Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the latest adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel “The Witches,” currently streaming on HBO Max, including a discussion of the ending. For less spoiler-y content, consider this review and our feature on updating Dahl’s story for contemporary audiences.
When the original film adaptation of “The Witches” premiered in 1990, author Roald Dahl was famously unhappy with the changes to his novel’s ending. The film, produced by Jim Henson and directed by Nicolas Roeg, altered the conclusion of the 1983 children’s book, which leaves the hero boy stuck as a mouse after his transformation by the Grand High Witch.
In Roeg’s version, he becomes human again, reversing Dahl’s notably dark ending. Robert Zemeckis’ new adaptation, released last week on HBO Max, makes several key changes to the story and setting, but maintains the core plot of Dahl’s work, including the hero’s fate.
“I was happy that [the ending] stayed true to the book,” says Octavia Spencer, who plays the film’s feisty Grandma. “Life doesn’t always turn out with a happy ending, but you have to deal with the cards that you’re dealt. I loved that things weren’t wrapped up with a pretty bow.”
Zemeckis adapted “The Witches” with co-writer Kenya Barris, based on a script by Guillermo del Toro. The most prominent narrative revision is the climactic scene at the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel. After boy-turned-mouse (played by Jahzir Bruno) successfully dumps the witches’ potion into their soup, transforming them into mice themselves, he and Grandma have an action-packed showdown with the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) in her hotel suite.
Joined by his fellow child/mice Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) and Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth), the hero boy urges Grandma to sneak into the suite — room 666 — and steal the large case of green potion. As they navigate around a minefield of cheese-filled mouse traps on the floor, the Grand High Witch enters the room and threatens them. It’s a scene that doesn’t exist in the novel — the Grand High Witch is transformed in the dining room along with all the other witches in the book. Here it adds a big heroic moment for the kids and Grandma.
“That came from my moviemaking story sense,” Zemeckis says. “It was a beat that a movie needs so that both the grandma and our hero mice have their big showdown with the Grand High Witch. I think it makes [Grandma] a rounded character. The young boy describes her in the beginning of the movie that she’ll give you a big, old hug or a spanking if you needed one. She’s a strong, opinionated Southern American woman who isn’t going be run over by a witch. It was important to see her character do what she needed to do.”
“I thought it was amazing,” Spencer adds of the scene. “Grandma knew how to combat witches and wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her grandson. Grandma is a superhero in my eyes.”
The scene pairs live-action moments with Grandma and the Grand High Witch, and animated moments with the mice. It was a challenge for the filmmakers, as well as for Spencer, who had to learn to act opposite nothing when filming the scenes with the mice.
“One of the things Bob impressed upon me was that he really wanted those moments to feel real,” Spencer explains. “As I was learning the scenes I would do them out loud and do the lines opposite a doorknob or the salt shaker. When I was having breakfast in my [hotel] room, I would do the lines opposite the cute little cup they brought the boiled eggs in. It looked like a little person and that’s what I imagined as I was doing the scene. I would talk to the boiled eggs that would not talk back.
“So when it was time to shoot it it didn’t feel as if I were speaking to objects or people or mice that weren’t there. It felt organic. And the [mice] actors were on the set in their own tent with these cameras on their heads and I heard them through microphones.”
While the action climax doesn’t exist in the novel, all of the changes were done with the approval of the late Dahl’s estate, led by his grandson Luke Kelly. The Roald Dahl Story Co. OKd the addition of the showdown as long as the actual ending wasn’t altered.
“They’re very hands-on,” Zemeckis notes of the estate. “They want to see everything as it goes forward. And when I say everything I don’t mean every single word or anything like that. But they read every draft of the script and they signed on to the initial concept. They were watching all the way through. They were adamant about — and I didn’t want to anyway — not changing the end of the movie.”
The director only knew about the drama of the 1990 film from what he’d read online, but as a storyteller he can see how it might have made sense to filmmakers to give the story a happy ending.
“I can understand why that happened,” Zemeckis notes. “Everyone thinks conventionally that’s what’s going to happen in the story. That’s a convention, and, of course, that’s what doesn’t make it a Dahl story. By changing the ending it doesn’t make it that kind of thing that Roald Dahl does.”
He adds, “I think the first movie took a lot more license with the story. This version of the movie is closer to the actual book. Some people will compare it, but that’s not the point. There are certain stories that can very easily be reenvisioned as movies in a very improved way as we get new ways to make them and we get another generation of actors who can play the parts. You can keep taking a story that’s pretty timeless and reenvisioning it.”
As someone who grew up loving Dahl’s books, Spencer was delighted to meet Dahl’s family when they came to the set. The estate even gifted the actors with a chapter of the novel that didn’t make the published version.
“It was a really sweet gesture,” the actress says. “Roald Dahl did an amazing job in creating this world. In all of his books the worlds are so unique and you have to suspend your belief or push your imagination bigger than life. For me, being a part of something I found so thrilling and exhilarating as a kid was exciting. In this world of magic and this world of witches your imagination runs wild. Here, I am bringing that to the big screen.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.