This episode we discussed the 1983 novel The Witches by Roald Dahl, and the 1990 film of the same name directed by Nicholas Roeg.
Many thanks again to Alex Ava for joining us for this episode! You can find hir on twitter at @AlabasterC and on instagram at ava.alex
Extra thanks also go to Maki Yamazaki who not only gave us a brilliant intro, but also a thumpingly good improved theme tune.
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is email@example.com. Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and their band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
The below transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
Ren: Hello Adam and hello Alex!
Alex Ava: Hello.
Ren: Great to have you back! Our last episode with Over the Garden Wall was really good, and I think quite well listened to.
Alex Ava: Oh dear.
Ren: No pressure, we just like having you here!
Adam: With all your many friends to listen!
Alex Ava: Uh oh. I did ask for feedback on twitter about whether I was awful and nobody responded! So they may have all listened and thought that I was terrible.
Adam: No, no, they were all lost for words about how informed and interesting you were. Definitely.
Ren: You were particularly interested in today’s topic, which is The Witches by Road Dahl?
Alex Ava: Yeah, it was just one of those things that I actually remember from being a kid, even if mostly I remember rather than it being horror, really wanting to be a mouse.
Adam: So it was a kind of aspirational text for you?
Alex Ava: I mean the book really sells it! It would be really lovely, and you’d have a lot of fun. You’re not going to live very long but you know, you get to sneak around and have contraptions built for you by your lovely grandmama.
Adam: I don’t think I got that far. I don’t think I got far enough to get to the ‘life’s great as a mouse’ bits. For me this was one of the cursed books of childhood. I couldn’t even sleep in the same room as it. I remember going round to stay at a parents’ friends house, and their kid had a copy, and I had to ask my dad to come and remove the book. I couldn’t even bear to handle it myself.
Adam: So I think I only read the first two chapters as a kid, but I do remember watching the film.
Ren: Yeah, I don’t think I read it as a kid. I think I had it read to me, but I don’t think I read it because the illustrations are so horrific that those would have been seared into my memory if I’d seen them as a kid.
Adam: It’s funny, because I really struggled with Quentin Blake’s illustration style as a kid. I think it was a slightly obsessive thing, but I found the prickly skritchyness and the sheer messiness of his style really off-putting. Now I really love them, and I love how expressive it is but as a kid I found it really upsetting. Not just The Witches, just his drawing style. The bristliness. The Twits as well, I found really upsetting.
Did you watch the film as a kid?
Ren: Yeah, I did. I saw it at a friend’s house and literally hid behind a sofa. It’s the only time I remember doing that. I remember the beginning of the film quite clearly, but after that I was hiding for quite significant portions.
Adam: Your memory is filled with the back of the sofa.
Ren: Yeah. What about you Alex?
Alex Ava: I’m pretty sure I watched it, but again my predominant memory is of the mouse contraptions around the house.
It’s weird, I was a very, very scared child but I didn’t read a lot of horror, and the horror that I read didn’t scare me that much.
I was always scared of really odd things. The book that I was terrified of was just the cover, I never read it, but I was very bothered by my brother’s copy of A Clockwork. Orange. Because the cover was this very simple, immaculate pastel vision of this person with a cog instead of an eye and a top hat. And that was horrific, I remember hiding that and running away from it.
But The Witches was just a romp. I remember feeling about Roald Dahl’s stuff that it was fantastical in that way that they see things from a kid’s perspective and even when they’re awful it’s just in a way like, ‘oh, the world’s awful, didn’t you know’.
Adam: That’s interesting, because if you look at the genre classification of the film on imdb it’s classified as a mystery/adventure film, and clearly’s that how you experienced it.
Alex Ava: I think that might be how I cope with things, just thinking of them as a jolly good romp.
Ren: I think it makes sense, Adam, that you bailed on the first couple of chapters of the book, as a kid, because I think the horror’s quite front-loaded. It really gets in with it straight away.
We start with the unnamed protagonist staying with his grandmother and she’s teaching him how to recognise witches. So the first couple of chapters are about how to recognise a witch, and then the grandmother’s horrible tales about things that have happened to children at the hands of witches.
Adam: Yeah, and it strikes up a very authoritative tone. Like how Blair Witch Project starts with a documentary style sequence, this is very insistent that it’s not a fairy tale, it’s about Real Witches.
‘Real witches wear ordinary clothes and look like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and work in ordinary jobs.’
