Roald Dahl’s novels are beloved by children across the world but they present a lot of challenges when being adapted to the big screen. It’s one thing to read his darker sensibilities but another to see them and make it still palatable for little children. The best adaptation is probably the Gene Wilder classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory based on Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I also love the movie version of The Witches. This week we had the release of a new adaptation of his book The BFG, which is about a little girl who meets a big friendly giant. So, I thought it would be fun to look at his other well regarded film about a little girl 1996’s Matilda.
I think Matilda may be Dahl’s best written novel It keeps things pretty simple as opposed to creating a magical factory or giant peach with large insects. Matilda is just about an ordinary girl who is born into a bad situation and finds a way out of it- and a little magic never hurt anyone.
That said, it’s still a tricky book to turn into a movie because of the challenges of managing tone. Make no mistake about it Matilda’s life is rough and so showing that without the film becoming downtrodden and mean-spirited is tough to do. Fortunately, director Danny Devito and writers Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord are up for the challenge.
Matilda tells the story of a little girl who is detested by her parents from the moment she is born. Her parents are horrible people with her Dad (played by Devito) a crooked used car salesman and her Mom (Rhea Perlman) a bingo playing addict. Nobody cares about her or watches over her in any way. Fortunately for Matilda she is blessed with a keen intellect and is able to provide for herself, learning how to cook and take care of herself from a very young age.
At the age of 4 she teaches herself to read and discovers the local library is within walking distance. She pours herself into anything she can find including classics like Moby Dick and Great Expectations. She gets a break from her horrible life through the reading and starts to gain more confidence.
And this is where I think the film separates itself from the drab, dark movie it could have become. Matilda played by Mara Wilson is always smarter than everyone else in the movie. There’s never a sense they are dominating over her or ruining her. In fact, once she starts to get angry at the horrible adults the energy of that anger gives her a kind of superpower where she can move items and cause all kinds of mayhem. It is this power over adults that make the movie palatable.
Eventually she is able to convince her parents to allow her to go to school but that is full of new challenges. While her teacher Miss Honey is sweet, the principal, Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) is a beast. She yells, screams and tosses children around. I will say there is probably too much Trunchbull and it does get a little mean-spirited in moments. However, even with Trunchbull, Matilda is always smarter than her- all the kids are.
You can tell Matilda is made in the 90s because there is lots of Home Alone style antics that break up the horrible adults. Whether it is Trunchbull getting a newt in her glass or Matilda gluing her Dad’s hat to his head, kids eat that stuff up, or at least I did growing up. Kids want to feel like they are smarter than the adults- that if they were secretly running things it would all be much better. Movies like Home Alone and Matilda give them that kind of experience. They get to be smarter and sillier than all the adults and that is really fun to see.
The production design, costumes and special effects for the most part hold up and at 98 minutes Matilda doesn’t outwear its welcome. I think you will have a lot of fun watching it as a family and your kids will laugh a lot.
Let me know what you think of Matilda and what is your favorite Roald Dahl movie/book? Also if you see The BFG what did you think of it?