Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books have been translated to the big screen several times. We’ve taken a look at “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” in this space previously. This week, with the kids headed back to school, it seems only fitting to take on “Matilda.”
Dahl’s novel was published in 1988. It tells the story of a very curious and studious little girl named Matilda Wormwood, who shows incredible intellect at a very young age, reading every book within her grasp before she even gets enrolled into school. None of this is noticed by her family, though, as her father is too busy ripping off customers at his second-hand car dealership and her mother is too busy at the bingo hall. Eventually, Matilda ends up in school, where she comes across the sweet, inspiring Miss Honey and the child-hating headmistress known as The Trunchbull. In between avoiding punishment from the Trunchbull, Matilda discovers that she can move objects with her mind, something she shows to Miss Honey. The two form a bond, and Matilda learns how Trunchbull cheated Miss Honey out of her rightful house. Using her powers, Matilda scares the Trunchbull into leaving the school and surrendering the house, and Miss Honey winds up adopting Matilda after her family is forced to flee fraud investigators.
For the most part, director and co-star Danny DeVito keeps the movie close to the book’s plot, with Americanization and a few artistic liberties. The film bumped up Matilda’s age a little bit as every children’s book adaptation does so Mara Wilson didn’t have to play a 5-year-old. The characteristics of the Wormwoods are altered a little bit. Matilda’s brother picks on her throughout the movie (basically an early rendition of Dudley from the “Harry Potter” series), but in the book, all he does is unquestioningly follow his parents’ examples, paying attention to how best to swindle people and camping out loyally in front of the TV for hours on end at home. The Trunchbull’s Olympic prowess is expanded in the movie, too, as it adds the javelin and shot put to her participation in the hammer throw.
The biggest difference between the two is probably the overall tone. Both are over the top in how they depict Matilda’s relationships with her parents and the Trunchbull and in just what the Trunchbull is able to get away with both at school and in the matter of Miss Honey’s house. But in the book, everything is exaggerated, from the narrator’s summation of events to Miss Honey’s dilapidated home. Matilda is also depicted as a perfectly normal child with fanciful visions and a wild curiosity who just happens to have read and comprehended just about every book in the public library.
In the movie, the narrator, Miss Honey and Matilda herself are more painted as straight characters, seemingly attempting to keep it real. Matilda still has a great love of reading, but that gets pushed into the background in favor of her developing her psychic powers and becoming a rallying point for the rest of the school. It leads to a lot of fun scenes, including a movie-exclusive scene in which Matilda takes an old doll that belonged to Miss Honey from the Trunchbull’s house and messes with the Trunchbull by moving things around the living room with her mind. But it also makes the story more about getting even with adults than about fostering a yearning for higher thinking, which is where Dahl’s book thrived.
The movie does the book justice, and it’s definitely a fun romp for kids. The book has more to offer a child who, like Matilda, is looking for a little more stimulation, and it makes for a great gateway book, discussing Dickens and Tolkien and everything in between.