It strikes me that the rhetoric around witches here is very similar to the rhetoric used sometimes quite crassly about psychopaths. Like, reading Jon Ronson’s The Psycopath Test, the experts on psychopaths really stress the idea that they look like you and me, but they’re not the same as you and me. Which I think is sometimes overstressed by people who don’t have clinical knowledge, but it struck me that the rhetoric around the witches in the book is very similar.
Alex Ava: I mean, it’s very abhorrent othering in lots of ways. Like, it’s not a pleasant thing if you in any way think of the people being described as people, rather than the embodiment of pure evil. Which gets away with being okay in this sort of situation, but also has an unpleasantness to it that I don’t know if we can get away from.
Adam: Yeah. I think the film redeems it somewhat, because apart from Angelica Huston’s portrayal of the Grand High Witch, the witches seem a lot more creaturely than humans. They’re kind of chittery, ratty little creatures. They never seem like they’re meant to be women, in the film, whereas it’s less the case in the book.
Alex Ava: It’s interesting though, but one of my problems with the film is that the potential for redemption it shows is one of the things that goes against that. It sticks with me a bit in terms of the black and white morality it presents, but also if one of them is capable of changing for no apparent reason, then is it really okay to go on a nine-year scheme that is intending to annihilate every single one of this group?
Adam: That’s a really good point, actually! We will get onto that later. But usually people will talk about redemption being inserted into a narrative as complicating the black and white morality but I can see what you’re saying.
Here, it’s potentially very problematic that it’s introduced, because the witches become a lot more humanised, and then you might start mapping out onto the real world. Certainly as a kid I do remember after having read the first few chapters, eyeing women on the street suspiciously.
But what are some of the tells of how we recognise a witch?
Ren: Yes. So for people who haven’t seen this or read the book in a while. The list of tells for the witches: They always wear gloves because they have thin curvy claws like a cat, rather than fingernails. They’re entirely bald, but they always wear wigs to cover up their baldness, and because of this they get a terrible rash on their heads, and are always scratching their heads. They have large nostrils for smelling children. If you look in their eyes the pupils change colour and dance about and have a curious coloured effect. They don’t have toes, and their spit is blue.
Alex Ava: And they use it as ink! Which is so convenient, can you imagine!
Adam: One of the many perks of being a witch. It did strike me that hopefully there’s been no-one who has undergone chemotherapy and then been accused by a young child of being a witch. It seems like it could have happened.
Alex Ava: There was a girl at my school who had a really severe skin condition on the back of her head, and I fully associated it with this. I never actually thought, ‘Oh she must be a witch’ but there was an association of horror to this bodily thing, and that’s really unpleasant to remember, and to realise that I fell into that othering trap, like ‘that person’s got something different about their head, they must be horrible in some way’.
Adam: Yeah, that’s the most troubling aspect of Roald Dahl’s writing in general. And I think there are books that are more generous. Matilda’s generally seen as a more generous book, maybe?
But he definitely likes playing on abjection and the villains being repulsive and repellent and this manifesting itself physically. Although I suppose this is complicated in something like The Twits, where it’s given this caveat that if you have beautiful thoughts and a sunny disposition then even if you’re not conventionally attractive you’ll still look nice.
Alex, do you have your book with you?
Alex Ava: Yes, I do.
Adam: Could you turn to page 4, Blake’s drawings of the two women and one of them’s a witch. So I’m going to say ‘3-2-1’ and we’re going to say ‘left’ or ‘right’, and see if we agree on the one that’s a witch. Okay. 3-2-1-
Adam and Alex Ava: Left!
Adam: Yesss. It’s the nostril!
Alex Ava: It’s the slightly weird nostril. They are really genuinely unpleasant, those nostrils. But what if someone’s just a heavy cocaine user and they’ve worn out their nostril a bit? There’s no reason to judge them and assume they’re a witch!
Ren: I think Dahl is somewhat careful about this in that he stresses that it’s all of these things that mean they’re a witch. Not just one thing. But obviously people, particularly kids will take that and decide that people are witches based on things they don’t have any control of.
So, apparently this book was banned from some libraries due to people thinking that it’s misogynist. I guess we’ve touched on that a bit, but I’m not quite sure what I think of that.
Alex Ava: I think it’s weirdly more misogynist when it’s talking about non-witches than when it’s talking about witches. There’s quite a few offhand, ‘of course all other women are lovely!’ and a slight patronising tone. There’s really strict gender lines about how people are meant to be, and that has nothing to do with the witches thing, that’s talking about people other than the witches, and that came up two or three times in a way that was just like ‘really??’.
