How I transformed Roald Dahl's The Witches into a graphic novel

Published on: 10 September 2020

The Witches is one of Roald Dahl's most iconic stories - and now it's been turned into a graphic novel! We spoke to Pénélope Bagieu about how she adapted such a classic tale...

Pénélope Bagieu and the front cover of The Witches

Photo: Simone Eusebio

Tell us about you. What's your background, and what other books have you created?
I've been creating stories in comics since I was five, and started doing so professionally about 15 years ago. I've been an illustrator for books and advertising for a little while, too. I moved to New York for a few years and published a few graphic novels there, including Brazen, a series of portraits of incredible women. And then I moved back to my hometown, Paris!

How did you become interested in creating graphic novels?
It always appeared to me as the most instinctive way of telling a story, as well as the most complete: no restrictions of setting, scenery, costumes, special effects... it's like directing a movie where everything is free (except for your long hours of drawing!) and you get to be everybody: filmmaker, screenwriter, and all of the actors.

A spread from the graphic novel adaptation of The Witches

It must have been so exciting to be asked to create the graphic novel version of such a famous story. How did you feel when you started drawing it?
I was so impatient! There were some specific scenes I couldn't wait to draw, especially those that had terrified me when I was eight. This story was made to be turned into a graphic novel, it has all the ingredients for it: crazy action scenes, terrible villains, and colourful characters.

What characters did you enjoy creating the most?
Probably the two heroines of the story: The Grand High Witch and Grandmamma. The two of them are so fascinating and charismatic, in opposite ways. I love this duality and the way they fight each other. But of course my absolute favourite character is truly Grandmamma, because she's super cool.

A spread from the graphic novel adaptation of The Witches

Was The Witches challenging to recreate, given that Quentin Blake's illustrations and the film version of the book with Anjelica Huston are so well known?
I figured this would be challenging when I started thinking about the little thumbnails of the story, but oddly, it wasn't at all. The characters I created, although based on the original ones, are definitely my own. Grandmamma is my Grandmamma. The Grand High Witch is the one I had in my nightmares. The minute I really defined who my protagonists would be, they immediately gained their own unique appearance, voice, expressions, way to walk and so on. It was never a new version of existing characters to me.

What do you love about graphic novels? And what do you think children love about them?
I love the fact that they can deal with any possible subject - even the most delicate ones - in a very poetic way sometimes. The connection you have as a reader with a drawn, moving, expressive character is like no other. There's more to it than just text and images; a third dimension appears and the story gets real, even the most fantastic one. To me, that's magic.

A spread from the graphic novel adaptation of The Witches

What books did you love as a child?
To be honest, my favourite author really was Roald Dahl. His books brought me the joy of reading for the first time, of falling into a vortex without being able to put the book down. I loved re-reading his books over and over again, drawing the characters I imagined, and telling the stories to my friends. It led me to both loving reading stories, and telling them. And The Witches has always been my favourite!

The Witches Graphic Novel by Roald Dahl and Pénélope Bagieu is out now in hardback (published by Scholastic).

Roald Dahl Story Day, the global celebration of Roald Dahl stories, is celebrated on September 13th. For more information on what's happening, go to the website here.

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