The Witches

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
The Witches
First edition cover
Written by: Roald Dahl
Central Theme:
Synopsis: A kid on vacation with his grandma discovers a convention of witches that plan on experminate children and is transformed into a mice by them.
Genre(s): Dark fantasy
First published: 1983
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"For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now. Or she might be the woman with the bright eyes who sat opposite you on the bus this morning. She might be the lady with the dazzling smile who offered you a sweet from a white paper bag in the street before lunch. She might even -- and this will make you jump -- she might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don't let that put you off. It could be part of her cleverness. I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one. It is most unlikely. But -- and here comes the big "but" -- it is not impossible." [1]

A 1983 Roald Dahl book, The Witches was made into a 1990 film starring Anjelica Huston and another film in 2020 directed by Robert Zemeckis starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Chris Rock.

The book starts with a introductory chapter on the subject of Witches written in third person, but switches to first-person for the rest of the story as the tale is taken up by an unnamed boy (called Luke in the 1990 film). He tells the story of how, after the death of his parents he moves in with his Norwegian Grandmother who was once a great Witch hunter, she regales him with tales of Witches and their victims and how to tell the difference between a human woman and a Witch. They then are sent, on Doctor's orders, a British seaside holiday, as his Grandmother is too ill to return to Norway (in the 2020 film, the boy and his grandma are Race Lifted into Afro-Americans, and the action is moved to 1968 Alabama).

It is at a seaside hotel that Luke is trapped at the annual British Witch meeting and meets the hideous (but disguised) Grand High Witch. It is at this meeting he and another boy (Bruno Jenkins) are turned into talking mice. After escaping and returning to his Grandmother they hatch a plan to kill all the Witches in England and the Grand High Witch. With great courage, he manages to spike the soup the Witches are eating (having posed as the phony child protection agency the RSPCC, and getting special treatment from the Hotel) with their own mouse potion which leads to them being killed (in the form of mice, obviously) by the Hotel Staff.

Afterwards, Luke and his grandmother find and steal a magical device that allowed the witches to print unlimited currency, the recipe to the mouse potion, and a possible lead to the locations of every known witch, granting them a powerful weapon to use against them.

The endings of the book and the films are drastically different due to Bowdlerisation.

The 1990 film has your typical happy kids movie ending: A Witch who had been forced to stay upstairs during the "RSPCC" dinner and thus escaped the massacre and who the film had hinted was dissatisfied with her life does a Heel Face Turn and turns Luke back into a boy, who reminds her to change Bruno back, too. She also seems to become more human, getting real hair and normal fingers. And is even played by Jane Horrocks, who is universally nice.

The book has an altogether more melancholy ending: The boy asks his Grandmother how long mice live, she tells him only about three years but that she guesstimates he being a magical mouse might have about nine. He accepts this with astounding dignity for a seven-year-old and says he wouldn't want to outlive his Grandmother anyway. The two then decide to spend the rest of their time hunting and killing witches. It's also speculated that Bruno Jenkins' parents may decide to kill him, by drowning him in a bucket no less. The 2020 film follows more closely the book, but with the difference that they took Bruno with them for their witch-hunting spree, along with another kid transformed into mice named Mary.

The Witches, in a case of Our Monsters Are Different, are a specific species of demon and aren't human at all. They seemingly exist to hate children, and plan to destroy all the children in England (and the world) in one fell swoop. They don't particularly kill adults... but if one dies anyway? "Vell then too bad for ze grown-up."

They have certain "tells" which a person can use if they are eagle-eyed and perceptive to spy a Witch:

  • All Witches are female.
  • All Witches are bald, but wear wigs in public, and develop wig rash from the coarse underside of their wigs.
  • All Witches have huge cat-like claws which they hide with gloves.
  • All Witches have squared-off feet without toes; they squeeze their feet into pumps and high heels to conceal this, even though it causes them great discomfort. (In the 1990 movie, they eschew this measure and simply wear regular old shoes, in the 2020 film they use "sensible shoes".)
  • All Witches have blue saliva. If a woman has a faint bluish tint to her teeth, she may be a Witch.
  • All Witches have strange colour-changing pupils. If you get a chance to look at them long enough, you may see fire and ice dance in the center. (In the movies, they simply have a faint purple tinge to their eyes, which can still be spotted if one looks closely enough.)
  • All Witches have very large, fluted nostrils and a highly developed sense of smell in order to sniff out children. Children smell like dog's droppings to them; if you don't wash very often, you can block the smell. This smell fades when you get older -- presumably during puberty.

There had been announced plans for Guillermo Del Toro to make a stop-motion remake, presumably (given Del Toro's other work -- remember Pan's Labyrinth?) with the book's more bittersweet ending intact. When the Zemeckis film was announced with Del Toro being one of the producers and writers, it is unknown if this vision will be ever made.