Adam: Although the grandma is kind of an exception to that rule —
Alex Ava: Incredible stone butch grandma!
Adam: Who isn’t villainous like the Trunchball in Matilda, but is great. Is resourceful and loving, and hard and soft at the same time. So Dahl was clearly capable of writing fully-realised women.
Alex Ava: She is kind of brilliant. There’s this matter-of-fact love and abruptness to her that is really joyful. There’s so much affection between her and the narrator, and it’s wonderful.
Ren: It’s a shame their relationship didn’t come across quite so much in the film. I think that’s what complicated it is that the grandma is a really great character, but I think it’s maybe something about women who hate children being unnatural. As we get in Matilda as well, with the Trunchball.
Adam: What a hypocrite, that Roald Dahl, he hated children too!
Alex Ava: He obviously hated children! Like I just want to jump to the bit at the beginning. I would absolutely have adored reading a book to kids in a school setting and getting the line (about witches) ‘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’.
This book seems designed to upset and distress in most ways, and giving a teacher a chance to allude that they might be a witch is great, it’s really smart.
Ren: I think this book was read to my class by a school teacher, so I hope she enjoyed that.
Adam: Barbara Creed in her book The Monstrous Feminine, which famously analyses a lot of horror films, asserts that lots of horror is rooted in this idea of the feminine as abject, or the monstrous feminine.
So the Grand High Witch combines the figure of the witch with the figure of the archaic mother. But behind the feminine facade is death, basically, is rotting abjection.
Literally, in the film when Angelica Huston takes off this beautiful made-up mask, behind it she’s an abject rotting corpse. So I guess you could say that this is playing of fears around barrenness, perhaps. The bad women in the book are those who don’t like children, so I don’t know if horror is situated as women who aren’t motherly.
Ren: Yeah, I think there’s an aspect of that. It’s a trope, isn’t it. I watched half of Jurassic World before giving up in disgust, but in that film, there’s the career woman who doesn’t like kids and she gets like, mauled by a pterodactyl as punishment.
Alex Ava: It’s what happens!
Adam: The pterodacty is employed by the state, to further their patriarchal aims. Damn them, damn their beady eyes!
Alex Ava: Yeah, I mean it’s quite indirect, but then it’s about kidnapping children. Obviously a hatred of children is part of it, but it’s weird. When I was reading it you had those corny stranger danger videos —
(Clip of old stranger awareness video. Sound of cars in the background and BBC British voice: ‘It’s easy enough to know who’s good and who’s bad on the telly. People are not always what they seem to be in real life. You’ve never met any of these people, how do you if they’re good or bad? You can’t tell by looking at them, and that’s why you must say ‘No’ to strangers’.)
— at the same time as having this book that’s telling you there’s women who are going to turn you into mice, or dolphins, or paintings, or something.
And maybe this is just me being weird, but there’s a kind of positivity to the places that most of these kids are taken to. Like, this idea of being a mouse is just fun! It’s made to seem exciting, explicitly within about a page of the narrator being turned into a mouse he’s talking about how great it is, how exciting is, how fast he can move. There’s a few downsides, but mostly it’s great. And in the little stories at the beginning, the family gets to spend the whole day playing with their porpoise sibling before he disappears.
I don’t know, there’s so many weird messages going into there that I almost feel like it’s encouraging you to get caught by a witch because you’ll probably have a really exciting life.
Adam: Well, I don’t think it turned out so good for the girl who’s trapped in the painting.
‘There was a family called Christiansen. They lived up on Holmenkollen, and they had an old oil-painting in the living-room which they were very proud of. The painting showed some ducks in the yard outside a farmhouse. There were no people in the painting, just a flock of ducks on a grassy farmyard and the farmhouse in the background. It was a large painting and rather pretty.
Well, one day their daughter Solveg came home from school eating an apple. She said a nice lady had given it to her on the street. The next morning little Solveg was not in her bed. The parents searched everywhere but they couldn't find her.
Then all of a sudden her father shouted, "There she is! That's Solveg feeding the ducks!" He was pointing at the oil-painting, and sure enough Solveg was in it. She was standing in the farmyard in the act of throwing bread to the ducks out of a basket.
The father rushed up to her and touched her. But that didn’t help. She was simply a part of the painting, just a picture painted on the canvas.
