Literature / The Witches

"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." note 

A 1983 Roald Dahl book, which was made into a 1990 film starring Anjelica Huston, directed by Nicholas Roeg and produced by Jim Henson, the last film he produced; it was also the last screen version of a Dahl work made while the author was alive (the film was released shortly after Henson's death and shortly before Dahl's) and the final theatrical feature made by Lorimar (although the company continued in television for a few more years before being absorbed into Warner Bros.).

The book starts with a introductory chapter on the subject of Witches written in third person (presumably narrated by Dahl himself), 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 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.

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 (said to be a modified money press), 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 film are drastically different due to Bowdlerisation.

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 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. (There are other demonic creatures who are always male, but this book isn't about them.)
  • 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 movie, they eschew this measure and simply wear regular old 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 movie, 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 have 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.

Provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: In the book, all the victims of "Formula 86" are described to turn into brown mice, but in the film, when Luke and Bruno are turned into mice, their fur stays their original hair color (blonde and dark brown respectively), probably as a means for the viewer to be able to tell the two apart better. And when the witches become victims of the potion themselves in the climax of the movie, they all turn into mice with black-and-white fur. All of them except the Grand High Witch, who turns into what appears to be a hairless rat.
  • Aerith and Bob: Book vs. movie. In the book, the grandmother's childhood friend was named Solveg, which is not a name used often in English speaking countries. In the movie, the same friend was renamed Erica, which is a much more common name and more familiar to English speakers, while still being Scandinavian.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Witches. Subverted in the movie where one does a Heel–Face Turn.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • In the beginning of the book, when the grandmother is telling Luke stories that she's heard about children abducted by witches, one of the stories is about a girl that appeared in a painting in her home. According to the grandmother, the painting changed constantly, from the girl being in the farmhouse to feeding ducks in the lake. She even grew up in the painting. And it's implied that she also died in the painting. The fact that her position in the painting changed means that the girl was probably conscious throughout her lifetime in it.
    • There's also the boy who was turned to stone. His parents used him as a hat rack.
    • And the three toads at the Grand High Witch's hotel room, implied to be cursed children, too. They are fed to seagulls.
  • Antagonist Title
  • Author Avatar: Possibly the nameless protagonist, given that he shares Dahl's Norwegian ancestry and love for the country (then again, this could just be a classic case of Write Who You Know).
  • Authority Equals Ass Kicking: The Grand High Witch incinerates a witch who dares to question her orders.
  • Author Tract: Doahl hated children's homes that were actually abusive. Hence the witches posing as a children's charity.
  • 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, she kills so many witches that speak up for the smallest argument, making you wonder why that there are any left.
    • In the movie, she mistreats Miss Irvine, her assistant, throughout her service. The final straw comes when she refuses to let Irvine attend the RSPCC dinner, causing her to quit. Ironically, this enables Irvine to be the only witch to escape the mouse massacre.
  • Bald of Evil: The witches
  • Bald Women: The witches, again.
  • Big Bad: The Grand High Witch.
  • Big Eater: Bruno Jenkins, who is described as always eating something. Even as a mouse, he's always more interested in whatever food is present.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Witches typically disguise themselves so that they can trick children into their clutches,
  • Bittersweet Ending: Book only. The main protagonist must remain a mouse for the rest of his life, since there is no cure for the Grand High Witch's potion. The protagonist's grandmother predicts that, since he is a magical-enhanced mouse-person, his lifespan may be longer than that of an ordinary mouse—perhaps as long as nine years. However, they are comforted that this means they have roughly the same amount of time to live, meaning that they will never be without each other.
  • Bizarre Witch Biology: Seriously, you'd have to wonder what exactly makes these female... things tick.
  • Black Humor: One of the stories of the protagonist's grandmother tells him involves a boy who was turned to stone. His parents subsequently use him as an umbrella stand.
  • Body Horror: Bruno's transformation and the Grand High Witch's face in both book and film, arguably worse in the latter, as it seems that both the nose and chin were forcibly shoved in order to get the mask to fit.
