• Sun. May 19th, 2024

Celebrating Roald Dahl: Matilda from Page to Screen

ByFreddy Lowe

Mar 14, 2023
An image of a bright blue Matilda the Musical sign

Now is a more crucial time than ever to celebrate Roald Dahl.  Not only is his literature written with a wonderfully wicked turn-of-phrase, but his themes effortlessly stand the test of time: the empowerment of the kind-hearted and the rise of the underdog.  In none of his works are these more obvious than in Matilda.

It is the story of a quiet, intelligent bookworm with a small persona but a strong sense of justice. Her wealthy, moronic family send her to Crunchem Hall: a primary school as friendly as it sounds. Whilst there, she befriends the gentle, kind-hearted Miss Honey, who turns out to have intense trauma in her past, and locks horns with the ruthless, bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, famous for practising hammer-throwing with young girls wearing pigtails.

There feels little need to praise Matilda: the extent of its success speaks for itself. In 2003, the BBC ran a poll called The Big Read in which the British public ranked their top 200 favourite novels.  Matilda came in at number 74 (surrounded, incidentally, by many other Dahl books). There is something intrinsically satisfying about a quiet and hitherto ignored little girl using her love of books to overthrow tyrants. Whether it is your favourite Dahl or otherwise, it is a rightful classic.

With such an iconic novel, any film adaptation has large shoes to fill.  In my opinion, Matilda has been well served! It has received two unique – and very different – adaptations since publication.

The first was a 1996 feature film starring Mara Wilson and directed by Danny DeVito. This is a charming and lovingly directed adaptation that more than does the job. It is very clearly directed by DeVito because he features extensively (he stars as Matilda’s father). However, this is no bad thing (he is an entertaining performer). Additionally, given that Dahl’s children’s novels tend to be short, many adaptations feel the need to expand the plot with more twists. This film is no exception. We get a host of new and dramatic sequences that certainly don’t come from Dahl, including a borderline action-film-esque scene set in Miss Trunchbull’s house (Matilda doesn’t set foot in it in the book). However, these new scenes don’t feel shoehorned in. Indeed, whilst watching the more recent adaptation, I was expecting some of these plot additions to appear, having forgotten they weren’t in the book. This proves how seamless the changes are.

The disadvantages of this adaptation are outside its control. Roald Dahl’s signature narrative voice obviously cannot be transcribed onscreen. Therefore, any adaptation of his work is shadowed by a borderline guarantee that the book will be better. This is nothing DeVito could help; it certainly doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have bothered. Secondly, equally beyond his control, it is overshadowed by the more recent film adaptation.

In 2022, director Matthew Warchus presented us with his version.  Unlike the 1996 film, this one circumvents the shadow of Roald Dahl’s novel because it does not, in fact, adapt the novel.  It is an adaptation of the stage musical. Therefore, it adopts a life of its own and provides a wholly different yet exhilarating experience. Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is an utterly outstanding adaptation that should be seen by all avid Dahl fans.

This sublime tour de force maintains a deft balance between cinematic and theatrical atmosphere. It takes advantage of the cinematic form with its gorgeous soaring camera shots but still has the unapologetically over-the-top camp of a theatre show. Every child performer is impeccable to almost unbelievable extremes. The talent behind each ensemble number (especially the final belter Revolting Children) makes you enviously wonder if some of the dancing is CGI.

There is no cast member one can fault. The iconic Lashana Lynch (No Time To Die) plays a timid but heartfelt Miss Honey, while Emma Thompson’s Miss Trunchbull is delightfully caricatured. Alisha Weir, our main star, was only 12 upon the film’s release (again, cue our jealous awe!), yet she enthrals throughout. The film is a showcase of her monumental talent. Fans of Roald Dahl’s Bruce Bogtrotter (of chocolate cake fame) will also be happy. He becomes the star of the show towards the end.

It is a rousing, moving, and quintessentially feel-good cinematic experience. The only criticism I could muster is that the ending possibly overdoses the ‘cheese’ factor, but in a theatrical context, that matters not.

I will always defend and proudly promote Roald Dahl’s stories. His storytelling is worth preserving, and we are extraordinarily privileged to have two such accomplished adaptations of Matilda. Everyone involved in these two films is part of the striving to continue Dahl’s distinguished legacy, and that alone is commendable.

To quote the film’s best musical number, I say to all fellow Dahl defenders out there, “we’ll be revolting children till our revolting’s done!”

Image Credit: Matilda the Musical at Shubert Theatre” by BroadwayTour.net is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival