Film adaptations of beloved children's books are always in line for criticism. Common complaints are that the latest adaptation has "ruined" the book, or isn't true enough to the original story. But the new film of Roald Dahl's book, The Witches – the second film adaptation of the novel – has come under fire for a different reason.
This time, it's the film's character design that has been questioned. The witches in the film, which stars Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, are shown to have hand and feet impairments, with Hathaway having three fingers on each hand. In the book, the witches are described as having "claws hidden by gloves" and "square feet with no toes." This decision to portray the witches with limb differences has been derided by many, including Paralympians and disability advocates. (For top tips on how not to offend your audience, see our character design tips.)
British Paralympic swimmer Amy Marren was one of the first to call out Warner Bros online, saying "my fear is that children will watch this film, unaware that it massively exaggerates the Roald Dahl original and that limb differences begin to be feared."
"Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalised," said the Paralympic Games Twitter account.
Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalised. #NotAWitch calls out ‘#TheWitches’ movie for portrayal of disability 👉 https://t.co/aSY1U6TymE pic.twitter.com/UCU87bUeV8November 3, 2020
Plenty of other Paralympians and disability advocates soon weighed in, including Briony Williams, who took part in The Great British Bake Off in 2018. She said: "When I look at the pictures of Anne Hathaway with her witch hands, it brings tears to my eyes because I see MY hand in the photos... I see something to be afraid of, something meant to make you feel sick and revolted."
I’m so angry and upset that I can’t not say anything anymore. The new Witches film is devastating for those of us with a limb difference or anyone with a disability in fact. Here’s my post from Instagram, please take the time to give it a read: #TheWitchesMovie #NotAWitch pic.twitter.com/ogm9OJgsPkNovember 6, 2020
Warner Bros has since issued an apology. It said: "In adapting the original story, we worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book. It was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them."
Seeing as the whole point of the witches in Roald Dahl's book is that they do hide amongst us, and can be hard to spot, it feels like Warner Bros has rather missed the point here. If the non-human witches are just like humans, with just a few key differences (which may be present in some humans), then why wouldn't people see themselves within these characters?
Anne Hathaway also issued an apology via Instagram. She said: "I did not connect limb difference with the GHW (Grand High Witch) when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened."
It just goes to show that you can't underestimate the power of research, and of having diverse voices on your team.
As for The Witches, we'll probably just stick to the book or 1990s film, thanks.