Reviewed by: Ashlie B.
Originally Posted: 11.12.12
Book or Movie first:
I’m not quite sure. I want to say the book, but then again it could have been the movie. I do remember that the first time I saw the movie was at a Boys and Girls Club.
What we got into:
A young boy of nine ends up in the care of his Grandmamma after his parents are killed in a motor accident. While mourning their loss Grandmamma starts to tell her grandson all about witches. Not the made up ones of fairytales, but REAL witches. Listening carefully to his Grandmamma, he absorbs the information that saves his life once. However, his second encounter is less then successful when he is turned into a mouse. Though many would be devastated to find their grandchild a mouse, Grandmamma is quick to accept the circumstance. The two of them devise a plan to use the witches’ magic against them and turn them into mice, stopping the witches from doing it to all the children of England. However, England is not the end of witches, wherever there are children there are real witches all over the world. Grandmamma and her grandson embark on a journey to hunt them all down.
A look at the Book:
Roald Dahl takes on the task of creating a world of real witches. In the beginning chapters the reader learns about Grandmamma’s experience with witches. Well, her experience with other children’s experiences with witches. We learn of the girl who was cast into a painting, where she could be seen day-to-day doing a different task on the farm setting and aging as the years went on. A little boy who was turned into a statue and used to hold umbrellas in the home of his family. We learn all the subtle signs of a witch: they always wear gloves, to hide their curved claws; they wear wigs to hid their bald heads; they have no toes; they have large pink nose holes, the better to smell with; their irises dance with color, flame, and ice; and lastly their spit is blue. The rest of the book centers around grandson’s encounters with witches, and him and his grandmother working to up heave their dastardly plans.
The book is a very fast read and it is hard not to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the prose that maybe, just maybe, is a little too deep for a children’s book. But there is a poetry that fills the page even if aimed at a juvenile audience. (If you haven’t read the book, then just wait till you get to “Line from the book:”) Another win for the book are the illustrations by Quentin Blake, who does most of the illustration work for Dahl. His sketchy little illustrations give just enough detail, but leave plenty of room to be reminded that this is, after all, just a story.
The story is mostly solid, but really shouldn’t be thought about to hard. Witches exist, they are always women, they hate children because they smell like dog droppings, and their purpose is to wipe kids out of existence. Witches are clever about their disposal of children, though, for they never get caught.
Several problems arise with this very basic history of witches. First, where do witches come from? Are they born? We can’t assume that they live forever because the book claims that the “ancient ones” are seventy years or older. Seventy would hardly be ancient if they live forever. If they are born, are they born of Muggle (to borrow from Rowling) parents or does a witch get knocked up by a wizard, or whatever the male equivalent is in the universe? If so, that would imply that at some point they too were children, and how their witch mothers hadn’t bished, sqvished, or bashed them is a small miracle.
Second, part of their being so clever and never being caught resides in the fact that most witches only dispense with a single child a week, which is still a frightfully high number of children disappearing. However, the grand scheme in the book is to basically wipe them all out at once. The plan is that all the witches are to buy sweet shops, load their sweets with the Delayed Action Mouse Maker Formula, and give them away free of charge. Depending on what time the alarm clock is set (the most important ingredient of the formula) all the imbibers will be turned into mice at the same time. All sorts of things are wrong with this plan, and had I been a witch I hope I would have had the brains enough to talk back and get fried, but possibly get my comrades to agree that this was a horrible idea.
First, it will look quite suspicious if all of a sudden, worldwide, children are becoming mice, especially mice that can talk. I don’t think it would take too long to realize the culprit of such shenanigans stem from the sweet shops. Now maybe, the owners wouldn’t be blamed, maybe it would be the candy makers, or the supplier of sugar, but it wouldn’t be too long (I’m thinking days, maybe weeks) before the candy shops would be out of business. So maybe this isn’t awful, for the witches, the population of the world’s children has exponentially dropped, but there will still be variables. Infants don’t eat candy, if their parents have half a brain anyway. What about any children that are sick? Or have allergies? Or are on a diet?
