In 1990, Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches burst onto the big screen, terrifying children and delighting their parents. It was one of the largest first-run commercial success the director experienced in his life time (though its box office numbers were not stellar by any means), and as we mourn his passing today, I thought it would be fun to look behind the scenes of this fabulous film.
So, let’s take a look at five things you (might) not know about The Witches!
#1 The Witches was the last film produced by Lorimar Productions.
Lorimar Productions was established in the late 1960s, and had produced and/or distributed a number of wildly different films in its two decades of existence. The studio was behind Cruising, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Postman Always Rings Twice alongside TV series and mini-series such as Stephen King’s IT and Freddy’s Nightmares.
The film was completed in 1989 and set for distribution when the company’s theatrical division was dissolved. Rights for distribution were sold to Warner Bros. but the film still sat on a shelf for almost a year before it was finally released in theaters.
#2 Anjelica Huston was not the first choice to take on the role of the Grand High Witch.
As hard as it is to believe, a LOT of other actresses were considered for the role of the devious Grand High Witch in the film.
In fact, over the years rumor has it a number of other actresses were considered for the role from the time of writing and through the casting process. Whether these rumors were based in fact or purely anecdotal doesn’t seem to matter all that much, but reports have tied Vanessa Regrave, Eartha Kitt, Susan Sarandon, Liza Minnelli, Faye Dunaway, Jodie Foster, and even Cher to the casting process.
Any one of these actresses could have no doubt killed the role, but this is one of those instances where you have to ask, “Would they have done it better than Anjelica?”
#3 This was the last film Jim Henson personally oversaw and worked on directly.
Legendary puppeteer and creature creator, Jim Henson designed three different sets of mouse puppets for The Witches. The smallest were actually mouse-sized with control wires that were said to be hair thin and the largest came in at around three feet in length which Roeg used for a couple of close up shots in the film.
What’s more, it was Henson who convinced Roald Dahl not to condemn the project and remove his name from it when he wrote a letter to the author after hearing of his displeasure.
Sadly, Henson died just days before the film made its UK debut from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. He was 53 years old. In an odd coincidence Dahl, himself, passed away the same year.
#4 It was never revealed why the witches wanted to rid the world of children.
As baffling as it might sound, and it does if you’re like me and you had it in your head that the reason was spelled out in the film, neither the book nor the film explained exactly why the witches hated children so much.
Was it a lifelong vendetta? Did they just think they were brats? Was it a long game to ensure the human race was wiped out?
Perhaps Roald Dahl knew, but he never explained it in the original text, and Nicolas Roeg, taking his cue from the novel, didn’t get a clear reason either.
#5 As dark as the film is, the book was much darker.
As we’ve seen with so many children’s stories and books adapted for the big screen, the production team really toned down the darkness during the process of adaptation.
Unlike the film, for instance, Luke (who never actually had a name in the book) was never returned to his human form and realizes toward the end that this means his life has been seriously cut short. Mice only live a few years under the best of circumstances, after all, and he has to come to terms with that fact.
It was implied in the book that Bruno aka the other little boy turned into a mouse, was drowned in a bucket of water by a janitor at his father’s insistence which fit into the Grand High Witch’s plan to have all the children killed by unsuspecting teachers, janitors, and parents when they had become mice.
Roald Dahl, as previously mentioned was very displeased with this adaptation. In fact, he was so displeased it’s said that he left instructions in his will that set the standards very high for anyone in the future who might want to adapt his work for film!