Since its release in October, many have voiced their concerns that the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches could increase stigma around disabilities.
In Dahl’s original book, a young boy accidentally stumbles across a group of child-hating witches who turn him into a mouse. In Robert Zemeckis’ new film adaptation, the Grand High Witch—played by Anne Hathaway—is shown with three fingers on each hand. Viewers have noted that this resembles Ectrodactyly, a congenital condition where there is an absence of one or more fingers or toes.
Disability activists have voiced their disappointment and concern with how this portrays people with limb differences as scary and evil. Paralympic swimming medallist Amy Marren voiced her concerns on Twitter: “It’s not unusual for surgeons to try and build hands like this for children/adults with certain limbs differences and it’s upsetting to [see] something that makes a person different being represented as something scary […] My fear is that children will watch this film, unaware that it massively exaggerates the Roald Dahl original and that limbs differences begin to be feared.”
There is no indication that Dahl intended for the witches to have missing fingers. In the book, the witches have long, cat-like claws, which are hidden with gloves. Quentin Blake’s original illustration also shows the Grand High Witch with five fingers.
Paralympic swimming champion Claire Cashmore also expressed her frustration at the new film, stating that she felt confused and upset: “Yes you could say it’s great to see someone with a limb difference on TV and more than anything I really want to see more representation in the media,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “However we want disabilities to […] be normalised and be represented in a positive light rather than being associated with being a scary, evil, witch.” She shared her own personal experiences, revealing that she had received comments such as “Your arm is so scary” and “Your arm makes me feel sick” when she was growing up. “As a self conscious youngster these comments hurt ALOT (sic) and would knock my confidence.”
Since the film’s release, people with limb differences have been sharing photographs of themselves on social media alongside the hashtag #NotAWitch. Strictly Come Dancing contestant JJ Chalmers, who lost two fingers on one hand while serving in Afghanistan, also stated: “it is a classic example of the type of unconscious biases and carelessness that occurs in a creative environment that is lacking the insight and benefits of true diversity and representation. #NotAWitch #LimbDifferent.” The hashtag has been used on Instagram over one thousand times.
The Lucky Fin Project, a non-profit organisation that raises awareness about symbrachydactyly and other limb differences, used the hashtag on Twitter to criticise the filmmakers’ decisions: “As a mother of a child born with a limb difference and as someone who has, for a decade, counselled thousands of parents afraid that their child with a limb difference will be bullied, feared, or made fun of—this is reinforces a stigma already present in society.”
“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. This film is about the power of kindness and friendship. It is our hope that families and children can enjoy the film and embrace this empowering, love-filled theme.”Warner Bros, in a statement to Deadline
Anne Hathaway has also apologised on Facebook, and advised people to look at the Lucky Fin Project and the #NotAWitch hashtag to “get a more inclusive and necessary perspective on limb difference”.
“As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really detests cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused,” she said. “I am sorry. I did not connect limb difference with the [Grand High Witch] when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened.”
A petition has been started to boycott the film. So far, it has received over 8,000 signatures.
The Witches, which also stars Octavia Spencer as Grandma and Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as Hero Boy, has been available to rent in the UK since 26 October from Prime Video, iTunes, Microsoft Store and Sky Store for £15.99.
Words By Ellen Leslie
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