Second, children aren’t the only ones that eat candy and can be lured by a grand opening and promising of free sweets. Granted this might weed out a considerable bunch of adults that many do not like, you know whom I’m talking about, but there would also be a lot of up standing citizens that would also become victims. When questioned about an adult eating the sweets, the Grand High Witch simply states, “That’s just too bad for the grrrown-up.” (109)
If the witches’ plan were to come to fruition, it would functionally change the dominant species of the Earth. What would witches do with their time if all the population became mice? What fun would they have when the novel clearly suggests that witches live to bish, sqvish, and bash children? It’s a damn good thing that Grandmamma and her grandson foil the witches’ “great” plan because humanity would have been devastated.
A line from the Book:
Down vith children! Do them in!
Boil their bones and fry their skin!
Bish them, sqvish them, bash them, mash them!
Brrreak them, shake them, slash them, smash them!
Offer chocs vith magic powder!
Say ‘Eat up!’ then say it louder.
Crrram them full of sticky eats,
Send them home still guzzling sveets.
And in the morning little fools
Go marching off to separate schools.
A girl feels sick and goes all pale.
She yells, ‘Hey look! I’ve grrrown a tail!’
A boy who’s standing next to her
Screams, ‘Help! I think I’m grrrowing fur!’
Another shouts, ‘Vee look like frrreaks!
There’s viskers growing on our cheeks!’
A boy who vos extremely tall
Cries out. ‘Vot’s wrong? I’m grrrowing small!’
Four tiny legs begin to sprrrout
From everbody rrround about.
Ans all at vunce, all in a trrrice,
There are no children! Only MICE!
In every school is mice galore
All rrrunning rrround the school-rrroom floor!
And all the poor demented teacher
Is yelling, ‘Hey, who are these crrreatures?’
They stand upon the desks and shout,
‘Get out, you filthy mice! Get out!
Vill someone fetch some mouse-trrraps, please!
And don’t forget to bring the cheese!’
Now mouse-trrraps come and every trrrap
Goes snippy-snip and snappy-snap.
The mouse-trrraps have a powerful spring,
The springs go crack and snap and ping!
Is lovely noise for us to hear!
Is music to a vitch’s ear!
Dead mice is every place arrround,
Piled two feet deep upon the grrround,
Vith teachers searching left and rrright,
But not a single child in sight!
The teachers cry, ‘Vot’s going on?
Oh where have all the children gone?
Is half-past nine and as a rrrule
They’re never late as this for school!’
Poor teachers don’t know vot to do.
Some sit and rrread, and just a few
Amuse themselves throughout the day
By sveeping all the mice away.
AND ALL US VITCHES SHOUT HOORAY!
A look at the Movie (1990):
What is there to say about the movie…well… my guess, along with Jonathan B’s, is that the phrase, “It’s just a kid’s movie,” had to be repeated often on set, but even that is a bit hard to believe. On a positive note, we finally get names for the protagonists, Luke and Mrs. (last name here).
Angelica Houston plays The Grand High Witch, and the only role I think she’s hotter in is as Morticia Addams. And that’s just it. This is a kid’s movie. Sex appeal, especially from the villain, is not necessary. At no point should the target audience have to endure her subtle gyrations on stage. Even further, not only do the men fawn over her in the hotel, which she seems obviously disgusted by, but also so do all the witches, which she happens to lavish in. Interesting messages all around, and from a kid’s movie.
There’s also more to argue against the great cunning of these witches. Luke has just been caught spying on them, and somehow, in a room of eighty women, he is spry enough to get past the lot of them and run away. Like a practical little boy he goes straight to grandma, but she is passed out and can’t be roused. Soon, he finds himself cornered by the Grand High Witch. Instead of running to another adult for help, possibly one of the males in the hotel, he runs all over the grounds with the witches chasing after him. Along the chase, the Grand High Witch comes across a mother on bench with her baby next to her in a pram. After a few gootchygoo faces at the baby, the Grand High Witch shoves the pram down the hill. I assumed that she was just being a witch in that moment, taking out one more child. Jonathan B. postulated that she was doing it in hopes to get Luke out of hiding. Either one is a horrible assumption.
