The Witches is just one in a long line of iconic stories by famed children's author Roald Dahl to be turned into a film, not just once, but multiple times over. There's the perennially popular Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Big Friendly Giant, and of course Matilda, amongst many others.
There's no question that these stories are cemented in the British consciousness as a point of national pride, and to deny that is just foolish. In most cases, the stories are beautiful and triumphant (who isn't moved by Matilda's plight?).
The themes are often about the 'little guy' overcoming an antagonist and in The Witches it's writ large and clearly: children (who are turned into mice) vs all-powerful witches. Unfortunately, The Witches doesn't just feature supernatural baddies – the whole story is founded on deeply antisemitic tropes.
Robert Zemeckis' adaptation does attempt to reframe the narrative, chiefly by making the triumphant young hero Black, played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno. He moves in with his loving grandma (Octavia Spencer) in a rural Alabama town, and the two soon encounter deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches.
They flee to a seaside resort, but things only go from bad to worse once they arrive and Hero Boy has to stop the witches from carrying out their nefarious plan.
What is said nefarious plan? To turn the world's children into mice and murder them.
The witches are filthy rich, part of a secret, global community that hides in plain sight, controlling the world and waiting to murder your children! Ring the antisemitic klaxon, because The Witches has won the prize.
The witches' plan is fundamentally rooted in a very old and hateful antisemitic trope: the blood libel. This claims that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood, either for ritual reasons, or as part of the recipe for matzoh (unleavened bread), amongst other reasons.
The first mention of this antisemitic canard in England is from 1144, though it existed long before then and continues to persist. It's a particularly problematic conspiracy and feeds directly into the scapegoating of Jews worldwide for any and all ills that befall a community, from murdered children to economic collapse.
That the witches gather annually to discuss their diabolical plans is also a problem in itself. The idea that Jews work in secret to control and alter the state of the world is as antisemitic as the blood libel, though often harder to spot.
In the movie, Grandma tells Hero Boy that witches can be spotted by their raspy voices, deformed feet without toes, clawed hands, wide mouths and nostrils, and wigs. (Dahl added they have larger noses than an ordinary person and their spit is blue.)
While Robert Zemeckis sort of eschews the 'big nose' trope from his film, the wearing of wigs is still a problem. In some of the more traditional Jewish communities, women wear wigs as a sign of respect and modesty.
Of course, many people wear wigs, but coupled with the rest of the story, it becomes clear that the use of wigs as a signifier of Witchery is only part of a larger antisemitic theme throughout The Witches. Another one is wealth.
Towards the end of the film, there's a scene in which Grandma steals a suitcase full of cash that the Grand High Witch has been hiding in her hotel room. The novel describes the witches as "simply rolling in money" and having a machine that prints banknotes for their own use.
In the film, money is clearly not an issue. The Grand Witch is flush with cash to set up candy stores to trick children into eating the candy to turn them into mice that the witches can then kill.
A naif might chalk this all up to coincidence, but there's one more little niggling issue: Roald Dahl was a fervent and proud racist and antisemite. The oompa loompas were originally described as a tribe of African Pygmies happy to be enslaved!
In 1983, Dahl said: "There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity... [Even] a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason." (via BBC.)
He also repeated the antisemitic belief that Jews control the media: "There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel." (via The Guardian.)
It's boggling, then, to think that these deeply held beliefs didn't infect Dahl's work (they did, obviously). To adapt his stories, there is an imperative to understand that these problems exist within them, and then work to undo them.
It's not impossible. Taika Waititi, a Polynesian Jew from New Zealand, is adapting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a "wholly original" take on the characters and given his propensity for poking fun at nazis, we imagine he'll do a good job. There are ways to tell these stories that undo Dahl's fundamentally antisemitic and racist views, but unfortunately, Zemeckis' version wasn't it.
The Witches is out now on HBO Max in the US and is available to rent in the UK from October 26.
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