Books are important. They really are. They send us beyond everything we are and help us craft our own fantasies. They nurture, grow, and care for us in ways others can’t. Simple words on the brown and white hues of a page can impact us forever.
They can even unlock a hidden power. The work of Roald Dahl, who celebrates 100 years today, is the best way to send children into fantastical mysteries and imaginative dreams. And that essence is no more caught in his story Matilda.
Unlocking the magic for the big screen, however, is an almighty task but the 1996 cinematic version does wonders for the tale.
Danny DeVito directs and stars in this adaptation about a young girl hapless within several abusive environment. From her TV obsessed family to her strict school, Matilda has spent a lifetime unwanted and abandoned. Finding solace in the library, and a multitude of books and stories, Matilda uncovers bountiful worlds beyond her own and escapes within the creativity on the pages. When she is pushed to anger and frustration, a magic forms and she discovers that she can move objects with her mind. Using the power to free her and her friends, Matilda wishes for nothing but a loving home – which she may find in the kind Miss Honey.
There is no denying that Roald Dahl’s books came from an admiration for children. Whether portraying their gifted and kind hearts or their courage and resilience with the world around them, Dahl has always allowed children to be the heroes of his tales and wrote them as the most vital of our species. His disdain for pathetic and cruel adults is clear in Matilda, as well as his hate for technology such as the television. All these themes are caught greatly in DeVito’s work. Though Dahl was famed for never liking adaptations of his work, DeVito caught the innocence and wonder of Matilda in true nineties form.
The stage that DeVito set is one of care, allowing Matilda’s character to be headstrong, gentle, generous, and kind. The intelligence of Matilda on film comes from a great place – fleshing her out to be humble, gracious, yet stubborn too.
There are fantastical elements of Matilda and remarkably work on screen in a glorious juxtaposition. Whether it’s the titular character making her classmate glide to safety, or the grotesque punishments that Ms Trunchball inflicts on her school, the balance of good and deplorable make an engrossing film. Truly, however, Matilda’s greatness comes from Maria Wilson. The child star of the nineties came into fruition brilliantly with the magical girl. Calm and stoic yet filled with wonder, Wilson showcased a talent beyond her years with Matilda.
Finding compassion in Miss Honey, a teacher whose own childhood was filled with abuse, the film becomes a redemptive story-arch with both women choosing the power within. The message that family is the one you chose is strong here, especially if your own flesh and blood often pretend you don’t exist. With Emebth Davidtz soft-spoken Miss Honey crafted a safe place for Matilda, only then can they both grow and it is so endearing to watch.
Years on, Wilson and those who look upon her as an idol have all grown up – hopefully passing down this film to their children. Yet the ideas and the character have filtered into our pop-culture, eventually inspiring an Olivier winning musical by Tim Minchin. For fans of the musical, you must surely head to the original film where you’ll be greeted with a much more stripped back and gentle look at the character.
There are moments of pure joy and you cannot help but cheer at the great moments as benevolence triumphs over greed and control.