Is There Any Magic in Robert Zemeckis’ Remake of The Witches?

Dept. of Potions and Plots


The Witches, the latest adaptation of a beloved Roald Dahl book, arrives on HBO Go this Friday. Iain checks out this latest take on a childhood favorite.

Adapting a Roald Dahl book to film is a tricky proposition. Like a lot of children’s literature, Dahl’s work is full of horrible grownups and resourceful children, but there’s an off kilter, dark, weirdness permeating most of his books in one form or another. It’s this ineffable quality that makes them stand out from the crowd, but is also the very element that’s hardest to translate to the silver screen.

Arguably the most successful adaptations take Dahl’s work as a jumping off point, before adding their own brand of cinematic oddness.


1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Gene Wilder’s performance, is so deeply etched into the pop culture landscape that it’s almost impossible to gauge its effectiveness as an adaptation.

Matilda captured the sheer awfulness of grown-ups through the genius casting of Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, and of course Pam Ferris’ nightmarish Miss Trunchbull, and pitched them against a fabulous Mara Wilson.  

Henry Selick’s James and The Giant Peach filtered the weirdness through the lens of beautiful stop motion animation, while Wes Anderson’s take on The Fantastic Mr. Fox was less of an adaptation and more of a framework upon which Anderson could hang his usual obsessions (whip smart dialogue, odd family dynamics, non sequiturs galore and, of course, Bill Murray).

Spielberg’s The BFG, on the other hand, captured some of imagination of the books in its visuals, but failed to build on what made them special. The less said about Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the better.

So where does this leave Robert Zemeckis’ remake of The Witches?

Something New?

Things get off to a promising start as Zemeckis adds his own spin by centering the story on on an African American family in the late 60s, rather than the English/Norwegian family of the previous versions.

Octavia Spencer still manages to come across as the perfect Grandma to Jahzir Bruno’s unnamed protagonist, “the kind that wouldn’t hesitate to give a spanking if you deserve it, or a big ole hug if you needed it.” He goes to live with her after the death of his parents in a car accident (there’s that darkness again) and the relationship between the two is a highlight of the film. Just wait until she puts on the record player.

After attracting the attention of a local witch, the new family calls in a few favours to hide out at a hotel where there’s “nothing but rich white folk,” and witches only prey on the poor. Unfortunately for them, it’s also the same location for a convention of witches.

Despite the change in location, cast, and the presence of Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro as producers (with Del Toro also taking a screenplay credit), this is very much a faithful adaptation of the book. Perhaps too faithful.


Readers of the book, or those who enjoyed Nicholas Roeg’s 90’s version, with Anjelica Huston’s devilish performance, will find very little new here.

Once they arrive at the hotel, the plot unspools somewhat pedestrianly, apart from the addition of a new child character. There’s no real thrill or danger to the the CGI adventures of the hero and his new friends. Stanley Tucci is wasted in a tiny role as the hotel’s manager, which leaves the question of how Anne Hathaway will take on the role of the grand high witch as the only thing to look forward to.


Despite some unnecessary CGI to give the witches super wide mouths, for the most, part she’s worth it. Hathaway is a blast, flitting from decorous to demonic, with a Eurotrash meets Scandinavian screech, as she presents her pitch to her coven of witches. Distractingly though, Zemekis decides to put her on wires for some moments, which only tends to detract from her performance.

Does she top Anjelica Huston’s take on the role? Not quite, but her heavily accented question of “Vat?” at times of crisis, comes close.

It was only while writing this review that I discovered Dahl hated the happy ending of Roeg’s version with Jim Henson.  

Roald Dahl was incensed that Roeg had changed his original ending in the script. As a gesture of conciliation, Roeg offered to film two versions before he made his final choice: … Upon watching the scene loyal to his book, Dahl was so moved that he was brought to tears.

However, Roeg decided to go with the changed ending.

Louis Jordan, “Summer of ‘90: Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches” at

This version keeps some aspects of that original ending while also betraying its spirit, removing some of its most distressing aspects (mice only live so long). This also accounts for the presence of Chris Rock’s narration.

A Wider Stage?

In the past year we’ve watched plenty of films intended for the big screen from the comfort of our own laptops, and while many survived the transition unscathed, perhaps this version of The Witches may have fared slightly better on the big screen. The adventures of the children as they combat the witches’ evil plan might have been slightly more thrilling on the big screen, but I doubt that would have changed my overall feelings on the film too much.

As it stands there’s little new here for fans of the book or the previous film, apart from the performances of Hathaway, Spencer, and Jahzir Bruno. It may hold some excitement for kids, along with the amusement at the flatulence gags, but some horrifying transformation scenes might also scare them off. Hardly a bold new adaptation that fits with the best of Zemeckis’ back catalogue.

The Witches arrives on HBO Go on January 29th.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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