Many movies that fail to win critical regard still frequently succeed as entertainment, if only because they turn into delightful excuses for their actors to have fun. One might certainly expect this to be the case for The Witches, Robert Zemeckis’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic, horrifying children’s novel, now streaming on HBO Max.
But I must, alas, report that no one — on-screen or off — is having enough fun to save The Witches from being a dull and puzzling thing. While Anne Hathaway as the head witch seems to love swanning around the great coastal Alabama hotel to which Dahl’s witches have bizarrely arrived, no one else seems to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps it’s because the premise of this new version of The Witches inexplicably overlays two separate stories onto one another, and no one else in the cast is quite sure which one they’re in at any given moment.
Are they in a story where a young Black boy in the post-Jim Crow South confronts racism and ethnic hatred through the thinly veiled guise of a convention of kid-ocidal witches? Or are they in a macabre, modern-ish cautionary tale, one where boys can meet monsters and be forever altered at the whimsy of a delightfully unpredictable universe?
If you’re not sure these two stories go together, you’re not alone: The Witches isn’t sure either. Despite the film’s quizzical efforts to blend them together, the two halves never cohere into something that makes much sense — or remotely justifies the strange execution.
The Witches is an oddly literal adaptation, except when it’s a wild departure
The Witches, transplanted from its original Nordic and English setting to 1960s Alabama, recounts the delightfully morbid story of an unnamed Boy (Jahzir Bruno) who moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. Shortly thereafter, he encounters a witch at the local drug store, and his grandmother, something of a spiritualist herself, initiates him into a world in which child-hating murderous witches are everywhere. These witches, unfortunately, look exactly like the typical woman of the ’60s: They always wear wigs and nice shoes, they have giant expanding nostrils, and they always wear gloves.
Not long after this revelation, the Boy comes face to face with not only one witch, but an entire huge coven of witches who’ve all assembled — where else? — at a large hotel convention. And it’s, ironically, held at the very same hotel to which he and his grandmother have traveled to try and escape the witch! Because his grandmother has taught him how to recognize a witch, he immediately realizes what he’s stumbled upon. The results are calamitous (and genuinely creepy) for the Boy.
At first, Zemeckis’s version of The Witches appears to be made to order. But Dahl’s novel is really less about a story than it is about a feeling, a sense of things being terribly disordered, unreal, and unfair. This is where everything quickly goes awry.
Roald Dahl, the author of childhood classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, gave us a body of work that feels almost intrinsically British. In the classic tradition of British children’s literature, he represents the world to children as a cold and indifferent place, in which wonders, magic, and human kindness are rare, sought-after treasures. In a Dahl story, children are often abused by their caretakers and other indifferent adults until they discover some form of fantastical escape. His work built on and influenced the youth-oriented fantasy genre, with series like Harry Potter later providing direct echos of Dahl’s work.
It’s important to understand this context because, when you watch The Witches, you’re hit with the discrepancy between Dahl’s story world — where the universe is both randomly cruel and full of random mystical delights — and the “real” world in which Zemeckis sets his film. Zemeckis’s The Witches takes place in a post-segregated Southern Alabama, where Black life is still radically unequal to that of white Southerners, and where a Black woman staying at a grand hotel on the Gulf is so extraordinary that the Black bellhops jaw-drop at the sight of her. This dissonance is striking even if you’ve never cracked open a Dahl story.
In Dahl’s version, the Boy is originally Norwegian and encounters witches after moving to England with his cigar-smoking granny. In Zemeckis’s version, co-written by Zemeckis, horror icon Guillermo Del Toro, and Girls Trip screenwriter Kenya Barris, the Boy’s grandmother is a tough, determined homemaker who coaxes her grandson out of his grief with helpings of cornbread and plenty of Motown.
Spencer, typically a master of comedic timing, has too many elements working against her to pull that off here, starting with a script that can’t quite figure out what her deal is. Is she a sensitive grandmother masking her own grief in order to care for her grandson, a voodoo practitioner with a secret life, or a would-be adventuress? It’s hard to know what the film intends her to be. Then again, it’s equally hard to know what the film itself intends to be.