  • Bowdlerised: See above. Apparently, Dahl hated the ending of the 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. And his daughter is reported to have loved DelToro's script for the new movie, so there's that.
    • The UK version, in order to keep the movie to a PG rating, edited the film to remove two scenes: one that was Nausea Fuel (the Grand High Witch removing her wig and revealing a bloody scalp) and one that was Nightmare Fuel (Bruno writhing around on the ground in pain as he turns into a mouse).
  • Canon Foreigner: Miss Irvine, the Grand High Witch's assistant.
  • Child Hater: As usual, Roald Dahl applies his favorite trope to the villains. And they're an EXTREME example.
    • And as usual for a Dahl book, the majority of adults come off this way to at least a mild degree (see: the examples of parents who just sort of go "oh well" when the witches do horrible things to their offspring).
    • The Witches don't really care about adults, either. They just don't actively seek to kill them.
  • Composite Character: In the book Grandmamma tells five stories about different children who were attacked by witches. The movie combines them all into her friend Erica.
  • Cool Old Lady: The grandmother is an awesome and wise former Witch Hunter who smokes cigars.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: After one witch exclaims her astonishment at how big the Grand High Witch's plan is, she burns her alive with her eye beams...and threatens to do the same with her other followers.
  • Cross-Cast Role: Many of the background witches at the 'RSPCC' meeting are played by bald male actors.
  • Cultural Translation: (Movie) 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.
  • Darker and Edgier: Even with the tacked-on happy ending, the film is quite brutal and scary, especially for young kids. This is something else Dahl had a problem with, worried that it could seriously screw kids up.
  • Death by Irony: The Grand High Witch and the British witches, child-haters extraordinaire, meet their end at the hands (paws?) of a child they turned into a mouse.
    • Of course, the Witches' plot of children being turned into mice and then being killed by adults is what they planned for children, not them.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The witches' plan, when you really think about it, has some glaring flaws in it. What about kids who can't eat chocolate or other candy because of health reasons? Or assuming the kids transform right in front of their parents or teachers, do you really think they would still kill them? And the fact that the kid-mice would still be able to talk. Furthermore, right now most adults most likely don't believe in witches, but a grand plan like this would no doubt expose their existance to the general public, and it wouldn't be very difficult for the police to see a pattern and figure out what was causing the transformations. And even if the witches did manage to pull it off, the adults would just give birth to more children. Simply put, the Grand High Witch's plan would only be a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The only way that witches would ever be free of children would be to wipe out the whole human race.
    • At least the flaw that kid-mice can still think and talk like humans is pointed out in the book by Luke, who tells his grandmother that no child turned into a mouse would ever be so stupid as to fall for a mousetrap, thus ruining that part of the Grand Witch plan.
    • Likewise, the transformation formula is actually a timed release, and is to be set to go off at a time when children are on their way to school (and thus out of parental supervision one way or another). The only reason the transformations we see are immediate is because (and it's mentioned) the massive overdose overpowers the time delay.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: The witches are a rare evil example — justified because of the shape of their feet.
  • The Dreaded: The Grand High Witch is feared by all. Even the other witches are terrified of her.
  • Evil Matriarch: The Grand High Witch of All The World.
  • Eye Beams: The Grand High Witch has this power, which she uses to disintegrate (or, as the witches put it, "fry") people. She makes a point of frying at least one witch during every Annual Meeting, to make sure the others don't slack off.
  • Fat Bastard: Bruno is the requisite mean gluttonous child found so often in Dahl's works. He's not nearly as bad as the Witches themselves, but he does seem to enjoy frying ants with magnifying glasses. This aspect of his personality is toned down considerably in the film, thus making what the witches do to him all the more horrifying.
  • 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 witch who gets turned into a mouse and is stepped on by the Grand High Witch herself.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The witches. Especially in the way they lure and catch children.
  • Femme Fatalons: The witches.
  • Fisheye Lens: The witches, in closeup, when from a child POV.
  • Final Solution: The Grand High Witch plots the genocide of the children in England.