‘Did you ever see that painting, grandmamma, with the little girl in it?’
‘Many times’, my grandmother said. ‘And the peculiar thing was that little Solveg kept changing her position in the picture. One day she would actually be inside the farmhouse and you could see her face looking out of the window. Another day she would be far over to the left with a duck in her arms.’
‘Did you see her moving in the picture, Grandmamma?’
‘Nobody did. Wherever she was, whether outside feeding the ducks or inside looking out of the window, she was always motionless, just a figure painted in oils. It was all very odd,’ my grandmother said. ‘Very odd indeed. And what was most odd of all was that as the years went by, she kept growing older in the picture. In ten years, the small girl had become a young woman. In thirty years, she was middle-aged. Then all at once, fifty-four years after it all happened, she disappeared from the picture altogether.’
‘You mean she died?’ I said.
‘Who knows?’ my grandmother said. ’Some very mysterious things go on in the world of Witches.’
Alex Ava: She gets to live out her life in a rural idyl, I don’t see the problem!
Adam: Like in a John Constable painting.
Alex Ava: There’s ducks! People have worse.
Adam: It’s like Animal Crossing!
Alex Ava: Yeah, that’s one of the ones that managed to be bleaker in the film. On rewatching, the image of the little girl staring out of the window of the barn in the painting.
Ren: It’s quite haunting.
Alex Ava: Once I knew that she could move around and feed ducks and hang out, that was fine.
Adam: There’s another little child in a painting in the hotel in the film, which it seems like the witch is thinking of snuffing out with her finger.
Ren: Suggesting that this is a regular tactic. Did you want to talk about the hotel?
Adam: Yeah, the hotel to me feels a lot more fully realised in the film than it does in the book, how about you?
Ren: It reminds me of the hotel in Paperhouse. It’s around the same time, they’re both by the sea. I thought it was interesting that we’ve now watched two films with slightly bleak English seaside hotels in them.
Alex Ava: They’re definitely a good site of horror, aren’t they? A bleak English seaside hotel.
Adam: Yeah, I’ve just watched one of the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas, and that’s set in an East Anglian hotel on the Suffolk coast, with this old academic trudging along the beach and then going back to his hotel and being visited by an entity in the dead of night.
Ren: The boy and the grandmother go on holiday to this hotel, and it turns out that the grand annual meeting of all the witches in England are meeting there and being lectured to by the grand high witch.
Ren: What are the chances!
Adam: And Ren, did you notice who was amongst the witches, as one of them?
Ren: … No?
Adam: I’ll give you a hint, it’s a member of Monty Python.
(Audio clip plays of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which the villagers, led by Michael Palin, bring a woman up to the knight shouting ‘A witch! A witch! We’ve found a witch!’)
Ren: Oh really?!
Adam: Yeah, Michael Palin was one of the witches!
Ren: Oh, I didn’t notice that!
Alex Ava: I was a bit baffled about the fact that they’d switched the name. In the book, they’re meeting under the auspices of the ‘Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’ which doesn’t exist, because it’s the National Society. But in the film, it does appear to be the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Which does seem quite a cruel thing to smear, a quite popular and necessary charity.
Adam: We’ll be starting our own pizza gate.
Alex Ava: Oh God. But yeah, I do agree with you about the hotel. I think there’s something about hotels, they’re very visual and recognisable, particularly for horror. There’s the uniformity of one room to the next, and corridors stretching out to infinity.
They’ve been used so many times so there is a horror in hotels.
In the book it’s a hotel in Bournemouth, and the mundanity of that is good and makes it feel real, but also just Bournemouth. I just can’t get excited about a conference happening in Bournemouth.
Adam: I think that’s a challenge. I think that I should go and attend a conference in Bournemouth and spook it up.
Alex Ava: It’s interesting, I think one of the things that I’d never registered is that my memories of Roald Dahl books and The Witches feel quite vivid to me, and feel like they have a sense of place and location, but actually he doesn’t describe anything!
You get so little except maybe a bit about the characters, and a lot of onomatopoeia about what’s happening at the time. The action’s really vivid, but the actual setting isn’t really sketched out at all. Which isn’t how I remember it, and I don’t know at this point if I overlaid what I saw in the film onto the book, or if I did have those really vivid experiences while reading.
Adam: I’d agree, that’s really interesting. The setting feels like it’s very much there to stage the action, and to be used, but of itself in the book it’s not particularly interested.