If she was just being horrible, how did the mother not take notice of the woman standing next to her and shoving the pram down the hill? Furthermore, why didn’t she show her appreciation to the boy for saving her child, or at least notice that the bombardment of woman around her weren’t showing signs of joy that her child was saved but trying to gang up on the boy. If the Grand High Witch was trying to lure out Luke, how did she know where he was, and why would she assume that he would sacrifice his own neck to save the baby?
During this scene there is a “lovely” montage of the witches dancing on ocean cliffs, cheering on the baby’s assumed immanent death, and God knows what else of just awkward shots, that seem to be just filling in time. It seemed like a short music video with no music, not to mention any talent.
Maybe, I should look away from the story the film tells and start reviewing its technical accomplishments. The lighting, sound, set, direction, editing, but all in all those elements help tell the story, and the story is told rather badly. Not only are things “off” with the witches but the various human characters too. Rowan Atkinson plays the hotel manager and he is having an affair with one of the maids. Again, a kid’s movie, is this necessary? To the point though, the maid in question is a bit daft and she screams… a lot. I’ve never understood the effect of having a woman scream at the sight of a mouse. Sure, it is dramatic, but a bit more realistic would be a quick “Eek!” and then jumping onto the furniture so the mouse can’t scurry up her leg. This woman goes into hysterics like she just saw a mutilated baby. But I guess she gets hers: while turning down the bed of the Grand High Witch, she stumbles across a small bottle. Assuming it is perfume, she dabs a little on herself. Later as Atkinson comes in for a snog, he notices that she has grown patches of fur on her neck just under her ears, and turns away disgusted and uninterested.
Most readers will know Rowan Atkinson from his role as Mr. Bean. If this is the case, then I’m sure you are aware of his lack of all sex appeal. Some of you may recognize him from Black Adder, where he had the same appeal as Mr. Bean in the first season. As the series continued, it was clear the man was acting and is totally someone you could bed. If you haven’t seen Black Adder, remember way back to the movie Love Actually, he has a very minor role amongst the all-star cast, but he is a classy looking man. Now, find yourself in between Mr. Bean, and classy Rowan Atkinson and you have his character in The Witches. Not unattractive, but hopefully there is personality to go with it. Then again, we are still watching a kid’s movie, and if all I have to comment on is the sexual relationship and attractiveness of the characters, something horribly wrong has happened with the story telling skills.
Movie compared to the Book:
At the end of the day it is the same story. Boy ends up in grandma’s care because parents die. She tells him about witches, and how to avoid them. He comes into contact after all and gets turned to a mouse. Mouse grandson and grandma save the day and then plot to rid the world of witches just as the witches had plotted to rid the world of children.
However, the same story is told differently, bear with me as I try to catch all the anomalies, and in chronological order.
As already pointed out, the book does not give our protagonists names. This is odd, simply because referring to them as Grandma and Grandson is awkward. This is something I’m most grateful to the movie for. Luke is not the only little boy in the story, there is also Bruno Jenkins, but it seems odd to try and talk about a conversation between the two only referring to Luke as Grandson.
Come the summer holiday, Grandma wanted to take Luke back to Norway, where she was born and intended to die. However, she got sick and was told to take it easy, that a holiday at the seaside would be much more appropriate. In the book, Grandma got pneumonia. In the movie, she is struck with a slight case of diabetes. Now I may be wrong about this but I thought diabetes was something that once you had it you were stuck with it. Also, while it means a dietary change and possibly some medication, it wouldn’t prevent you from traveling… and only back home for that matter. It seems like such a silly detail to change, when it was a perfectly coherent one to begin with.
At one point in her long life Grandma came across a witch of her very own. Though she survived, one of her thumbs didn’t. In the book, Grandma won’t talk about her own harrowing experience; movie Grandma is completely un-phased when Luke asks her about it. I like book Grandma’s reaction better. It sets the tone of seriousness and makes you feel more like she survived a horrible experience, and though she has learned from it, would rather not drudge up the memory. Movie Grandma makes it sound like no big deal, like losing your thumb to a witch – one that wanted to bish, sqvish or bash her – was the equivalent of the scar on your knee from falling off a bike.
