HBO’s “The Witches” fails to address controversial problems

Rachel Patz, Staff Writer

For fans of the British author Roald Dahl, HBO Max released a new film adaptation of his classic children’s book, “The Witches,” on Oct. 22.

Based upon the best-selling, but morally controversial novel, Robert Zemeckis’ 2020 version of this quintessential dark fantasy story boasts a sparkling cast and stunning visual effects, yet ultimately fails to portray the narrative in a coherent manner.

The film tells the story of a coven of diabolical, youngster-hating witches, scheming to turn all children into mice so they can be easily exterminated. Anne Hathaway plays the role of Grand High Witch with wicked finesse, managing to bring the perfect amount of scariness and sadism to the character and give the audience plenty of genuine goosebumps in the process.

How to watch 'The Witches' on HBO Max - Business Insider
Zemeckis’ 2020 version of this quintessential dark fantasy story boasts a sparkling cast and stunning visual effects (via HBO/Warner)

Octavia Spencer is equally brilliant in the role of Grandma, using her remarkable empathy as an actor to infuse her character with warmth and cleverness. Toeing the line between protective guardian and daring mentor, Spencer ushers a refreshing breath of humanity into the freakish world of Dahl’s imagination.

With the addition of Jahzir Bruno as protagonist Charlie and Chris Rock as the narrator, the cast is complete. Despite being a newcomer to Hollywood, Bruno plays the two-part role of action hero and voice actor admirably, while Rock catapults the film’s overall performance rating to glittering new heights. Despite the star power, the film feels a bit disjointed.

The discrepancy creeps in when Zemeckis attempts to combine a recognition of modern societal wrongs with Dahl’s intrinsically British storytelling skills. Zemeckis’s poignant portrayal of modern-day issues and the more conceptual world of English compositions are adrift from one another, creating a film that feels closer to an assimilation of random Dahl fragments than a lucid narrative.

The film completely fails to address the apparent vices of the original text’s author, and instead glorifies Dahl through the hero worship present throughout the film.”

One of the most notable problems is the setting. Rather than beginning in Norway and moving to the UK, the protagonist hails from a run-down town in Alabama and ends up in a luxurious coastal hotel, where echoes of post-Jim Crow racial tension are still heard.

A Roald Dahl adaptation would seemingly be the perfect place to address this highly pertinent topic, especially as Dahl himself was well-known for his pronounced bigotry. However, the film completely fails to address the apparent vices of the original text’s author, and instead glorifies Dahl through the hero worship present throughout the film.

The old misogynistic and antisemetic undertones of the source material are still present in this new adaptation, despite the readily available opportunity to rewrite that narrative.

The latest rendering manages to transform these problems into new ones. The witches are evil, but astute, and casting the protagonist as an African American sheds a different light upon the tale. Despite its talented creators, the script fails to successfully merge pertinent conversations regarding race with Dahl’s impressionistic world and disturbing storytelling.

The film’s overarching narrative voice, filming locations, and the darker, more complicated ending — which was excluded from the 1990 film — feels extraordinarily relevant in the current moment. While the cast gives an outrageously good performance, they are hindered by the clumsy rendering of a movie they cannot call their own.