The Witches has found itself at the center of a controversy — not for its poor critical reception, but for some bad character design choices. The disability community has criticized The Witches for giving a negative depiction of limb differences, after the witches in Robert Zemeckis‘ film are shown to have three-fingered hands — a disfigurement notably similar to the real-life limb abnormality ectrodactyly, otherwise known as “split hand.” The Witches backlash led to Warner Bros. issuing an apology expressing deep “regret” over the depiction.
A Warner Bros. spokesperson issued a statement to Deadline (via IndieWire) expressing the studio’s regret over the backlash from the disability community to Zemeckis’ new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The spokesperson said the studio was “deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in The Witches could upset people with disabilities” and “regretted any offense caused,” adding:
“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.”
Zemeckis’ depiction of the physicality of the Witches‘ villains is a notable departure from that of Roald Dahl’s 1983 dark fantasy novel, in which the witches were described as having “claws instead of fingernails,” with illustrations from the first edition cover showing them with all five fingers. The 1990 Nicholas Roeg film starring Anjelica Huston followed Dahl’s design as well. However, Zemeckis reimagined the witches with three-fingered hands, which Deadline notes resembles a real-life limb abnormality, ectrodactyly.
The depiction was criticized by British Paralympic swimmer Amy Marren, who was the first to publicly call out the film on Twitter, writing, “Warner Bros, was there much thought given as to how this representation of limb differences would effect the limb difference community?” The athlete also posted an image from Dahl’s original illustrations, which showed the villains with five fingers.
The official social media account for the Paralympic Games also called attention to the controversy, noting, “Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalized.”
— Paralympic Games (@Paralympics) November 3, 2020
The similarities of the witches’ hands to that of real-life disabilities doesn’t look good for the film. Upon seeing the hands in the images of Hathaway’s Grand High Witch, who slowly unveils her true form to the film’s protagonist, it’s likely that Zemeckis’ team took design inspiration from birds of prey, but ended up veering too close to real-life limb abnormalities. The effect is most likely unintentional, but it’s upsetting for people in the disabled community who might have seen this film and seen their disability used as a shorthand for a villain.
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