When Warner Bros and HBO announced a remake of the 1990 film The Witches, they were met with one universal reaction: dread. Most people dreaded a beloved Roald Dahl story joining the pile of unnecessary adaptations that can never capture the magic of the original. I dreaded something else: another piece of subtle antisemitic rhetoric pervading the public eye.
It’s no secret that Roald Dahl — author of the dark children’s novel The Witches — was a raging antisemite, and his prejudice seeped into every page of that story. Emily Burack recently wrote extensively on this topic for Alma, but to sum it up, The Witches is about a group of rich, hook-nosed, wig-wearing, diasporic witches who gather in secret to plot the murder of all the world’s children. That’s not a great look for a man who hated Jewish people so much that he found a way to blame them for the Holocaust, claiming that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
When it comes to Dahl, I’ve always faced a moral dilemma about separating the art from the artist. Do his personal prejudices make it unethical to enjoy his work? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for certain: we cannot separate the context of his antisemitism from his stories and their legacies. Once you know about his bigotry, it becomes clear that The Witches, both the book and the 1990 film, are essentially pieces of antisemitic propaganda.
So, when I first heard about this remake, I instinctively didn’t want to support it. However, there was something that rubbed me the wrong away about the criticism the film was receiving, mainly that it softened the story too much, stripping it of its original terrifying appeal. There was certainly something uniquely haunting about the original movie, but we have to remember: that horror intentionally relied on antisemitic tropes.
So, then, is a less scary version of The Witches really such a bad thing?
The movie’s release was met with almost unanimously bad reviews; it’s currently sporting a 52% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an audience score of only 43%. After watching it myself, I found it pretty underwhelming, although I think this criticism is a bit harsher than what’s deserved.
It’s true that the remake isn’t nearly as chilling as the original, but I’m assuming that change in tone was an intentional choice by director Robert Zemeckis. Anne Hathaway’s performance as the Grand High Witch is so over-the-top comedic that it’s hard to believe the film was aiming for the same horror as the 1990 version. At the end of the day, the primary audience for The Witches is children, so I personally don’t see anything wrong with a lighter, more colorful and melodramatic tone.
However, as with any remake of a classic film, that overwhelming slew of criticism was inevitable. Almost any adaptation of an old movie will draw fans of the original out of the woodworks to curse everyone involved for ruining their beloved childhood film. In defense of the critics, there was definitely something unique about The Witches (1990). It pioneered a type of children’s horror, and for those who grew up on it and are still haunted by it today, it’s only natural to be angry at this watered-down version.
However, there’s a surprising silver lining here: This underwhelming remake has essentially removed all traces of the story’s antisemitism.
Zemeckis’ adaptation eliminates most of the Jewish-coding from the original portrayal of the witches. Hathaway’s Grand High Witch is no longer your typical dark-haired, sharp-featured villain, but now a beautiful blonde bombshell, and the rest of the witches are a diverse group of posh, elegant women. Their scariest traits are the gloves they use to hide their claws and the scars extending from the ends of their mouths, which open up to give them sinister grins. They still wear wigs to cover their bald heads, but when the Grand High Witch removes her disguise, she doesn’t tear away her face to reveal a secret layer of scaly skin and a frightening hooked nose. She still has her pretty face, with the addition of the creepy extended smile and sharp pointed teeth. All in all, the witches’ characteristics no longer strike me as typical elements of an antisemitic Jewish stereotype.
If you watch this remake with an objective eye, you’ll likely find a mediocre kids movie with some great actors, but if you’re a die-hard fan of the original, it won’t be your cup of tea. The good news is that the children watching this remake aren’t being spoon-fed Roald Dahl’s antisemitism.
It’s unlikely that Dahl’s work will ever fade from the world of film and literature, and I don’t necessarily think it should, but we still have to grapple with acknowledging his bigotry and the effect it had on his stories. For me, this departure of The Witches from its antisemitic source material made it easier to stomach the consumption of his work.
Here’s the thing about Roald Dahl: He had a terrifying imagination and a talent for writing unforgettable stories. The impact of his words is fascinating; the Dahl books I read as a child still send shivers down my spine. The 1990 version of The Witches captured that element of his work, and the 2020 adaptation simply did not, which is why the film’s mediocrity is so insulting to his fans.
However, we have to keep in mind that Dahl didn’t always use that talent for good. The Witches — again, riddled with subliminal antisemitism — was meant to leave lingering traces of fear with its audience. This remake, on the other hand, seems to have impacted absolutely no one, meaning it has effectively failed to perpetrate Dahl’s prejudices.
For fans of the story, it’s definitely disappointing that The Witches (2020) isn’t as haunting or memorable as the original, but for the Jewish community, maybe an underwhelming adaptation that fails to instill a fear of hooked-nosed, world-controlling witches is actually a victory. And hey, at least Roald Dahl would have hated it.
Header image from The Witches (2020)