The Witches: a new scandal but an old problem

The new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ has come in for a lot of criticism. Justified criticism. Cue apologies from the creators of the film.

What happened:

I haven’t watched this remake but have watched the 1990 version more the once. I have seen images showing the hands of the Grand High Witch, who is played by Anne Hathaway in this 2020 version. The character has hand impairments, so essentially missing fingers. Whereas in the original film, the fingers were very long and coarse looking, clearly not human.

Why this is a problem:

  • It’s presenting hand impairment as grotesque, abnormal and something that’s scary
  • It’s Roald Dahl, so obviously some kids will watch the film. What is it teaching them? What if they or someone they know has a hand or limb impairment?
  • A wider issue is that when there is a disabled character in a film, the actor often doesn’t have the same disability as the character being portrayed or have a disability at all. For lots of people, this is offensive
  • There is an issue with disabled actors being underrepresented in the industry as it is, without non-disabled people playing disabled characters
  • In TV shows and films, often the fact that someone has a disability is central to the character. And it’s not positive. So, for example, instead of Jane who works in the Post Office and happens to be disabled, it’s a school kid who acts weird as a direct result of a disability, probably an unseen one

The film industry:

There are so many remakes and adaptions of previous films. Most of them aren’t nearly good as the original (The Wicker Man) but to be fair others are cinematic successes (The Thomas Crown Affair).

The problem for directors and producers is that there is a need to differentiate from the first film, otherwise what’s the point in the remake. Often this involves CGI or deviating from the story as told in the original film. Inevitably these leads to characters looking very different.

In terms of the new The Witches film, I doubt there was any malicious intent from the creators. It’s probably more a case that they just didn’t think.  That said, I’m bored of reading statements like ‘we must do better’, ‘total commitment to inclusivity’ and ‘we’re learning’ every time something like this happens.

The thing about commitment is that it’s not fleeting. Commitment is about sticking to something long after you first pledged to do it.

If you want to read up about the controversy, articles can be easily found online.

Edmund Lewis, AGCAS Disability Task Group, University of Westminster


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