  • Fix Fic: The film could been seen as a controversial example, given that Dahl himself was upset at the writers inserting a character who, at the end found the boys and turned them back from mice to humans, going against the explicit ending of the book.
  • For the Evulz: We don't know much why all the witches want to kill all children outside the fact that they smell like dog droppings.
  • Furry Confusion: Addressed. Child-mice can talk. Real mice cannot, as Luke finds out when he encounters his pet mice as a mouse himself.
  • Generic Doomsday Villain: The Witches themselves, as noted in the above Did Not Think This Through example. So they succeed in turning all the children in England into mice. Then what? There's still billions of children all over the world, and the parents in England will still keep having children. Pretty much the only reason they want to kill all children is because...they smell like dog droppings. That's it.
  • 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.
    • Her dissatisfaction with her life as a witch was hinted at throughout the movie, but still it changed the message entirely, as Roald Dahl's outburst showed
  • Humanoid Abomination: Oh yes.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: There are Witch hunters in the world, who seek to root out and destroy witches wherever they find them, and Luke's grandmother in her younger years was one of the very best.
  • 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.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Ms Irvine who pulls off a Heel–Face Turn wears a blonde wig.
  • Hoist By Their Own Petard: The witches are all transformed into mice by the very potion that they hoped to use on children, especially the Grand High Witch
  • Invincible Villain: In-universe, the hero's grandmother sees the witches this way, mainly due to their leader. Fortunately, they are not, as the Grand High Witch kills them regularly, which makes one wonder why are any left, and especially when they fall for their scheme
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: The Grand High Witch releases the hero after she polymorphs him. Justified in that the hotel staff are mortally afraid of mice.
  • Kaleidoscope Eyes: The strange color-changing eyes of the Witches.
  • Karmic Death: The Grand High Witch is turned into a mouse and is then killed by the hotel staff, something she intended for all adults to do to their children.
  • Karma Houdini: According to the narrator, witches never get caught because they use magic to cover their tracks, so they can get away with killing children in disturbing ways by the books' end, it looks like they'll all get what's coming to them, via mouse transformation soup
  • 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. Justified in that it's rather implied that her mask is magical.
  • Magic Pants:
    • Oddly inverted in the book, as the mouse formula causes the clothes of its victim to disappear early on in the transformation.
    • Completely averted in the 1990 film. They even showed Luke naked when he gets turned back to human form.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Ms Irvine's motivation behind her Heel–Face Turn in the movie.
  • Named by the Adaptation: See No Name Given below. Additionally the Grand High Witch is named Ms Eva Ernst, though it isn't said if this is her real name or just an alias she uses checking into the hotel.
  • The Napoleon: In the book the Grand High Witch is described as being shorter than the other witches, even the frail old ones.
  • Never Say "Die". ... Averted.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: If the Grand High Witch hadn't refused to let Ms Irvine attend the RSPCC dinner, Irvine would have been turned into a mouse along with the other witches and Luke would have remained a mouse forever. As it happens, Irvine is able to find him and restore him to human form, and also sends him the Grand High Witch's trunk of money and address book, so they can hunt down the witches of America.
  • Nice Mice: The little boy gets a pair of mice from his grandmother as a present. Basically Foreshadowing events to come.
  • No Name Given: (Book only) Luke and Helga only have names in the movie; in the book the protagonist is nameless and his Grandmother is just Grandma.
  • Noodle Incident: We never learn why Grandma is missing a thumb, though the book implies it involved Witches doing something horribly traumatic to her during her childhood.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Part in-universe, part meta-example: We never find out why Grandma is missing a thumb, only that it involved a witch: how else would she know so much about witches? Her grandson's speculation includes such lovely possibilities as having it pulled out "like a tooth" or stuck in the spout of a teakettle until it was "steamed away." With this kind of inspiration, the reader's imagination comes up with something far more terrifying than anything that could have been in the story.
    • The fact that the Grand High Witch doesn't reveal her hands and feet in the book, implying she's got even more to hide, and going by her her worm eaten face, it's probably even worse.
    • Averted as both are shown in the film, which makes her all the more monstrous.
