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The Witches Makes Family-Friendly Changes to Roald Dahl’s Grimly Funny Book

Movies
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Puffin Books and HBO Max.

It’s been almost 40 years since Roald Dahl wrote The Witches and 30 years since the cult adaptation starring Anjelica Huston was made. Now, just in time for Halloween, HBO offers a new take on Dahl’s wickedly funny children’s tale directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by the likes of Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro.

The movie moves the action across the pond from its original English setting, and that’s just the beginning of the changes, which include different appearances for the witches and a new climactic confrontation with the villain. Below, we break down what’s different about the movie, including the many family-friendly tweaks to Dahl’s darker original material.

Setting

The locations in the film have been changed from those of the book, probably to appeal to a U.S. audience. The boy’s original home of Kent, England, has been swapped for the city of Chicago, while his grandmother’s home in Oslo, Norway, becomes Demopolis, Alabama. Though both movie and book use real places, both of the hotels where all the mousey action takes place are fictitious: In the book, that’s the Hotel Magnificent, supposedly located in the seaside town of Bournemouth, while the movie introduces the Grand Orleans Imperial Isle Hotel, a sweeping colonial-style resort overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Boy

The boy remains unnamed throughout Dahl’s story, only referred to occasionally as “my darling” by his grandmother. We are given no description of his physical appearance other than the illustrations by Quentin Blake that so famously accompany many of Roald Dahl’s works, which portray him as a little white boy. Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, who plays the boy in the movie, is Black, and the character is now named Charlie, perhaps a wink at one of Dahl’s more famous protagonists.

In the book, both of the boy’s parents are Norwegian, but the boy was born and went to school in England, since his father had business there. Twice a year, he and his parents returned to Norway to visit his beloved grandmother on his maternal side, who is their only living relative. They speak both in English and Norwegian to each other, and the boy even admits he “felt closer to her than to [his] own mother.” When his parents die in a car crash during their Christmastime visit, the two take solace in each other’s company, but their mourning over the deaths is only briefly mentioned, because there are witches afoot!

Because the audience is introduced to him after the car crash, we don’t get to know much about Charlie in the movie before his parents die, other than the fact that he is in shock. Later he appears to be like any other introverted kid, preferring his room and his pet mouse to the outside world.

Both the book and movie open with a narrator, soon revealed to be the boy, introducing the concept of witches and the threat they pose to unsuspecting children. However, in the book, the boy’s tone is much more upbeat and bordering on obsessive, while Charlie just seems numb as he sits slumped on the living room couch, gazing apathetically at his grandmother’s fried chicken, which sits in front of him cold and untouched. The reverent and loving relationship the boy in the book has with his grandmother hasn’t yet been established at the beginning of the movie, as shown when his grandmother tries unsuccessfully to cheer him up with a little dance routine.

Grandmother

There is a pretty big departure from Dahl’s source material when it comes to the grandmother character in the movie, played by Octavia Spencer. First, the movie calls her “Grandma” instead of “Grandmamma” and makes her Alabamian rather than Norwegian. She dishes out soul food instead of puffing on “long black cigars that smelt of burning rubber” constantly like the grandmother in the book does. Ironically, though she’s never seen smoking, Movie Grandma does develop a bad cough that is never really explained throughout the story.

While in both versions the grandmother is already aware of the existence of witches, Grandmamma is a self-described seasoned “Witchophile,” a person who “studies witches and knows a lot about them,” whereas in the movie version, her knowledge of witches is part of her being a “country-type healer” or “Voodoo priestess,” demonstrated through the use of burning sage and crystal casting. Grandma also has all her fingers intact, whereas Dahl’s version has her missing a thumb. (The story behind the missing thumb is never revealed to the reader, but it is implied that it came from an early encounter with a witch.) In the book, Grandmamma is getting on in years and catches pneumonia, which requires she and the boy check into the previously mentioned hotel by the sea, where the air will be good for her. In the film adaptation, the duo instead flee to the hotel to escape a narrow encounter with the witch in their town.

The Boy’s Companions

In the book, Bruno Jenkins is a gluttonous child who serves as a dim-witted foil to the boy, though the two don’t meet until they are both turned into mice. Bruno doesn’t even seem to notice his transformation so long as he gets to continue eating, and throughout the book he does little else besides that until he is eventually handed back to his very shocked parents. In the movie, we meet Bruno before he is turned into a mouse, and while he retains his appetite and isn’t the brightest, he is also written to be friendly and not racist, amiably coming over to say hello to Charlie first while they’re still human. (There is a clear racial divide in the movie between the uniformed bellboys and maids and the wealthy, mostly white guests.)

In the book, Grandmamma gives the boy two white mice as a consolation, named William and Mary, who serve no particular plot point except to get the boy into the ballroom where he trains them to walk a tight rope. In the movie, however, Charlie only receives one mouse, which he names Daisy. Later it is revealed that Daisy used to be a child named Mary before a witch got her, and once Charlie and Bruno are turned into mice, the trio form a dynamic akin to the Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

The Witches

In the book, the narrator states there is no one way to know if a woman is a witch or not, but there are a few ways to guess. With the exception of bedtime, they always wear their gloves to cover their catlike claws. The same goes for wigs, which they wear to hide the fact that they are all bald. They have distinctively pink nostrils, which are slightly larger and more flared than average to help them hunt down children, which, according to both versions, smell like dog shit. None of them have toes, which they conceal by squeezing their blocklike feet into shoes. They are also mentioned to have spit so blue they could lick a fountain pen and write with it.

