Nostalgiaville: Matilda


November 4, 2010 by abbyo

For Roald Dahl fans, 1996 was a big year. That year, two adaptations of his work hit the theaters, and both were hits: “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Matilda,” the subject of today’s post. Both films and books were favorites of mine growing up, particularly “Matilda,” since it also played into girl power, which was big at the time. Spunky girl heroes were everywhere you looked, and the combined popularity of that, Dahl’s books and the draw of the “Matilda’s” star, Mara Wilson (the “it” child actress of the 90s), was a powerful combination.

Roald Dahl has always been a popular children’s author, and now that I’m familiar with his works as an adult, that seems a little odd. Much like the Grimm’s Fairy Tales to which his work is often compared, Dahl’s MO was to put sweet kids in dangerous, often abusive situations, and cloak the whole thing in wordplay and candy-coated descriptions. His books are edgy reading to say the least, but it’s that edginess and clever humor that makes kids and adults alike lap them up.

Film versions of Dahl’s stories attempt that same balance, but it works better in some places than in others. In “James and the Giant Peach,” for example, the fantastical elements complement the dark ones because most of the movie is animated. In the case of “Matilda,” that darkness is also mixed with a sense of fun, but it’s not as comfortable. In the 14 years since I first saw “Matilda” in a theater in Chicago with my dad, my impression of the movie hasn’t changed all that much, but there are some subtle differences that give the movie a creepier tint than it had when I was 8.

We’ll start with the heroine. Matilda Wormwood is a bright kid with a family who doesn’t appreciate her. When they even bother to pay attention to her, it’s to yell about how “strange” she is. Although she has friends and a great teacher at school, the principal is a total bear who tortures kids just because she feels like it (how she never got hit with a hefty lawsuit is beyond me). Suddenly, Matilda discovers that, in addition to her superior intellect, she’s also telekinetic. She decides to start standing up for herself and plays little pranks on her parents (gluing her father’s hat to his head, for instance).

As a child, I got the message. Matilda was smart and brave. She was standing up for herself and her friends by getting back, in small but satisfying ways, at the people who hurt her. But as an adult, I brought a new set of filmgoing experiences to my viewing that presented a different perspective, one that was a little less pleasant. For example, Matilda’s telekinesis seems quirky initially, but given her troubled background and penchant for revenge, they place her one step up from Carrie White. If Brian DePalma had been directing this movie instead of Danny DeVito, I guarantee you it would have ended differently. An early scene where Matilda’s anger at her father causes the TV to explode feels like a kiddie version of “Scanners.” It doesn’t help that Wilson isn’t a very good actress (probably the reason she hasn’t made a movie since 2000). She shows so little emotion that her character isn’t just unusual; she’s unholy.

Then there’s the villain, Miss Trunchbull, the school principal. It’s one thing to read about a scary teacher and her awful disciplinary methods. It’s another to actually see Miss Trunchbull (embodied with vigor by Pam Ferris) manipulate and terrify her students. The Chokey, the iron maiden-like cupboard that is her preferred mode of whipping kids into shape, is even scarier when seen with your own eyes than it is to read about. On the page, Miss Trunchbull and the Chokey are larger-than-life. They don’t exist anywhere but the colorful world of the book. The movie makes them, and the threats they present, realistic.

Even if Miss Trunchbull starts out the film looking like the stuff of childhood urban legend, there comes a point at which it’s impossible to see her as anything else but terrifying. Halfway into the film, we learn the personal history of Miss Honey, Matilda’s beloved teacher, and it makes Matilda’s neglectful parents seem like Ward and June Cleaver. Miss Trunchbull is Miss Honey’s aunt, and raised her after her parents died. The mother died of natural causes. The father…didn’t. Miss Honey tells Matilda his death was ruled a suicide, but it’s obvious she doesn’t believe this. Matilda doesn’t either. They have this exchange:

Matilda: I don’t think Magnus (the father) killed himself.
Miss Honey: Neither do I.

While Matilda’s reaction is naively optimistic, reaffirming the goodness of the dead man’s character and his love for his daughter, Miss Honey’s reaction is different. What you take away from this scene is that Magnus was murdered, and Miss Honey has been living most of her life under the tyrannical rule of the woman who killed him. In a later scene, Miss Trunchbull grabs her niece by the arm saying, “I broke your arm once before…and I’ll do it again.” The idea that this woman’s actions could cross from the ridiculous (the Chokey) and into active violence—the kind that some kids actually do experience—is darker-than-normal territory for a kid’s film (and, I’m pretty sure, wasn’t in the book—correct me if I’m wrong!). Of course, at age 8, my reaction to the scenes above was like Matilda’s. Now that I understand the gravity of the situation presented, my reaction is more like Miss Honey’s. A real-world evaluation of Miss Trunchbull paints her as a severely mentally ill woman who shouldn’t be anywhere near kids. The fact that she is just makes her scarier.

