On “The Witches” and Dahl’s tendency for being unhappy with adaptations

(There be spoilers)

In spite of a busy week, I found time to enjoy Roald Dahl day with a documentary about his life, and a re-watch of The Witches yesterday.

I would like to discuss my thoughts on how the book and the movie ended since they were so infamously different. The ending of the book was moving, but also kind of depressing, and I remember when I first watched The Witches in sixth grade maybe, feeling this incredible since of joy when Susan Irvine (Jane Horrocks) turn him back into a boy.

Only yesterday did I realized that Jane Horrocks played Miss Susan Irvine, I developed quite the love for Jane Horrocks after watching Little Voice a few years back. I don’t see why one must be chosen over the other and the two forms can’t appreciated for what they are. It is not as if Henson set out to do a malicious disservice to the novel. Something I find interesting is the following from a Mental Floss article.

Much has also been said of casting an American in the role of the main character. Perhaps I don’t see the issue, being that I am American, but I like Luke, and I thought his voice bodded well for the animatronic mouse following Luke’s transformation. The actor, Jasen Fisher, was in second grade at the time, and I found that his voice-acting served the exceptional puppeteering. Those mice are too damn cute. Also, another note, how can you hate a kid that looks like Maculay Culkin in The Pagemaster?

What is more, on the point of Dahl’s distaste with the ending, he said it goes against the message of the intial ending. Dahl’s ending had the grandmother and the hero, who is never made human, planning on going to the Grand High Witch’s castle to kill her replacement and all the witche’s there, turning them all into mice, and setting loose a bunch of cats to kill them, and dying togetether. This reality seemed to fit with the unnamed grandmother’s nature, but in Henson’s version, we see that Helga is in tears as Luke expresses his contentment with his supposed fate of being a mouse, we can assume he is only saying it for her sake, or that if he does like being a mouse, it is selfish, since it causes Helga sorrow that he can’t have a normal life.

However, I will admit that the plot point with Susan was bull-rushed. And I am pretty sure there was a mistake when Susan is shown in the window as Luke and Helga are leaving. She does not appear to be wearing gloves. Given the way her hands are seen moving towards the camera, this may have been intentional as a cue to the observant watcher and something to see upon multiple viewings, as one might expect at the first watch that she is planning something devious.

I think that look on Susan’s face and giggling at the very ending makes up for everything.

Sunshine of my life Jane Horrocks

Dahl, a screenwriter in addition to being a writer of children’s fiction and adult fiction. In my opinion, this should have made him empathetic to those who adapted his work. This was not the case. He was famously disatisfied with Gene Wilder being cast in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which was retitled due to the fact  that “at the time of release, the Vietnam War was at its height and American soldiers referred to both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces as ‘Charlie'” (source). Writers do develop a fondness for their characters, but a writer must remain aware how their characters will be interpreted in a different way from person to person.  With The Witches, Dahl was successful in convincing Roeg to cut an opening scene of a funeral, with a coffin being lowered into the ground.

According to Dahl’s second wife and widow Felicity “Liccy” Dahl, “Roald was horrified. He liked death in his books to be short, quick and humorous – not something to be lingered over.”

But, ultimately, the thing that made Dahl say, “take my name off this thing. You’ve missed the whole point of the book,” was the alternate ending that the testing audience preferred to the ending where the boy stays the mouse and expects to only live another nine years, dying with his grandmother.

But Roeg shot two endings, one faithful to Dahl’s book, the other stripped of the darker elements that made the book so effective. “Nic Roeg showed us the first ending, and Roald had tears running down his cheeks, he was so pleased,” says Liccy. “But then he showed us the other one, and Roald said: ‘Take my name off this thing. You’ve missed the whole point of the book.’ I’d never seen him so upset.”

The film’s producer, Allan Scott, said in response to Dahl’s unhappiness, said something along the lines of “if writers received payments for their books to be adapted, they shouldn’t grumble.”

Liccy Dahl, responding ot Scottt’s statement in an article written by David Gritten for The Telegraph, said,”I rather agree,” with “sighs.”

My take is that we are well aware a story will take on different forms when it comes from different people. Evident from the different forms we have of the fairy tales from oral tradition. I also believe that the people of my generation and those that succeed mine will not take as much of an offense to alterations. We are used to “reimaginings,” and feel that change is good if the change is good; it is fine to change something as long as it does not hurt the story.

Dahl was right to feel hurt by the happy ending if he honestly thought the production did not understand the point of the book, but I don’t understand why he would take offense when the ending they invented went along with his original idea for the ending, and not the ending his editor convinced him to write.

I am watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on television, too overjoyed to cry with nostalgia, as I did when trying to watch it a little while back, following Gene Wilder’s death.

If there is an afterlife, I hope there is a way for Dahl to apologize to Gene Wilder.



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