledges the dark edges of childhood in a way that so much young adult literature does not, puerile and mean and honest. People who hate children think they smell like shit. Strangers with candy have bad intentions. Parents die. And sometimes kids do too.
The new adaptation of The Witches, out on HBO Max this week, doesn’t totally carry this brutal worldview forward. It begins with a monologue modeled after the book’s opener. It’s narrated over a slide show that even includes snippets of Dahl’s original text (including “Witches are REAL!”). But even though many of the words are the same, the tone is quite different. The narrator begins by sputtering out a cough, then says, “Alright, where were we?” as though 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 is voiced by Chris Rock. No knock to Rock, who has an excellent voice—his “Lil' Penny” commercials should be playing on a loop in the Louvre—but his jocular, bemused timbre here conjures a much different atmosphere than the book's prologue. Instead of tugging viewers aside to offer a warning, it opens like a classroom lecture about something that happened long ago. It’s the first of many signs that this version of The Witches, directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a substantial departure in sensibility from its source material.
This is not the first Witches adaptation to deviate from the book. Nicolas Roeg directed a brilliant, nasty version in 1990 starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. Part of a moment during which riskier, more unsettling narratives were en vogue in children's cinema—Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, and Zemeckis’ partially animated noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit were in steady VHS rotation at the time—Roeg’s version of The Witches dances between campy special effects and, essentially, straight horror. (One extended sequence where the boy runs across a windswept cliff to escape a horde of witches echoes The Shining, his expression every bit as terrified as Danny Torrance on the run from his father.) Dahl loved the casting choice of Huston, but he loathed its ending. Unlike the book, in the film’s final moments, the mouse-boy-hero is changed back into a regular boy by a reformed bad witch.