The film was originally going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro but scheduling conflicts have pushed him out of the director's chair. He will likely stay on as a producer.
The story, which centers on a child who encounters a real world of witchcraft hidden in plain sight, was adapted very loosely in 1990, also at Warners. The film, which was produced by The Jim Henson Company and starred Anjelica Huston, was beloved by those who saw it -- but there were not that many of them, leading to a modest box office take of under $20 million.
The plot of the film involved witches who pretend to be everyday women, so that they can kidnap and kill children. In the story, they are thwarted by a child they had turned into a mouse and his grandmother. At the end, the implication is that our heroes will have to journey out into the wider world and begin defeating witches beyond just the ones in England. Since there was no sequel, that plot thread was never picked up on.
The 1990 movie was the last that Jim Henson personally worked on before his death, and it bore the fingerprints of the Henson Company. The new movie will reportedly hew much closer to Dahl's original novel.
Dahl's works have provided Hollywood with a number of hits over the years, including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. Other films based on his creations include The BFG and The Fantastic Mister Fox. Dahl also had a hand in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and You Only Live Twice, both of which were adapted from novels by Ian Fleming.
According to Variety, Warner Bros. had been looking for a project that would excite Zemeckis ever since they met with him about The Flash, a project he did not ultimately take on.
The Jim Henson Company's Henson Alternative label is currently working on The Happytime Murders with STX. The film, starring Melissa McCarthy and directed by Brian Henson, stirred up some controversy by evoking Sesame Street in its marketing. After parents objected to Sesame Workshop, the company sought unsuccessfully to force Happytime and its producers to stop using their trademarks.