Tropes used in The Witches include:
  • Exclusively Evil: The Witches
  • Bowdlerised: See above. Apparently, Dahl hated the ending of the 1990 film and stood outside cinemas with a megaphone, telling people not to see the movie. He was in his seventies at the time so he must have really hated it. Especially when you consider that he died later the same year, so he was probably ill at the time. He loved that Anjelica Huston was the Grand High Witch, though.
    • It's generally accepted in hindsight that you could never have gotten the original ending onto theater screens, which has slightly improved the film's standing.
    • Of course his daughter is reported to have loved Del Toro's script for the new movie, so there's that.
  • Antagonist Title
  • Author Avatar: Possibly the nameless protagonist, given that he shares Dahl's Norwegian ancestry and love for the country. Or it might just be Write Who You Know.
  • Baleful Polymorph: The main character and Bruno are turned into mice.
    • In the book, the Grandmother tells the boy about a child who a witch turned into a porpoise. He did seem to enjoy his new form and gave his family rides in the water while they were on vacation, but they never saw him again after they went home...
      • The Grandmother also tells stories about children who get turned into fleas, slugs, hot dogs, pheasants, and (in one case) a chicken.
  • Bad Boss: The Grand High Witch
  • Bald of Evil: The witches
  • Bald Women: The witches
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Witches
  • Bittersweet Ending: Book only.
  • Bizarre Witch Biology: Seriously, you'd have to wonder what exactly makes these female... things tick.
  • Child-Hater: As usual, Roald Dahl applies his favorite trope to the villains.
  • Cool Old Lady: the grandmother is an awesome and wise former Witch Hunter who smokes cigars.
  • Cultural Translation: (1990Movie) While the movie still takes place in Norway and the United Kingdom, and Luke's grandmother, Helga, is still Norwegian, Luke becomes American. This raises the question: Why did his parents want him brought up in England (in the book, it's implied that the boy is of Anglo-Norwegian descent)? Also at the end of the book, the boy and his grandmother plan to kill off the next Grand High Witch in Norway and use the information at her castle to track down all the Witches in the world. In the movie, Luke gets an address book with the names and addresses of all the Witches in the United States.
    • The 2020 Movie retranslates the story to a mid-to-late 1960s American context, and transforms the child and his grandmother into Afro-Americans.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: The witches are a rare evil example -- justified because of the shape of their feet.
  • Evil Matriarch: The Grand High Witch of All The World
  • Fate Worse Than Death: The witches are fond of inflicting these on unsuspecting children.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: That one witch who got "fried" by the Grand High Witch's Eye Beams.
    • Not to mention the woman who gets turned into a mouse and is stepped on by one of the other witches.
  • Fix Fic - the ending of the 1990 film, according to some people, is an example of this, with witch secretary "fixing" the boys' predicament contrary to the ending of the book and Dahl's own wishes, judging by his reaction.
  • Heel Face Turn: Movie only, the last surviving witch in England inexplicably turns good at the end, and reverses (at least) Luke's mouse transformation.
  • Funetik Aksent: It's not said where the Grand High Witch is from but it is implied she's from Norway. She replaces her Ts with Zs and Ws with Vs. It doesn't in any way resemble a Norwegian accent, which is recognizable by more pronounced Rs and replacing Zs with Ss. Her accent resembles German more than anything else.
  • Goodness Equals Beauty: When the surviving witch makes the decision to turn good by changing Luke back, her hands lose their knobby knuckles and claws and become pretty.
  • Hoist By Their Own Petard: The witches are all transformed into mice by the very potion that they hoped to use on children. And if there is a fictional group more deserving of their Just Desserts than this one, this troper has yet to hear of it.
  • Kick the Dog: The incineration scene, which happened because the Grand High Witch took lethal exception to one poor witch's reservations about getting rid of all of the children. Bad Boss indeed.
  • Latex Perfection: This is how the Grand High Witch disguises her true form.
  • Magic Pants: Completely averted in the 1990 film. They even showed Luke naked when he gets turned back to human form.
    • On the other hand, when the witches transform, they leave behind clothes, but don't seem to leave behind the wigs and masks they wear to appear human.
  • The Napoleon: In the book the Grand High Witch is described as being shorter than the other witches, even the frail old ones.
  • Nice Mice: The little boy gets a pair of mice from his grandmother as a present.
  • No Name Given: In the book the protagonist is nameless and his Grandmother is just Grandma.
    • Named by the Adaptation: In the 1990 movie the boy and his grandma are named Luke and Helga; in the 2020 film they are Charlie and Agatha, and both gain a last name, Hansen.
  • Noodle Incident: We never learn why Grandma is missing a thumb.
  • Oh Crap: When the little boy realizes that he is hidden in the back of a room with every single witch in Britain.
  • One-Gender Race: Witches are all women; Dahl mentions other all-male monster races in the book (ghouls, barghests) but says none of the races are as evil as Witches. However, in The BFG, another race -- Giants, all-male -- make children, in particular, their victims.
    • At least the Giants don't subject children to a Fate Worse Than Death. Or trick their own parents into killing them. Or eating them.
  • Our Monsters Are Different: With the Witches, see above.
  • Parental Abandonment
  • Phantom Zone Picture: A Witch traps a girl, Solveg, in one. Also counts as Weeping Angel Artwork, as the painting ages when no one is looking.
    • Or even noticed.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The first witch the narrator meets tries to give him a snake as a present.
  • Signature Style: Features most of Dahl's standards: Adults Are Useless, parents seem to have only casual affection at best for their children, a child main character who borders on Purity Sue, and a tendency towards only mild surprise at incredible sights.
  • Solar-Powered Magnifying Glass: Using a magnifying glass to kill ants is listed as one Bruno's misdeeds.
  • Taken for Granite: It happened to a boy named Harald.
  • Transformation Trauma
  • Trilling R and Vampire Vords: The Grand High Witch, supposedly a Norwegian-derived accent.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Grand High Witch of All The World is thought by most humans to be a kind woman who gives lots of money to charity
  • Witch Species
  • You Have Failed Me...: At every annual meeting of the witches, the Grand High Witch makes a point of subjecting one witch to "getting fried" (being incinerated with eye beams) so that the rest stay on their nonexistent toes. Since we're never told how more witches come about, it's amazing any are left.
  1. Unless, of course, your teacher's a man. But that never happens.