Ren: It is a very short book as well. The copy that I read is 206 pages in big print, with lots of illustrations. I was trying to compare the level of horror between this and The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, and I think they’re about equal but it’s so much denser in The Witches. A significantly shorter book.
Alex Ava: And it’s very much action to action to action, I think it’s one of the things that makes the film suffer that there’s this episodic structure to the chapters. A thing happens and then the next thing happens and then the next thing, and apart from the beginning and the end they’re all so rapid. I think it damages the film because it tries to copy that pace, and never quite stops to establish a tone very clearly.
Ren: I think the film is better in retrospect than when you’re actually watching it. Now that it’s a week since I’ve watched it I’m remembering the good set-pieces and puppets, but when you’re actually watching it often feels a bit clunky, and the pacing’s a bit weird.
Alex Ava: And just very weird additions. I guess in some sense it fleshes out the hotel that you know that Rowan Atkinson is having an affair with one of the chambermaids, but it’s not in the book, it’s not really necessary. It’s just yet another thing that we’ve got to parse as we’re going through this quite hectic film.
But I guess actually that one of the qualities that makes a good kid’s film is that it looks better in retrospect, because they way you interact with a lot of kids media is through your memories of it. I guess that’s from my perspective as a grown up.
Adam: It is a film of moments and set pieces. The transformation sequences are very striking.
Alex Ava: I’m impressed by the mouse puppets, and also the mouse work. The training of those animals and getting all of those shots that work and fit with anything, that must have been impossible!
No-one would ever make a film like this now, because you’d just CGI it. And I hate to be one of those horrible nostalgia fiends but there’s something about the practicality of it that really shows well.
Adam: It feels embodied, right? In a way that’s pretty satisfying. I certainly didn’t like the transformations as a kid.
Ren: Particularly, there’s another boy in the hotel called Bruno who gets turned into a mouse, and particularly his transformation is quite awful.
Adam: Yeah! That’s the one that stuck out to me as particularly awful this time round.
(Clip from The Witches of the Grand High Witch and the assembled witches counting down gleefully to Bruno’s transformation)
Alex Ava: I mean it’s full American Werewolf in London, isn’t it. It goes for those little physical details that you don’t expect. I think they possibly spent a lot of their transformation budget on that one and so rushed the rest of them. It really makes a mark.
Adam: He’s also farting and burping out this green gas which makes it even more disgusting.
Ren: I read that apparently, quite tantalisingly, the original cut of the film was scarier, but the director edited out some scenes after guinea-pigging his son. ‘Oh, my son’s a crying wreck, guess I’d better edit it’.
Alex Ava: So if only the young boy Roeg had a slightly sturdier stomach, we might be even more distressed now. I think it’s also a bit of a shame that they missed the part from the books, although I guess it would make it more of a comedy, is jumping into the air and yelling like you’ve just sat on a pin. There’s something really vivid and silly about that.
Adam: I think Quentin Blake’s drawings are at their best in the transformations, particularly Bruno. He looks so wibbly.
Ren: So the most icnoncially horrifying bit in both the book and the film is when the Grand High Witch removes her face to reveal her true form. The rest of the witches look more less like people, but the Grand High Witch is much more monstrous.
‘That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen. Just looking at it gave me the shakes all over. It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shrivelled, it looked as though it had been pickled in vinegar. It was a fearsome and ghastly sight. There was something terribly wrong with it. Something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks you could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as if maggots were working away in there’.
Ren: Alright, don’t hold back(!)
Alex Ava: And again, Quentin Blake’s picture of it is genuinely quite unpleasant. It’s good.
Adam: Like an Italian zombie film image. Really corpsey.
Ren: It’s very corpsey.
Adam: Do you want to talk about Huston’s performance, quickly? Because she really vamps it up, right?
Ren: I think she’s what everyone remembers from the film. She’s slightly German, or maybe she’s quite German?
Alex Ava: Yeah, I don’t think she’s explicitly German in the book. More a kind of pan-European monstrosity in the book, whereas the film goes very German.
Adam: So are the witches basically Nazis, in the film? Seriously, are they doing that?
Alex Ava: I think given Roald Dahl being reportedly fairly anti-Semitic in personal correspondence indicates that it might not be.*
Adam: Ren is not sure.
Ren: Yeah, I don’t know. I didn’t really get that.
Adam: Did you like Angelica Huston’s performance as the Grand High Witch?
