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.