Is it a campy, rollicking farce with a touch of rosy pastel-tinged nostalgia for ... a South that’s barely past segregation? Is it a creepy, sinister children’s tale? Particularly when compared to the classic 1990 film adaptation from horror icon Nicolas Roeg, it’s certainly not very scary — which is probably the worst thing to be said about a movie based on a book whose witches are terrifying. In the original novel, there’s a truly chilling moment when our narrator, the Boy, realizes that all the women in the room he’s trapped in are wearing gloves. We never come close to anything that scary in Zemeckis’s version of The Witches because we’re all assumed to be in on the joke that the witches are in the hotel the whole time.
But the joke just isn’t that funny. As the head witch of the coven, Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch is both Catwoman and the Joker, with a hilariously overwrought German accent. While Hathaway has her moments of melodramatic fun, she’s the only actor who does.
And then there’s the matter of race. Even though on the surface, Zemeckis is faithfully retelling Dahl’s story of a boy and a coven of witches, he’s also giving us a story of a Black boy facing racial and class prejudice in the South that resonates with the American political climate today, even if the prejudice has been dialed back so far as to be barely more than a hint. Every Dahl story puts the trappings of white British privilege front and center, pitting our maligned waif hero against snooty rich children and their terrible parents. When that story gets transplanted onto the story of Southern life, however, it inevitably feels much different.
Dahl’s stories depend upon their hyperbolic caricatures of childhood and adulthood for much of their whimsical appeal and their ability to speak directly to young children. It’s difficult for an American viewer to find this kind of hyperbolic whimsy, however, in a recently desegregated South. It’s even harder when the potential for larger world-building around the theme of racial injustice seems to have been utterly ignored. (What does it mean that a boy would rather be a mouse than a boy in America? There’s a question ripe for exploration — but The Witches doesn’t think to ask it, let alone suggest an answer.)
In the Witches novel, what’s striking about the narrator and his grandmother is their aloneness in the world — they really only have each other. But in Zemeckis’s version, Spencer’s character lives in a small town, goes to church, visits her local shopkeepers, and has a whole history of growing up in a Depression-era community where witches were apparently a part of the local lore. But whatever community she’s a part of is only shrugged at, never brought to bear on her actions or the story itself.
What’s even more glaring and strange is that in a community of church-going Black women in the 1960s, where most women typically wore nice shoes and gloves, just like witches, the film doesn’t attempt to address the problems that would inevitably arise if you’re a kid trying to decide who is and isn’t a witch. The film could raise this extremely obvious question, and because it’s chosen to take Black characters living in a Black community as its heroes, you’d think it would. That it doesn’t just adds to the level of disconnect between Zemeckis’s impulse to inject modern-day diversity into The Witches and the all-British story he’s telling.
But perhaps we should discuss why a modern retelling of The Witches would want to be diverse. Because the other crucial piece of context for The Witches involves its subtext — and to understand it, we have to ruin your childhood a little. (Sorry.)
Roald Dahl was an anti-Semitic, misogynistic misanthrope
Roald Dahl is one of the most celebrated children’s authors who ever lived. But he was also indisputably one of the most bigoted. He was a profound anti-Semite, perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes and falsehoods — like that of Jewish people controlling the economy and the publishing industry. In 1983, Dahl, then 67, told The New Statesman that Jewish people “provoke animosity” and blamed them for being too “submissive” to fight back during the Holocaust. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere,” he said. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
Unlike, for example, the ongoing debates around H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, we know Dahl was anti-Semitic because he literally said so. “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic,” he reportedly told The Independent in 1990. Still, despite these direct quotes to the media, critics were calling reports of Dahl’s anti-Semitism “unjustified” as late as 2009. And in 2016, Steven Spielberg, director of the Dahlian adaptation BFG, expressed disbelief that someone who could write such a kindhearted book could really be anti-Semitic. Spielberg argued that, as a classic misanthrope, Dahl often said contentious things just to aggravate others. “Everybody in his life, basically, his whole support team, was Jewish,” Spielberg added.
