Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ Like You’ve Never Seen It Before — A Review Of Pénélope Bagieu’s Graphic Novel Adaptation

by Rachel Bellwoar


Witches hate children, but how will Roald Dahl fans feel about Pénélope Bagieu’s graphic novel adaptation of The Witches?


It’s no secret that Roald Dahl’s books have done well on the big screen. Matilda and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory play on TV all the time. There’s a movie version of The Witches directed by Nicolas Roeg that can be streamed on Netflix (and a new one by Robert Zemeckis on the way), but Pénélope Bagieu’s The Witches is the first time one of Dahl’s books has been adapted into a graphic novel.

I’ve never read Dahl’s The Witches, but I did watch the movie to get another perspective on how the material can be handled. While the movie (and from what I understand the book) start in Norway, I really love that Bagieu starts her version in London. The main character in Dahl’s book doesn’t have a name and Bagieu continues this tradition in the graphic novel. But for ease of this review I’m going to call him “Luke,” since that’s the name he goes by in the movie.
When Bagieu’s graphic novel begins, Luke’s parents have just died in a car accident and his grandmother has come to live with him in London. This says a lot about Grandmamma because she puts Luke’s needs before her own. While you’re very aware that she’s not in her own home from the way Bagieu silently teleplays her discomfort while sleeping in Luke’s parents’ bed, she immediately regains her composure whenever he enters the room.
The movie doesn’t really deal with Luke’s grief past the opening, but Bagieu is more conscious of the fact that grief is an ongoing process. The challenge Bagieu sets for herself is starting the book right after the funeral — when everyone’s gone — and Luke and Grandmamma are by themselves at home. Nobody’s really talking, yet you realize what’s going on without them having to say a word. The talking around the subject is more of a giveaway than if they were addressing it directly.
Without preferring one to the other, Bagieu’s Grandmamma is very different from the grandmother Mai Zetterling played in Roeg’s movie. Visually, she reminds me of Grandma Yetta from the TV sitcom The Nanny – short, huge glasses, amazing sense of style. While The Witches is a full-color graphic novel, the advanced galley I was sent only included the first 32-pages in color. The rest was black-and-white, and those colors were missed. Originally, I assumed Bagieu was the colorist but in the acknowledgments Bagieu thanks Drac. When you know how colorfully Grandmamma dresses, it’s a downer not to see her outfits fully realized. Also, color is very important for telling witches apart from humans.

After a health scare causes them to stay at the Hotel Magnificent for a while, Grandmamma tells Luke, “Adults should never lie to kids.” Yet, she’s not always honest with him about how long she’s going to be around. She’s a heavy cigar smoker and, visually, it can be funny to see her try to hide the smoke or see the smoke be used as a sort of thought bubble for her stories. But it also means she ends up coughing a lot, to the point that Luke has to call a doctor and intervene. They’re not hurtful lies, but when Luke asks her, “So you promise you’ll never leave me?”, John Martz’s lettering make you aware of the subtext – “never” is bold and underlined. He wants her to be live forever.
It’s Grandmamma who teaches Luke how to spot witches and, in Dahl’s world, witches hate children. Bad news considering the hotel they’re staying in is full of witch guests. Bagieu deviates from Dahl’s novel when it comes to the friend Luke makes at the hotel. In the book and in the movie, that friend is similar to Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The character is quite different in the graphic novel. Bagieu also returns to Dahl’s original ending, which the movie changed. The film’s ending always seemed dubious, so I’d argue Bagieu made the right call.
Dahl’s The Witches isn’t my favorite of the author’s stories (though I’ve mostly seen the movies they’ve inspired, so maybe the books would be different), but Bagieu’s adaptation is beyond reproach and should ensure this isn’t the last of Dahl’s books to get a graphic novel treatment.
The Witches: The Graphic Novel is on sale now from Scholastic.

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