Of course, in the end, “Matilda” is still a movie about child empowerment, and the importance of an active imagination. Like all fairy tales, the characters have to weather dangerous situations before everything ends happily ever after. In this movie, however, those dangerous situations are more realistic than most fairy tales (and in some ways more so than Dahl’s book). In addition to being a fairy tale, “Matilda” is a survivor story about two damaged individuals who manage, through intelligence and strength of will, to find happiness. It’s still a sweet movie. It’s just gotten a little freakier with age.


14 thoughts on “Nostalgiaville: Matilda

  1. docutuesday says:

    Oh how I loved this movie as a kid! My sister and I used to watch it all the time!

  2. […] the relationship between the parent (Elizabeth Perkins as Dorey Walker) and the child (Mara Wilson, surprisingly emotive as Susan). Here, we find out more about why Mrs. Walker has told Susan that Santa doesn’t exist. […]

  3. […] when I give a movie like “Jurassic Park” or “Matilda” a closer viewing, I expect to notice more than I have on previous viewings. Sometimes I understand […]

  4. […] Nostalgiaville: Matilda […]

  5. Pilar says:

    Me too! i used to watch it all the time with my brother! and now (like 13 years after) i just saw it last night and happiness ran through my soul as a child. I fell in love one more time with Matilda and Mrs. Honey (Señorita Miel in Spanish) and that was awesome! once again i felt scared as a child in the persecution on Mrs. Trunchbull house. But at the end of everything (and here’s the point for the author) I didn’t felt the same way I used to when I was a little girl… i think it’s because of the perception, it always changes with the years… Matilda kind of scared me this time i saw her, she was a little creepy… maybe because of what the writer says: the little emotion she shows.. she looks ok every time even when she’s suffering! Lol anyway!! that’s the movie of my childhood and i really like it, is just beautiful and i learned a lot of that film in those years: Kinds has rights and should be loved.

  6. Melissa/oneaprilday says:

    Maybe because I first watched Matilda with my kids (6 and 8) and was so thinking of the film from their perspective (interestingly, the scariest scene for them involved the force-feeding of the cake), I didn’t think about the incredibly dark vein of the film as much. But you’ve brought it out really nicely here, and now I’m thinking Pan’s Labyrinth would make an interesting pairing – imagination/magic in a child as it tries to compete with or cope with very dark circumstances.

  7. Melissa/oneaprilday says:

    That’s 8, not 8) ! 🙂

  8. Kirk Andrews says:

    I was curious to know if you’d heard of Matilda the musical that debuted here in London in November or perhaps seen it. I just did, and throughout the 2nd act it became clearer and clearer just what was going on on stage. The question what a comedy about child abuse can or cannot achieve took root in my mind and wouldn’t leave. The abusive speech and terrifying punishments that the children are exposed to are quite too real in the flesh. There is an incredible amount of talent in this show, but whether we’ve passed the threshold of appropriateness on this subject is up for discussion and should be discussed. I enjoyed the show, but cannot escape the feeling the live version of a children’s book with the underlying theme of child abuse left me with. What’s even more terrifying were the smiles on the audiences faces after the show, as if they hadn’t been affected as deeply at all as me. I even asked a member of staff if they had heard anyone comment that the show gave them an uneasy feeling. They said no. While everyone was applauding, I reached for my bag to take a Xanax, knowing in a moment’s time I’d be wedged between a hundred strangers on the Underground. So, I’m relieved to read your review. I already plan to see Matilda again. I just have to compare whether I’m just being overly sensitive now that I know more of what to expect. I don’t believe that will be the case. One explanation I’ve come up with is that the majority of people just don’t follow lyrics that closely, and I did, and they were borderling on horrorifying. I also couldn’t get Carrie out of my head, a movie which I love, but we are introduced to her as a teenager and not given much room to contemplate her early childhood. Matilda the musical, however, does exactly that.

    • abbyo says:

      Kirk-How interesting! I wasn’t aware that there was a musical version of Matilda. Given the way theater tends to migrate, I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before it shows up over here in the States. Thanks for your insight!

      • Kirk A says:

        I’ve actually never seen the film. I’m watching it now. But I do remember the book. I wasn’t that good at math and I failed miserably at telekinesis, but I was almost as bookish as Matilda as a young boy. And I connected with her. And Danny. 🙂 I’ll share some additional thoughts as I let this all sink in.

  9. Erika says:

    I love that movie hilarious

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