There are many elements of Roald Dahl’s bibliography that sit poorly if one views them through a progressive prism: George’s Marvellous Medicine is basically elder abuse repackaged as “hilarious” comedy japes, while the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were originally described as black pygmies from the “very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before”. Meanwhile, The Witches bears little love for women who suffer from hair loss, who are depicted as the height of ugliness and monstrosity.
However, it is an entirely different community that has found fault with the latest Hollywood adaptation of the children’s novel, directed this time by Back to the Future’s Robert Zemeckis. Prominent Paralympians and disability campaigners have pointed out that Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch and her minions have three-fingered hands that resemble the real-life condition ectrodactyly, otherwise known as “split hand” in the film.
This is a rare congenital disorder involving the deficiency or absence of one or more central digits of the hand or foot. Disability advocate Shannon Crossland wrote on Instagram: “Is this the kind of message we want the next generation to receive. That having three fingers is a witch’s attribute? It is an extremely damaging portrayal. Disability should NOT be associated with evil, abnormality, disgust, fear or monsters.”
Embarrassingly for the studio, this could have easily been avoided. The Witches, as imagined by Dahl, do not resemble those born with ectrodactyly at all, but rather are described as having “claws instead of fingernails” and “square feet with no toes”. The best-known cover art for the book, by Quentin Blake, shows the Grand High Witch with five fingers. Clearly nobody involved meant to upset people with disabilities, but the damage is done.
It’s a tough break for Warner at a time when another decision once made, no doubt, in reasonably good faith now looks destined to have ugly ramifications for its future slate. In the wake of Johnny Depp’s failed libel case against the Sun for calling him “a wife beater”, the studio now has to decide whether to recast the role of villain Grindelwald in the forthcoming third instalment of JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Unconfirmed rumours suggest that Depp’s screen time could be drastically reduced, though that seems to be a pointless compromise. Either the Pirates of the Caribbean star (for whom future appearances as Captain Jack Sparrow also seem unlikely) is persona non grata in Hollywood, or Warner takes a hugely controversial decision to stick with him through his current difficulties.
Otherwise, reduced screen time or not, Grindelwald’s every moment in the spotlight is likely to be greeted by a chorus of boos. And this is not a fantasy franchise that needs any more negative publicity, after Rowling found herself criticised following her essay on trans rights and 2018’s second instalment The Crimes of Grindelwald met with a lukewarm reception from critics.
Perhaps there’s a solution built in to the franchise. Grindelwald was played by Colin Farrell in the first film of the saga, though Dumbledore’s nemesis was at the time disguising himself as the high-ranking auror Percival Graves. If he can shapeshift once, who’s to say that Grindelwald’s true appearance hasn’t yet been revealed, a development that would allow a new actor to be cast, Doctor Who style.
Let’s hope Warner Bros makes its call sooner rather than later, because the sight of Depp centre stage right now in any movie, Hollywood or otherwise, is about as palatable to 21st-century audiences as Dahl’s dodgy Mark 1 Oompa Loompas.