Review by Ian Keogh
Considering the imagination behind the children’s stories of Roald Dahl, it’s surprising how few have been adapted for graphic novels, and The Witches goes a long way to showing why they should be. Dahl was a far from sentimental man, and his stories often concern an isolated child, in this case a never named orphan boy subjected to cruelties, both physical and emotional.
The strangeness begins early with the boy’s grandmother comforting him inappropriately shortly after the death of his parents by telling a story of a witch transporting a young girl into a painting, where she lives out her life. This is followed by an escalating series of scare stories culminating in the information that all witches hate children with a passion. Having introduced that idea Dahl really runs with it. The grandmother has told the boy of the peculiarities that mark out a witch, and it’s inevitable that he’s going to run into them.
As seen on the sample pages, Pénélope Bagieu is no stranger to exaggeration in the cause of scaring children, and her witches are constantly sinister, whether posing as human or shedding their disguises in private. They’ll even scare a few more timid adults. This is a long adaptation, but made longer because in places Bagieu milks the scenes a little too much. While central to the plot, as it’s when the head witch reveals their evil plan, a scene in a hotel conference room is dragged out too far at over fifty pages just for the explanations. It is a very tense scene, the boy fearing discovery, so there’s a need to build suspense, but Bagieu eventually bursts that bubble because the scene runs on so long.
Artistically, Bagieu is great, though. Quentin Blake’s original book illustrations are a starting point, Bagieu using an expressive illustrative cartoon style, the boy wide-eyed and innocent, his gran as tough as old boots, and the witches scary and creepy. The locations are kept simple, and she has a great way with movement. Mice feature a lot, and when they’re running, they really move.
One alteration is made from the novel, changing a child the witches first pick on from a boy into a girl. It doesn’t make much difference either way, and the story might as well have a sympathetic young girl instead of two young boys. Otherwise almost everything is as Dahl wrote, down to the frankly morbid ending sold as cheerful. The problems with pacing apart, this is a spirited adaptation of a children’s classic breathing new life into it.