Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a spooky tale of a boy’s encounter with a coven of child-hunters. It was first adapted for the screen in 1990 by Nicholas Roeg, a film that became a cult classic but angered Dahl so much that he threatened to start a campaign against it.
A new film adaptation premiered on HBO Max in 2020, directed by Robert Zemeckis of Back to the Future fame and designed to introduce a whole new generation of children to Dahl’s darkly comedic tale. While a good chunk of the book’s original plot was kept the same in adapting it for HBO Max, several important things were changed as well.
10 Changed: The Setting
The original book is set in England; the boy lives in Kent before his parents die, and the hotel, while fictitious, is placed in the seaside town of Bournemouth. The boy’s grandmother is Norwegian and lives in Oslo.
In the HBO Max adaptation, the boy lives in Chicago, then moves in with his grandmother in the rural town of Demopolis, Alabama. The luxury resort they flee to is located on the Gulf of Mexico.
9 The Same: The Boy’s Parents
The boy’s parents aren’t given a significant amount of time in any version of the story, but in both the book version and Zemeckis’ version, we learn that they died in a car crash while the boy was sitting in the backseat (in the 1990 version, he’s at home when it happens).
In a twist reminiscent of Dahl’s several macabre morality plays, the boy’s life is saved because he was wearing a seatbelt.
8 Changed: The Characters
As the location was changed in service of the film’s story, the depictions of several of the characters were changed as well. While the book’s protagonists aren’t named, being referred to simply as “the boy” and “the grandmother”, the movie versions of these characters are named Charlie and Agatha, respectively.
The new version also adds a side character: Charlie’s pet mouse (played by Kristin Chenoweth), who he names Daisy, and who turns out to actually be a girl named Mary ― a previous victim of the witches.
7 The Same: The Snake
One of the most unsettling scenes in The Witches (both the book and the two film versions) happens when the boy runs into a witch for the first time: she tries to lure him in with, of all things, a snake ― a reptile commonly associated with malevolent evil.
In the book, he’s sitting in his treehouse when this happens, while in the movie, he’s in a supermarket. Both times, he’s saved by the arrival of his grandmother.
6 Changed: Grandma’s Stories
In the book, the boy learns about witches from his Grandmother’s stories long before he actually encounters one, while in the movie, Agatha only tells him about the witches and their history afterward.
Another difference is that the book features several stories about children tricked by witches, while the 2020 film only includes one: Agatha’s account of her childhood friend being turned into a chicken.
5 The Same: The Grand High Witch’s Plan
The Grand High Witch’s master plan to get rid of children permanently is simple, and it’s almost exactly the same in every version of the story: The witches supply candy stores with sweets and chocolate laced with a potion that turns kids into mice.
From there, they simply have to wait for the mice to be killed by unwitting exterminators.
4 Changed: Depiction Of The Witches
Several ways to “spot a witch” are related in the book, some of which are held to in the 2020 movie — the witches don’t have toes, so they wear special shoes; they don’t have hair, so they wear wigs. But differences still abound, particularly with the depiction of the Grand High Witch, who is mentioned in the book as being four feet tall but is clearly significantly taller in the movie.
In the book, she wears a human-face mask that she removes to reveal a monstrous visage underneath; in the movie, the only facial difference between witches and humans is an elongated mouth that the witches disguise with makeup. In the book, witches have claws instead of fingernails; in the movie, they do as well, but they also have three long fingers on each hand (which, whether maliciously-intended or not, is a disappointing aside to those who have similar limb differences in real life).
3 The Same: The Soup
In both versions of the story, the boy, his grandmother, and their rodent companions plan to turn the entire coven of witches into mice by mixing the Grand High Witches’ potion into the hotel’s split pea soup.
In the original book, this plan succeeds in turning all of the witches into mice. In Zemeckis’ version…
2 Changed: The Ending
The Grand High Witch avoids the soup, but in the ensuing confrontation the mice still manage to get her to drink the potion and, after being turned into a mouse, she gets eaten by her own cat.
Another element of the book’s ending that was changed for the movie is that Bruno, rather than being returned to his neglectful parents, decides to stay with Agatha, Charlie, and Daisy and assist them in hunting down witches across the globe.
1 The Same: The Boy Stays A Mouse
While the ending of Zemeckis’ The Witches is much different from Dahl’s book, one thing is kept the same: the boy stays a mouse, meaning he has a much shorter lifespan (when the film’s post-credits scene takes place, he’s already elderly). This ending, as dark as it sounds, is very much on par with the rest of Dahl’s work.
It’s also the very reason Dahl despised the previous adaptation of The Witches ― in that version, the boy is turned back into a human. Roeg apparently filmed a version that featured the book’s original ending (which made Dahl cry tears of joy) but then refused to include it in the final cut.