As we know from the book, and snippets from the movie witches have some very unique and subtle characteristics. The characteristic between the two are mostly the same, just went about them differently. According to the book, the witches wore gloves to hide their claws, but if you notice the make-up in the movie, they had scaly hands that they were hiding under those gloves. In both sources they have no toes, but book Grandma points out that they still slip into thin, pointed shoes, though it was uncomfortable, because that was the woman’s fashion. Movie Grandma insists they only wear plane, comfortable shoes. The movie does little to address the large pink nose holes and their blue spit, which is a shame because there were plenty of close ups that could have focused in on these subtle details. Lastly there are the eyes. Just the irises were meant to dance with color/flame/ice, the entire eye of the movie witches glowed purple, and not very discreetly either.
In both the book and the movie, the Grand High Witch wears a mask. With the help of the illustrations of the book, you picture her mostly faceless… well… maybe more skinless, and noseless, or maybe she had really horrible skin. The Grand High Witch of movie turns into this large, skeletal, hairy, moley, long nosed creature, all by just taking off her mask. At no point, during either story is it conveyed that part of their powers is to hide more in less space. How much more interesting would it have been to keep the witch, with a recognizable human form, instead of equating them to beasts… but oh well I guess. Apparently something that doesn’t exist is much more horrifying than what does.
Formula 86: Delayed Action Mouse Maker. Book formula was a potion to be brewed by all the witches on their own, accept the ancient ones. As mentioned before, the alarm clock was the most important ingredient; whatever time it was set to is when the children, or whoever was unfortunate enough to digest it, would turn into a mouse. It meant they could make their chocolate sweets with one time, and taffy sweets with another, but it would keep all the victims turning into mice far away from the sweet shops that did it to them. Movie formula, went into action two hours later, unless more than one dose was taken, and then it would go into effect immediately. Here’s the thing: if I, a grown up, went to the grand opening of a sweet shop, where they were offering free sweets, I wouldn’t stop at one, especially if they offered truffles (more specifically, pomegranate truffles), and I would be turning into a mouse right in their stores, scaring away any and all customers. Now, let’s think about children, who have even less self-control. I’m not going to spell out any further how awful of a plan this is.
In the book, when Luke is found spying on the witches he is caught right away and turned into a mouse. The movie drags this out. I’m not sure why. They only ended up with five minutes of boring insanity. Honestly, the only way to have made it better, without getting rid if the scene completely, would have been to play Yakety Sax during the charade, it was comical in a place where the was no room for comedy.
The book ends with Grandma, and Luke, who is a mouse, planning to hunt down all the witches of the world, feeding them their own potion and turning them all into mice. The movie ends with the same grand plan, BUT an apparently “good” witch comes out-of-the-blue and turns Luke back into a little boy. Where the hell did this even come from? Once again, I deferred to Jonathan B. who theorized that Hollywood thought Luke being a mouse was too sad of an ending for a children’s movie, and gave it a quick fix. For starters, this does not follow the diegesis of the world. There are no good witches to make this happen, so it can’t happen, tough shit if you want a happier ending. If this was your ending you should have done a better job rewriting the story so that this action wouldn’t have been pulled out of someone’s ass. Second, no one was sad about Luke being a mouse. I mean sure it was disconcerting, but even he was happy, he didn’t have to go to school anymore. Lastly, this fucks up their plans at trying to rid the world of witches: they will smell Luke coming blocks away, their plan hinged on him being a tiny little mouse that could sneak through the cracks in the walls. So good job movie for screwing over the ending.
Sorry for the belligerence, but people have a way of screwing up the most basic things.
And the winner is:
Really, I shouldn’t even need to bother with this. Clearly the book is better. True, it has some flaws, but you are too busy reading to really pay them any attention, and compared to the horrible interpretation of the movie, the book is perfect. When I watch a movie that was adapted from a book, I get that it won’t be the same, that things will have to be left out or woven together differently. But to change details just because you can while completely neglecting what the original story is so that the story you actually tell and the story you are trying to tell make no sense by their own rules, is a waste of everyone’s time.