Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: The Witches

The Witches, is a 2020 supernatural comedy film directed by Robert Zemeckis, and stars Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, and is narrated by Chris Rock. It is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Roald Dahl and is the second feature-length adaptation of the novel, after the 1990 film of the same name directed by Nicolas Roeg. The film starts with narration by an adult Charlie Hansen (Rock) as he gives a presentation on witches. He then transitions into talking about his childhood (younger version played by Jahzir Bruno) and how he first came in contact with witches. In 1968, Charlie’s parents die in a car accident and he goes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in Alabama. While at the store a strange woman with a green snake offers him a piece of candy, but they are interrupted by Charlie’s grandmother. This encounter scares Charlie and that night he confesses to her what happened. She then informs him what he saw was actually a witch and tells Charlie how her childhood best friend was turned into a chicken by one. In an attempt to get away from the witch for a while, Charlie and his now ill grandmother go stay at a fancy hotel where a family member works. The next day Charlie goes off alone to train his pet mouse (Kristin Chenoweth) as his grandmother rests, and he ends up in a ballroom set up for a meeting. When a group of ladies arrives to start their conference they reveal themselves to be witches. The meeting is presided over by the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) as she explains her plan to get rid of all the world’s children by turning them into mice. Drawing Charlie and his grandmother into a fight with the witches they had been trying to escape from in the first place. In this blog post I will look at how the change in setting and character background for the adaptation works in the story. 

When people think about what makes a good film adaptation, there is a belief that they shouldn’t change too many aspects of the original story or it will lose the essence of the story itself. In some ways I do agree with this, but in the case of how characters look and even their backstories I tend to be more open to those as they often change a story the least amount. In the case of The Witches (2020), the changes made enhance the story for me, which might seem surprising to some if you read my Sleepy Hollow blog post as one of my criticisms of it was how they changed the main character’s job. For people that are familiar with Roald Dahl’s writing, it is apparent there isn’t a great amount of diversity when it comes to race as many of the main characters from his children stories are white and raised in England. This isn’t surprising given he was himself a white English man writing in the late 1900’s. Dahl’s book The Witches follows an unnamed 7-year-old English boy as he loses his parents in a car accident, goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother, and stays with her in a hotel where he is turned into a mouse by witches. All of which happens in the 2020 film except for the fact that instead of the story being set in England it is moved to the Southern United States and the main character and his grandmother go from being White to Black. Nothing about the characters’ personalities outwardly changes when it comes to how they react to the events of the story for the most part. But it does add a new dimension to the story that wasn’t already there, since the change in race does intrinsically present a new set of characteristics which mixes with the originals.                                       

The change in race and background means the characters live in a time when, only a few years before, Segregation was legal and there was still blatant racism. These things are never explicitly acknowledged in the film, but certain key moments show this discrimination if the audience knows what to look for. One of these moments is when his grandmother tells Charlie how witches only go after people who are poor or not seen as that important by society, so either no one will miss them or the people who do won’t have the resources to get the help they would need. This statement subtly references the racism that could affect how police might not actually help a Black family if their child went missing; though the statement also includes orphans or other neglected children, which is something the audience is introduced to with the character Daisy. Another of these moments happens when Charlie and his grandmother first arrive at the fancy hotel; when they pull up a Black valet comes up and asks the grandmother if she needs help with anything, but instead of it being an employee simply asking if a patron could use assistance with their luggage he is clearly confused by another person of color pulling up like a White patron would. When she tells him she needs help with her bags as she is staying at the hotel, he is so pleasantly surprised that when she tries to tip him he refuses to take her money. The rest of the hotel staff also appears to be made up of mostly people of color except for the manager and a few chefs, while all the customers except Charlie and his grandmother appear to be White. It gives the pair a sense of otherness from everyone else in the hotel, isolating them. This leads to the pair of them being even easier targets for the Grand High Witch as they attempt to stop her after Charlie and his two new friends, Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) and Daisy (Chenoweth), have been turned into mice by her.       

For the most part, Zemeckis’s 2020 film does a very good job at keeping with not only the events of Dahl’s children’s novel but also, in my opinion, manages to enhance the story. Nothing is remarkably different about the story itself, and it keeps every plot point presented in the book to some extent. Some less necessary parts are shortened and others, like the final confrontation with the witches and Grand High Witch, are lengthened to add more action to the movie. Even the slightly cheesy dialogue suited more toward the younger target audience is reminiscent of the original text. The Witches is one of the few movie adaptations that I’ve seen in the last few years that follows the plot so closely and manages to keep the essence of the author’s work. I never found myself wondering if or when a certain moment was going to happen as the time for it had come but the scene was missing. The movie itself made me chuckle a few times, but overall it was a run-of-the-mill children’s movie so I’m clearly not the target audience. That being said, as an adaptation I was pleasantly surprised because the trailer seemed like it would deviate more from Dahl’s story. If you’re looking to watch a family movie perfect for spooky season that is light on the scares, The Witches (2020) is a great choice. For my next blog post I will be heading back into adult territory with the 2021 American psychological thriller directed by Joe Wright, The Woman in the Window, based on the 2018 novel of the same name by pseudonymous author A. J. Finn. 

-Jo Spangler, Blogger.


Jo Spangler — Film Blogger: Jo Spangler graduated Summa Cum Laude from Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with minors in Creative Writing and Film Studies. They currently work as a Customer Services Associate at the Naperville Public Library and at Barnes & Noble as a Bookseller. In their free time, Jo enjoys reading, listening to music, and taking walks with their dog, Dublin. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, they plan to become a children’s librarian. 


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