Luke is a character you easily identify with as a kid, he’s loyal, adventurous, knows the difference between right and wrong, somewhat geeky with a wide eyed innocence. Even if you can’t relate to him, you can understand him as Roald Dahl’s male protagonist.
Luke in “The Witches” (1990)
So what happens in the film? Luke, after the death of his parents moves from Norway to England with his grandmother, who often tells him stories of witches. They go on a trip to Cornwall, with his two pet mice, but things start to take a strange turn. Chasing his escaped mice, William and Mary, he happens to be in a RSPCC board meeting- a room filled with women, but as he soon finds out, witches. They take off their wigs, their gloves, their shoes. He witnesses them turn a small boy into a mouse. He makes an escape, but unfortunately is captured and shares the same fate as his friend. But no, it does not stop there, and being a children’s film, the brave Luke must find a way to destroy all the witches, in the body of a small furry talking mouse.
The term ‘witch’ has all sorts of connotations, they are portrayed as old, crooked with gnarled noses, warts, hump backed and altogether really ugly. The witches in Roald Dahl’s books aren’t that different- they are bald, have square feet and no toes, blue spit, and purple eyes.
They’re not supposed to be nice. They are there to scare children senseless.
Grand High Witch- Quentin Blake illustration
The book allows you to use your imagination in its full fledged form, but you can argue whether this fear factor is reduced, translated onto the big screen. Personally I don’t feel this to be true. You have to take into account this is a 1990’s film, using props with no CGI. As a kid, there’s something grossly realistic about seeing a woman peel her face off in front of the audience, showing square feet and purple eyes and gnarled and crooked fingers in all their glory.
For the longest time I believed my dad when he said witches were real and I had this fear and also constant anticipation of catching one in the act of smuggling away a child, or hunting them down, just like Luke does-I was captivated by witches, and wished to be a good witch with magical powers. Much like “Matilda” and her ability to move things with her mind, the stuff of children’s dreams.
So here are some points to consider.
a) The Grand High Witch- the worst of all the witches, is seen to have a pretty mask which covers her true form so as better to fool people with. Moral: Witches are always in disguise, just because they are attractive doesn’t make them more trustworthy. And let’s not forget when the Grand High Witch takes off her mask- it is the stuff of nightmares.
Angelica Huston as The Grand High Witch
b) Luke is advised not to shower too often by his grandmother, in case the witches sniff him out, and clean children smell just like fresh dogs droppings- so keep a look out for women in the streets who are holding their nose when they pass you!
c) Witches are all women (though, if you look closely in the film, some of them are male, probably due to lack of members to cast)
RSPCC board meeting (“The Witches” 1990)
d) They plan on setting up sweet shops all around England in order to poison children and turn them into mice so they can be squelched.
e) They commit vile and despicable acts of cruelty and show no remorse.
So what does this teach young, impressionable young kids?
“She might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look carefully at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don’t let that put you off. It could be part of cleverness….”
Roald Dahl illustrations- which one is the witch
That they go around suspecting everyone is a witch- at least until the effects of the story wear off.
But it does draw attention to trusting strangers and accepting things from them. One memorable part is when Luke is playing in his tree-house, and a witch appears below and tries to entice him down with a bar of chocolate. Now, if Luke had not been wise enough, (and if the woman didn’t have purple eyes), well, we all know what might have happened.
Erica “The Witches”
Perhaps another memorable in the story is of a little Norwegian girl named Erica, who after being kidnapped by a witch, appears in her father’s painting. However, not only does she often change position in the painting, feeding the ducks, or standing in the farmyard; but she also grows older. The years go by, until one day- being an old woman, she disappears from the painting altogether.
Erica vanishes into the Painting
We assume she has been killed by a witch, but her ‘presence’ in the painting makes it all so eerie and gives you goosebumps. Is it really her in the painting? Her ghostly echo is heard calling ‘Papa’ several times. Who would cause such torment?
All these thoughts spiral in a child’s mind. And the answer to that is witches. They are demonic and punish children for no reason at all.
But don’t worry, because as there are bad witches, there are also good witches that counteract their evil. Phew!
Just as well they aren’t real, right?
Here are some good extracts from Roald Dahl, which can be good discussion points for students in class. What do they teach children? And does this apply to real life?
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”- The Twits
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”– Roald Dahl
“I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.”– Roald Dahl
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.”– The Witches