Anything by the acclaimed English children’s novelist Roald Dahl gets attention in our house. My eight-year-old daughter is devoted to all of Dahl’s books, and we count the good film adaptations among our favorite movies. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG stand out among the more recent ones. In all of Dahl’s stories, we see a dark vision of childhood that evokes the best of the fairy tale tradition. We normally enter a world where parents are cruel and selfish, as in Matilda; are overburdened and sad, as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or are tragically taken away, as in James and the Giant Peach and The Witches, the latter recently adapted for HBO Max by director Robert Zemeckis. Compared to some of the other film versions of Dahl’s books, this version of The Witches is about average; but it has several elements that make it particularly spiritually enriching.
Zemeckis’ film suffers under the anxiety of influence of Nicholas Roeg’s superb 1990 version, which features Jim Henson’s puppets. For Zemeckis’ new version, cowriter Guillermo del Toro originally wanted stop-motion animation, and we can only imagine how interesting that would have been. Instead, we get mostly unimpressive computer-generated creatures. The strength of the new Witches, however, is in Zemeckis’ decision to change the setting from Dahl’s original England and Norway to 1968 Alabama, and to portray Hero Boy and his kindly grandmother as African American.
Octavia Spencer is excellent as the grandmother, who not only takes in her orphan grandson after his parents are killed in a car accident, but provides him spiritual defense against the forces of evil. At one point she tells her grandson that the witches—an international consortium of demonic child-haters—particularly prey upon the most vulnerable. In an age of important conversations about historic and future race relations in the United States, it is refreshing to see a strong black woman protagonist, along with the acknowledgement that her black grandson stands at particular risk in our world, then and now. Without being heavy-handed, Zemeckis succeeds at adapting the story to achieve this added social dimension not present in Dahl’s book.
The rest of The Witches’ cast is very good, including the voice of Chris Rock as the narrator, Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, and Stanley Tucci as Mr. Stringer, the proprietor of the hotel where most of the action unfolds. Jahzir Bruno stands out as Hero Boy, perfectly capturing both the brokenness and innocence of the character in the book, much like the characters of Matilda, James, or Charlie Bucket in some of Dahl’s other stories.
Like a classic fairy tale, The Witches does not aim to teach children that a particular form of evil exists in a particular way, but rather that, whatever hardship or darkness they face, they may be empowered to overcome it. But The Witches has a twist. In Zemeckis’ film, as in the original book, we learn that victory over the enemies of goodness does not always mean a conventional “happily ever after.” Not every sad thing can be undone in this life. Both Dahl and Zemeckis leave children hopeful that they can get through their misfortunes and incorporate them into a new life. Pain has a purpose. In this way, the ending of The Witches will resonate with Christians as the Passion, cross, and Resurrection does. In Zemeckis’ version, there is an additional, endearing element of mission at the end.
The Witches is neither scary nor childish, making it a good bet for elementary-age children. It is far from the cinematic achievement of other Dahl adaptions, but it is a fine choice for family movie night. It might even be a conversation starter for cosmic questions about evil and spiritual warfare, as well as pressing concerns about standing up for the vulnerable today.