For the most part, the witches’ baldness and toelessness remain in the movie, and they gain one major new characteristic: They all have a wide mouth that splits their faces from ear to ear and requires a thick layer of foundation to cover. While you might think these why-so-serious grins might be a dead giveaway, the polite hotel staff in the film say nothing of it. When the coven removes their gloves later, instead of claws, they have just two long fingers and opposable thumbs.

In the movie, the witches who arrive at the hotel under the guise of belonging to the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are stunningly fashionable, as well as stunningly pompous, whereas in the book they are basically chatty little biddies pretending to do the Lord’s work for God and country.

The Grand High Witch

There is major deviation between the book and the film when it comes to the Grand High Witch. Dahl describes her as “tiny, probably no more than four and a half feet tall” and “very pretty,” wearing a long black dress and gloves that reach her elbows. On the podium, and to the horror of the boy watching from his hiding place, she peels off what ends up being a mask to reveal a ghastly, wizened, shriveled face beneath it. She commands the room of witches with a thick guttural accent, and when one speaks out of turn, she incinerates her with laser eye beams.

By contrast, the Grand High Witch in the movie (Anne Hathaway) towers magnificently in her very pointy Prada shoes, and her long purple dress comes alive when she nudges the snake that decorates it. This fits with the “illuminati elite/lizard people” vibe of her movie makeover, which includes a forked tongue nestled in a mouth full of crocodile teeth. While she does zap an insubordinate associate, she also flings the podium across the room, can apparently fly, stretches her arms like the rubber mom in The Incredibles, and, for reasons that only become clear at the end of the movie, is the only witch to have a toe on each foot. This Grand High Witch also has an accent, but it’s more like she’s pronouncing every word like it’s straight from an Ikea catalog.

Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker

In both book and movie, the boy watches Bruno turn into a mouse after the Grand High Witch uses her Delayed Mouse-Maker Formula on him and is then discovered and turned into a mouse as well. The boy then scampers back to his grandmother, and they hatch a plot to turn the witches into mice themselves.

The only real difference here is that we learn the formula’s recipe in the book, which involves some very Roald Dahl–y ingredients: mice tails, the wrong end of a telescope, an alarm clock, a gruntle’s egg, the claw of a crabcruncher, the beak of a blabbersnitch, the snout of a grobblesquirt, and the tongue of a catspringer. Cruel as she may be, the Grand High Witch in the book believes in convenience and offers the ready-made formula to witches over 70, known as “ancient ones,” who lack the agility to acquire the ingredients required. The movie version forgoes any kind of recipe and settles on a mysterious premade purple liquid.

The Plan

In the movie, Grandma does attempt to change Charlie and his companions back to their human form by reversing the formula they stole, without any luck. In the book, the idea isn’t even mentioned, as the boy seems to quite enjoy being a mouse.

In both book and movie, the boy is lowered onto the Grand High Witch’s balcony in a sock on a string by his grandmother to steal a bottle of the formula hidden within the mattress, though in the movie, the writers changed the Grand High Witch’s room number from 454 to the more cliché 666. The book and movie also both see the boy infiltrate the kitchen and manage to get the contents of the bottle into the soup. However, the movie cuts out the part in the book where the boy gets his tail cut off as he escapes the chefs, keeping it PG for the kids watching.

Just as in the book, the movie witches assemble in the dining hall and eat their Mouse-Maker pea soup according to plan—except that in the movie, the Grand High Witch doesn’t drink hers, because she recognizes Grandma from when she turned her childhood friend into a chicken. The other witches, having finished their soup, turn into hideous … rats, instead of mice like in the book, for some reason.

The Ending

This is where the movie diverges completely from its source material. As the room erupts into chaos and the hotel manager (Stanley Tucci) is bit in the groin by a witch-turned-rat, Grandma and the mice-kids sneak up into the Grand High Witch’s room to get the rest of the Mouse-Maker Formula. In the book, the Grand High Witch turns into a mouse in the dining hall like the rest of the coven, but in the movie, she doesn’t touch the soup and instead follows Grandma upstairs. When she takes her shoes off to sneak in, the mice children under the bed see her single-toed feet and slip two mouse traps onto her toes. (As far as I can tell, the only reason she alone among the witches has toes is for this scene to work.) As the Grand High Witch screams, the bottle of formula lands perfectly in her open mouth, finally turning her into a rat, too. The film gives the Grand High Witch a black cat called Precious who acts as her sometimes-adored, sometimes-abused familiar. Really, the cat exists simply so he can eat his mistress once she’s been turned into a rat.

Afterward, Bruno ditches his mice-fearing, snobby parents to hang with Charlie, and they and Mary travel with Grandma across the U.S. hunting down witches, giving righteous purpose to their rodent transformations so we don’t have to worry about them lying in cages feeling sad about not being human anymore. The credits roll briefly before being interrupted by the final scene: A gray-whiskered mouse Charlie (voiced by Chris Rock), armed with the witch ledger and Mouse-Maker they took from the Grand High Witch, militarizes children through the use of a slide projector and orders them to go forth and “give the witches a taste of their own medicine” as an older Grandma looks on approvingly. This is more similar to the book than the 1990 adaptation of The Witches, in which the boy (called Luke in that version) turns human again at the end.

In fact, the book also ends with a crusade to destroy all witches, although it focuses on just the grandmother and grandson, still a mouse, as they plan to mix up their own Mouse-Maker Formula, following the recipe the boy learned while hiding in the hotel ballroom. As in the movie, the boy is given about nine years to live as a mouse person, which both versions of the boy accept openly, as they are unable to think of anyone else taking care of them after their grandmother dies anyway.

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