Huston or Hathaway: Compare the Pair – The Witches
For Halloween this year, Two Drink Cinema watched the 2020 remake of the 1990 movie based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches. There are, as you would expect, some pretty key differences between the two movies and the book. Some of these differences work well. Some are obviously just the creative leanings of the different production teams.
As with all movies that are adapted from novels it’s a tough act to balance the expectations of people who loved the book while making a movie that is sufficiently entertaining in under 2 hours. Both the 1990 and the 2020 versions tread this line delicately. For the most part, the Robert Zemeckis recent release is truer to the source material than Nicolas Roeg’s attempt. What we’ve ended up with are two very different movies that follow the same basic plot and the same basic character arcs.
The first difference to note between the two movies is the tone. Roeg’s original captures the ‘creepy’ vibe of Dahl’s writing while it’s very clear that Zemeckis has made a Hollywood family movie. There’s not as much to scare kids in the new release, other than some tense chase sequences. The horror of the Grand High Witch changing from her human form to the grotesque prosthetic Anjelica Huston portrays so expertly in the original is replaced with a creepy smile and extendable arms on Anne Hathaway.
That’s not to say that Hathaway’s look isn’t creepy, but that image of Angelica Huston’s nose extended into that evil hook still stays with me from my first viewing all those years ago. Combined with the attitude of Huston’s Grand High Witch, an attitude of pure evil and malevolence makes for a truly frightening antagonist. Hathaway’s portrayal, while hitting the same notes of hatred for children and an eagerness to wipe them out, comes across with much less evil intent, perhaps as a symptom of the more family-friendly bent of the Hollywood production as opposed to the British original.
The biggest key difference between the two movies is the setting and the protagonist. The book and the 1990 movie feature an English-American boy (Jasen Fisher) and his Norwegian grandmother (Mai Zetterling). The hotel they visit is on the English seaside and the period isn’t clearly defined and could be any era. In 2020, in an effort to tick the diversity box, the boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) are people of colour and the setting is 1968 Alabama. I’m not sure you could get much different.
While it’s great to see the increase in representation on our screens in recent years and, in this case, a director who isn’t afraid of the audience’s potential cries of ‘but he’s white in the book!’ this change creates a flow-on effect which I think ultimately hurts the story. In order to maintain the hotel setting of the majority of the movie, they need to create a tenuous reason that the biggest, fanciest hotel in Alabama would accept these black guests in 1968 as well as a fairly stretched reason for them to choose that hotel in the first place. ‘The witches only hunt poor children’ isn’t part of the book, nor the 1990 film, but without this addition, it wouldn’t be very believable that Spencer’s character would think to choose this destination for their escape. The other issue with this racial change is how the grandmother is presented. She cooks fried chicken and cornbread and, unlike the witch hunter grandmother in the book and original film she is a voodoo priestess. While you can argue that the cuisine is typical of the setting of the movie, ‘she’s black and from the south’ seems to be the reasoning behind changing the vital link between the grandmother and the Grand High Witch. In the original book and movie, the fact that Grandma is a witch hunter means that when the witches arrive at the hotel there is immediate recognition between the Grand High Witch and Grandma. That isn’t present in the 2020 movie. It’s great to see a step away from source material to increase the representation of people of colour on our screens but we were left wondering whether or not this was a good representation.
But the 1990 version isn’t without its flaws. When we remove our ‘nostalgia goggles’ we can see just how bad an actor Fisher is as the boy Luke. Bruno, the boy Luke meets in the hotel, isn’t much better. The relationship between the hotel manager (Rowan Atkinson) and one of the maids is inappropriate in the context of the story but also unnecessary when you consider it has no bearing on the plot at all. The creepiness and evil of the story overall don’t match with the happy ending in which the Grand High Witch’s assistant realises the evil intent of the coven and ‘turns good’, reverting Luke back to his human form.
This is a major change within the 1990 film. Both the book and the 2020 version end with the main boy remaining in his mouse state as he plans his revenge against witches all over the world. Roeg and crew decided to end on a happier note, with viewers leaving thinking there’s still good in the world, even amongst The Witches.
Overall, the movies are both faithful enough to the book to be given a pass in that sense. It’s a harder pass to give to the Zemeckis version considering the flaws in the altered setting but the other elements bring it back to being close enough. The 1990 version is much more faithful with its tone but the ending is a long way from Dahl’s original.
Even without the rose-coloured glasses brought on by our repeated rewatching in our youth, we’re firmly in the 1990 Anjelica Huston camp on this one. The movie is more frightening, as a movie about witches should be, and the performance of the main witch in the 2020 release leaves much to be desired in that respect.