Dahl might have surrounded himself with Jewish staff, but that doesn’t mean he treated them well; in fact, Dahl’s increasingly anti-Semitic attitude toward staff members at his longtime publisher, Knopf, ultimately led to Knopf’s extraordinary decision to fire him as a client late in 1980 — though that was also because Dahl was allegedly horrible to the staff in general. Dahl has also been widely read as a misogynistic writer, in large part due to the openly misogynistic theme of The Witches, in which women are literally demonized for dressing up, feminizing their appearances, and framed as monsters lurking inside seemingly sweet and complacent disguises. They’re also coded as anti-Semitic, with large, hooked noses, reptilian features, a ready stash of mysterious cash, and a plot to take over the world and kill children, all tropes derived from longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracies. (As a bonus, while I’m ruining your childhood, Matilda, a sweet telekinetic orphan, was originally meant to be something of the villain of the book, terrorizing her parents instead of the reverse.)
Perhaps it’s an awareness of this troubled history and a desire to do better — or perhaps just a desire to engage in diverse casting — that sparked Zemeckis’s attempt to build his version of The Witches around Spencer’s character and her grandson. But if that’s the case, it seems the exercise hasn’t shown us much — except, perhaps, to underscore that a thoughtless kind of diverse representation isn’t much better than no representation at all.
The Witches falls apart because of its inability to reconcile its very different stories
Zemeckis’s version of The Witches seems to offer nothing whatsoever to attempt to remedy the embedded issues in Dahl’s original writing. The writers have chosen not to substantially re-work the story, not even to think through the ways a bunch of witches might manipulate their Southern gothic environment. (In Alabama, on the Gulf of Mexico, are there really no swamp witches around? No Cajun priestesses doing spells in moss-covered mansions or nearby pirate coves?) Then again, none of the witches really exist at all outside of their single-minded goal to squash children.
The anti-Semitism Dahl himself professed doesn’t necessarily play a role in most of his other works, but it’s directly relevant to The Witches, a story that’s explicitly about detecting imposters in the midst of society. This is, to be blunt, the theme of most anti-Semitic conspiracies throughout history, and has led in its most extreme form to the idea that Jewish people “hide” in plain sight while essentially controlling the world.
In The Witches, witches hide in plain sight by disguising themselves as ordinary women — but the tells that give them away are also coded as anti-Semitic: they’re bald beneath their wigs, have reptile-like hands and feet, and have noses that expand when they sniff out children. The grand high witch also speaks with a German accent, one that can easily pass for Yiddish.
The 1990 film unfortunately perpetuated all of these traits, and I hoped that Zemeckis’s version would take pains to shift its witches far away from this stereotype. But it’s not clear if any attempt was made to remove the story’s discriminatory bits. At least the hooked noses are gone. Even so, there’s a lot of anti-Semitic coding ported over, especially when you’re also trying to signal a commitment to diversity by casting Black actors (and an entirely atonal Chris Rock as narrator) to deliver this story. It seems as though zero forethought or even insight went into the portrayal of the witches; and honestly, perhaps this movie needed to hire a culture critic as a consultant in order to save it from itself.
Perhaps that lack of insight about the film’s symbolism and coding is why everything else in The Witches just feels so off-kilter. There are shoehorned CGI mouse adventures that don’t feel remotely fun; the CGI effects feel flattened against the perpetually pastel tones of this movie, and our talking mice are given very little character development outside some cursory backstory (and some obligatory fat-shaming of Boy’s portly friend Bruno, because it wouldn’t be a Roald Dahl adaptation without some fat-shaming). And given Stanley Tucci’s vacillating faint Southern accent, for example, he doesn’t seem to be entirely sure where he is, just like it’s not entirely clear whether racism exists in this universe or not.
Y’all, Kristin Chenoweth is in this film, and I was so discombobulated I didn’t even notice her — that’s how weird this film is.
The Witches is a children’s film, and perhaps this deep overanalysis proves that children’s films should never be subjected to this much rigorous scrutiny. But children’s films that endure are the ones that remain compelling in adulthood. With The Witches, so little thought has gone into the process of creation that it seems as though it’s destined to be a lesson in how not to adapt a problem-laden story for the 21st century.
It’s a cautionary tale, alright — just not the one the director intended to make.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Zemeckis' religion. He is Catholic.