Ren: Yeah, I do. I like the drama she brings to it, and how she makes the Grand High Witch very performative. What do you think?
Adam: I like that she’s clearly relishing the role, and she obviously gets the stage to herself so she really does get to perform.
Do you want to do Texture of the Week?
(Miscellaneous noises begin)
Ren: I don’t have any instruments, I’ve got some rustling paper.
Adam, Alex, Ren (singing): Texture of the Weeeek!
Ren: Mmm. I’m going to go first. My texture of the week is from the book when the Grand High Witch is giving the recipe for the potion to turn all the children into mice. There’s all sorts of fantastical ingredients but I like: ‘You take the wrong end of a telescope, and boil it until it goes soft’ and ‘you roast an alarm clock in the oven until it’s crisp and tender’.
Alex Ava: That was going to be mine!! It’s alright, I’ve got a back-up texture.
Adam: You both really like crispy alarm clocks.
Alex Ava: It’s just the fact that it’s tender. Just the idea that if you boil an alarm clock it’ll eventually go crisp on the outside but really tender and moist in the middle.
Adam: Ooh, like deep-fried tofu!
Alex Ava: The recipe is one of my favourite bits that was cut from the film. I can’t believe they would turn down the opportunity to go through the stream of odd objects and things, and all the odd sounds.
So my other favourite texture of the week is just Roald Dahl’s onomatopoeia and made-up words, but particularly when she’s telling off one of the witches, and she says ‘You blithering bumpkin, you brainless bogvumper! Are you not realising that if you’re caught poisoning little children you’ll be caught in five minutes flat! Never in my life am I hearing such a boshvolloping suggestion coming from a witch!’
And ‘boshvolloping’ is definitely the best-textured word I’ve heard this week. It’s wonderful. I think that’s how Roald Dahl’s language gets you as a kid. This fictional language and this joy in the idea that you can make up a word, and if it sounds right and fantastic and true, then it is true, while you’re listening to it. You believe in the things that he’s saying. And this isn’t even one of the books that goes that far in that direction, there’s no ‘vermicides knids’ or anything, but the texture of the language, and ‘boshvolloping’ in particular.
Adam: Probably the prosthetic nose of the Grand High Witch. The great beak-like rubbery nose. It’s the rubberiness of the prosthetics in this film. Apparently Nigel Booth is responsible for the prosthetic make-up so shout-out to him for doing such a good job.
Alex Ava: The unpleasantness of her mask going back on over that nose, and crushing it back down as her face gets wrapped around her is is a strong contender for Texture of the Week if you’re looking for something significantly less pleasant.
Adam: It kind of makes me think of the skin mask in Brazil.
Alex Ava: Yeah, absolutely.
Ren: Shall we talk about the ending, or endings as this is the biggest divergence between the book and the film.
Alex Ava: If I can just leap back a bit that the ending is foretold at the beginning of the book, in a weird bit of perspective that I really like.
At the beginning of the second chapter, the narrator points to themselves with their language. ‘I myself have had two separate encounters with witches before I was eight years old. From the first I escaped unharmed, on the second occasion I was not so lucky. Things happened to me that will probably make you scream when you read about them. That can’t be helped. The truth must be told. The fact that I am still here and able to speak to you, no matter how peculiar I look, is due entirely to my wonderful grandmother’.
And I love that! I know that it’s really textbook foreshadowing but to drop that in in such a wonderful way. Like, what has happened to this boy? How are they able to talk to me? Where does that come from? That really gets to me.
Ren: What does he look like?
Alex Ava: And then does some weird things to the ending in terms of when is it situated and who is he talking to? It’s interesting to me that the book presents itself as read in a book, and read by a teacher, and told by the main character over a coffee.
Adam: Do you think perhaps the narrator and his grandma are on a kind of lecture tour of schools having successfully rid most of the world of witches?
Alex Ava: it must be! I mean it’s such a short time window. I was worried about whether they’d have time to get rid of all the witches.
Ren: They’re really efficient!
So, the ending:
In both the book and the film they pull of this plan to get the mouse-making potion that the witches were going to put in chocolates to turn children into mice. The boy, in his mouse form, sneaks into the kitchen and pours it into the soup that the witches are having that evening. They all turn into mice and get stamped on exterminated in the hotel. The boy and his grandmother go home, and as we’ve mentioned various contraptions get rigged up so the boy can get around the house in his mouse form.
