Notes on The Witches (film, 1990)

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I don’t remember ever reading this particular Dahl, though I have a curious and contrasting strong memory of the cover (yellow, the Quintin Blake witch in black), and of looking at it in the closet where we kept my books—so did I? Could I have owned it and not read it? Or entirely forgotten it? That seems so unlikely. Perhaps I’m back-imagining this.

I loved James and the Giant Peach and was particularly and predictably way into Matilda when I was young. Both titles were probably quite formative for me. I don’t think my elementary school library had that many of Dahl’s books. I suspect I must have looked hard, but my book choices were always limited as a child by things like that. The libraries I had access to were, looking back, often fairly scrappy. I’m not sure anyone in my family would have known there were other Dahl titles to buy me if I’d wanted them, given Dahl’s lesser American reputation (it’s notable thatthe American trailer for The Witches doesn’t even mention Dahl) and my family’s general lack of interest in books (bar, of course, my grandmother). I couldn’t yet use the internet to determine how to find out whether more books by a given person existed, because the internet didn’t work like that at the time.

Aishwarya Subramanian makes a good point that the alchemy of forgetting that has made Dahl a national treasure and a Writer of Children’s Classics has done much to obscure his personal unpleasantness, and the value judgments and cruelty she draws attention to as persistent elements of his work aren’t absent in this adaptation. (Is there much work on the different directions people went out of Dickens? Because Dahl is as much an inheritor of one aspect of his work as Pratchett, Peake, DWJ, and Rowling are other, contrasting aspects. Except Dickens’ violence was slapstick and Dahl’s… isn’t. Dahl is the baby!Webster to Dickens’ Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love. ‘I LIKE IT WHEN THE MICE SCREAM!’ ‘Oooookay, kiddo.’ *)  I had been told before I watched it that this would be traumatising, that it was a classic and that Angelica Huston was epic herein. Yes. All the actresses playing the witches seem to have the time of their lives writhing about being gloriously, viscerally unpleasant, and it is a fucking treat to watch. Great physical acting. One particularly raptorish specimen just goes to town. I’d just watched the first Addams Family film for the first time two days or so before, and am quite impressed with her. Obviously. It’s Angelica fucking Huston.

The start of the film has a certain sedateness, and the pacing lags a bit in the middle, but I’m not too bothered. The protagonist’s sort-of-friend Bruno’s a little Brexit voter, but I’m glad his parents learn to accept and love their gaymouse son. The bittersweet ending (which I know to not be the book’s) is the biggest issue. In the book our protagonist is turned into a mouse, and will live out the rest of his short life (mouse lifespans are a bitch) in this form, cared for by his loving grandmother. In the film the head witch’s assistant, the sole survivor of the massacre of witches the protagonist orchestrated, completely improbably goes to the good. She shows up to change the child back into a human, and even to do the same for wee UKIPer Bruno. This new ending isn’t in and of itself a problem (it is in fact what filmic traditions would lead us to anticipate), but it feels structurally weak and deflated, like the film itself doesn’t believe in this. The lamp shading is too late and too winkingly obvious. It does feel very ‘made for Americans’, changed to suit expectations, to flatter American filmmaking’s distaste for ambivalent endings (especially in children’s productions).

Odd that Dahl adapts rather well. (Dickens doesn’t, or at least people often do a terrible job with adapting him—though there are some good examples.) Matilda is a fairish film and the play is strong. James and the Giant Peachwas well-made. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps more famous as a film than as a book. The Witches is a recognized cult children’s classic. We’ll see how the recent BFG fares. Quintin Blake’s illustrations are definitely part of the reason why this is so. Even where the filmic visuals don’t directly draw from his, there’s something about his evocative, brisk linework that both creates striking images and suggests figures in motion.

* The relevant bit of Shakespeare in Love:

(Will is pacing restlessly up and down in front of the theatre, looking for Thomas Kent. The streetboy who wanted to play Ethel is sitting on a corner, mice are clambering about him.)

Will (affably): Better fortune, boy.

Streetboy (shrugging): I was in a play. They cut my head off in “Titus Andronicus”. When I write plays, they will be like “Titus”.

Will (flattered): You admire it?

Streetboy: I liked it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives.

Will: What is your name?

Streetboy: John Webster. (holding up a mouse on her tail) Here, kitty, kitty! (A cat comes nearer.) Plenty of blood, that’s the only writing!

Will (disgusted): I have to get back. (The mouse screams.)

(Will gives up waiting and returns to the theatre where the rehearsal is in full swing.)

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