  • Obviously Evil: Double subverted with the Grand High Witch. When we initially see her, she has a rather pleasant appearance...then she removes her mask.
  • 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.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're described more like succubus, only more hideous, with the casual mention of the all male ghouls race. The fact that they can't detect, let alone reverse the formula of their mouse changing soup proves that they aren't nearly as powerful as the narrator's grandmother makes them out to be
  • Our Monsters Are Different: With the Witches, see above.
  • Parental Abandonment: Luke's parents die by car crash.
  • Pet the Dog: Meta-example. Roald Dahl hated the movie due to the changed ending, but even he could not deny that Angelica Huston's portrayal of the Grand High Witch was flawless.
  • Phantom Zone Picture: A Witch traps a girl, Solveg, in one. Also counts as a Creepy Changing Painting, as the painting ages when no one is looking.
  • Police Are Useless: Notable subversion, when one witch states that she's going to poison the children that buy sweets from her candy store, the Grand High Witch berates her for her stupidity, telling her that it wouldn't take long for the authorities to catch onto them if she did so.
    • Though it probably wouldn't take long for the authorities to understand that the witches had been giving the children transforming sweets, either (see Didn't Think This Through)
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The first witch the narrator meets tries to give him a snake as a present.
  • Shapeshifting Excludes Clothing: In the movie adaptation, when someone is turned into a mouse, they leave their clothes behind. When this happens to Luke, the witches stomp on his clothes in an effort to kill him before he can escape.
    • Thoroughly averted in the book, where the clothes are explicitly said to disappear. After all, piles of clothing might lead to questions . . .
  • Shout-Out:
    Grandma: "You angel. You're bleeding."
    Luke: "A cook tried to cut off my tail with a carving knife."
  • Smug Snake: The Grand High Witch. She is powerful and rightly feared by her enemies and minions alike, but her plan to kill all the children in England is not a good plan at all (see Didn't Think This Through). Also, considering her supposed talent for potions and such, one would think that she would be careful enough to ensure that said potions wouldn't work on her.
  • Solar-Powered Magnifying Glass: Using a magnifying glass to kill ants is listed as one Bruno's misdeeds.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Witches usually kill children by feeding them potions that slowly give them a Fate Worse Than Death. Most examples of witch killings show a kid accepting a gift from a nice old lady. The lesson seems to be "Don't accept stuff from strangers, it might kill you".
    • Witches detect children by scent and dirt and grime covers up the smell. So don't shower or wash because witches will get you.
  • Taken for Granite: It happened to a boy named Harald.
  • Technically a Smile: The "smile" the Grand Witch offers Bruno's father in the film may as well be a growl and a promise of pain.
  • Toilet Humor: The witches hate children because, to them, children smell like dog droppings. This is more heavily emphasized in the book than in the film, with the witches shouting "Poo!" repeatedly during their meeting.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Bruno Jenkins is most certainly not a nice boy (let alone the narrator's friend) in the book.
  • Transformation Trauma: Bruno's transformation is downright horriflying and Grand High Witch turns into a mix of a reptile and rat before completely into a mouse
  • Trrrilling Rrrs and Vampire Vords: The Grand High Witch, supposedly a Norwegian-derived accent, but it comes across as remarkably German.
    • Possibly intentional. A charismatic person delivering gleeful rallying speeches (in a Germanic accent), to her minions about genocide... Does This Remind You of Anything?.
  • Unsatisfiable Customer: Bruno's father spends most of his screen time complaining about the hotel's amenities and berating the staff. It doesn't help that he's also a scary Scot.
  • Villain Ball: The Witches seem married to this. Between killing off a steadily dwindling speeches to killing kids in highly unusual and public ways, it's surprising that they're still alive.
  • 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. In truth, she's anything but.
  • Wicked Witch: For the most part, although they are quite different, as far as witches go.
  • Witch Species: In the book, they're specifically called, a group of all female demons.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Each witch makes it their personal hobby, to hex a child once every week. The Grand High Witch herself takes it to another level.
  • 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. (The main character himself wonders this.)