In the book, he asks his grandmother how long mice live, and she says ‘maybe another nine years’, and he says ‘oh, okay. Do you think you’ll live another nine years?’ And she says ‘Yeah, I reckon I can manage that’.
Alex Ava: And he goes ‘Oh great, that’s nice and simple’. It is wonderful that he’s immediately like ‘Oh, that’s fine’. Nine years, enough time for us to hang out a bit. I wouldn’t want to live any longer than you anyway because you’re wonderful. It’s super sweet and kind and lovely. Although I would point out that the grandmother’s like ‘well, mice live three years but you’re a human mouse, so I guess about nine years?’.
Ren: They come up with the plan to go around the world and turn all of the witches in the world into mice and then release cats to eat them.
(Audio clip of an advert for the game Moustrap)
Alex Ava: And then steal a castle, let’s not forget!
Ren: So that’s the plan for the rest of their lives.
Alex Ava: And go on this world tour of annihilating every witch in the world for the rest of their lives.
Ren: And this was clearly considered a bit too bizarre or bleak for the film. I mean, I say bizarre but the ending of the film is more bizarre, really.
In that, the Grand High Witch’s secretary, who was banned from the dining room and consequently escaped being turned into a mouse, has a change of heart. This is where this redemption comes in. She turns up at the boy’s house to turn him back into a human before disappearing off into the sunset. Which is quite unexpected.
Adam: A redemption purely motivated by spite at one’s boss.
Alex Ava: Which is the best form! We must unite and overthrow the bosses, I’m all for the message in principle but it seems so odd.
There’s a few hints that she doesn’t get on with the Grand High Witch, and the Grand High Witch is an awful boss to her. But then she does a complete turnaround and is like ‘Oh, I’m good now, I’m going to go and track down those people and turn them back into humans’. And it loses so much of the charm. I wrote down ‘death positivity’, because that’s apparently what I talk about when I come on. But it’s really charming that he says about his grandmother, ‘we love each other, we’re really good together and we have a way to work in the world, so I’m really glad we’re going to die at the same time’. So that’s a form of death positivity, but also the fact that he’s so happy to be a mouse and take advantage of that, and adapt the world so that he’s able to live in it, and there’s something really cheerful about that.
And you get to read that as a kid and I feel like I would have been really reassured by the fact that they’re off dealing with the witch problem, so actually this existential dread that I’m meant to have of all women I don’t have to worry about, because all the ones in England have been got already, definitely, and I trust these guys to deal with the rest of the world.
Ren: I think it is kind of a reassuring ending in a way, because this really terrible thing has happened to him, but he’s alright.
Alex Ava: And the film nearly goes for that, it has him getting into his little house with his little meccano lift, and it seems like a good ending and seems really odd that Jane Horrocks turns up and is suddenly like ‘I’m going to fix things!’.
Adam: Apparently both endings were originally filmed, and they ended up going with the more optimistic ending, which Roald Dahl was very upset about and originally wanted his name removed from the credits. So clearly this death positivity was central to what he wanted to get across. Apparently he was quite upset and angry that it was altered in that way.
Alex Ava: I just think it doesn’t actually make the ending more positive, because it’s so tacked-on I don’t think it makes a huge amount of difference. But then as I’ve said I had quite an odd relationship with this when I was little because I just wanted to be a mouse. Or an ant. My second choice was an ant, so I was really upset when Bruno Jenkins was boiling ants. I do remember getting really upset reading the book about Bruno Jenkins burning ants with a magnifying glass.
Adam: That’s brought back an upsetting memory of trying to study an ant under a child’s microscope when I was young and accidentally crushing it, or half-crushing it under the edge of the microscope and then looking at it under the microscope as it was bucking wildly like a dying horse.
Alex Ava: (wails) And that was when Adam learned about death!
Adam: Yeah. It was very upsetting!
Alex Ava: Oh love, I’m so sorry.
(Pause as everyone takes this in)
Adam: So on that bombshell!
Ren: Well, I mean, that’s why we do this podcast.
Alex Ava: To work through our issues with death.
Adam: it’s just therapy really.
Ren: Alright. Thank you very much Alex!
Alex Ava: Thank you for having me!
Ren: See you next time, spooky kids!
- We didn’t go into it in this conversation, but there is lots of discussion of Dahl’s anti-semitism out there. This article: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160912-the-dark-side-of-roald-dahl quotes out a particularly viciously anti-semitic statement that Dahl made in an interview later in his life.