Matilda (1996), dir. Danny DeVito

Alongside other adaptations of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction, Matilda is a film I remember strongly: each scene is a game in recalling with glee the moment that follows it. I can’t eat a bowl of Cheerios without remembering a scene that plays as obvious product placement displaying Matilda’s powers – a commercial inserted into a film. It’s a film of images that endure, whether it’s the sales speak of Matilda’s father Harry, the plastic wagon in which she drags her books along the sidewalk, or the assembly hall spectacle of the confection of the towering chocolate cake as a public act of revenge against the young Bruce Bogtrotter. It doesn’t matter whether Bruce ate the cake in the first place, or whether Trunchbull ate it and forgot about doing so. Accepting her word is the only way to survive; many teachers would pass the blame in the same way.

My introduction to the experimental, defining filmmaking of Nicolas Roeg had been through The Witches (1990); my introduction to the aesthetic whimsy of Wes Anderson was Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The BFG (1989) was likely the first DVD I ever owned, bundled together on 2 compressed DVDs with dual sides – alongside The Transformers: The Movie (1986), Black Beauty (1994) and Help I’m a Fish (2001). I read almost every Dahl work for children growing up, delighted at every paperback or copies that materialised in the school library. I watched every film, whether on DVD, VHS or as television broadcasts, including the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). In English class, we were given photocopies of extended extracts from his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984), to read over and analyse. Then there were Puffin’s different editions, adopting different house styles for the cover templates and ways of using Quentin Blake’s illustrations: faded copies from the 70s, 90s reprints, the 2001 editions with Dahl’s name in vertical type I read fondly, or the newer – and worse? – copies that followed in the years since I had stopped reading Dahl. With the release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Dahl’s name was given new prominence, with tie-in books, documentaries about his life and career, and a limited run of Nestlé Wonka bars attached with the chance of a Golden Ticket. I became fascinated by the differences between book and film.

Returning to the film in adulthood, it seems all the more devastating – and visible as more of a product. It’s a product of adapting a beloved British author for American family audiences, the same year as Disney’s similarly complex and dark film about recovery from an abusive family, James and the Giant Peach. It’s a film from the joint venture of TriStar Pictures that defined Sony’s 90s output, another film for parent technology company Sony to insert branded devices into the hands of FBI agents long before the Sony Xperia. Matilda is another case of actor-turned-director (and producer) – playing her father Harry and voicing as the film’s narrator – catapulted by Danny DeVito’s success in the wake of Batman Returns (1992) and Get Shorty (1995). DeVito’s narration is perhaps one of the weak points – an audio commentary provided by the director from a third person point of view removed from his character, adopting the role of Dahl – a storybook of the novella applied to endear and bridge and explain obvious narrative elements. 

The commercial decision to transplant an English narrative into an American setting and audience fits the instincts of previous and forthcoming Dahl adaptations, including his work for older readers, besides a few solely British productions – the television Danny the Champion of the World and Cosgrove Hall’s The BFG (1989), and ITV’s decade long run of Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88). In Matilda, the results come across as somewhat mixed, casting Welsh-German actress Pam Ferris for Miss Agatha Trunchbull, but Crunchem Hall juxtaposes yellow school buses and the U.S. flag with imposing grey, leering, decrepit school grounds that seems to have migrated into the country alongside Catholic immigrants. One can’t dismiss an American aesthetic either: the British settings and filming in Munich for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and in Pinewood for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both relied on the star value of American actors, Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp; Fantastic Mr. Fox uses a British farm, supermarket and even television reporters, but American sports, his style and cast of Clooney and Streep never feels out of place.

It’s inspiring that Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson’s current status as an activist, a bisexual icon, a fighter of fascism, her cousinhood with Ben Shapiro – seems supported by the text of the film. Did her few months in childhood working on Matilda help shape who she is today? Matilda must resist an authoritarian and corporal private school system, and advocates for the right to read in the face of destructive family she doesn’t get along with. The supportive friendship between Lavender (Kiami Davael) and Matilda is framed in shots between the two – and lit in a particular way – that it feels it could blossom into something else in later years. It’s a film with visible queer coding. Matilda place its source of child abuse in headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, a butch woman who laughs at the concept of heterosexual married relationships, and maintains her physical prowess even two decades after competing in the 1972 Olympics, with no partner but anger. James and the Giant Peach had its evil aunts that could equally be read as close-knit sisters or a lesbian couple. Matilda places femininity and the parental relationship with sensitive and encouraging teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) as an escape from abuse.

Some aspects work less well: why would the FBI have such an interest in Harry Wormwood’s misleading and corrupt car dealership to the point of surveilling the family in a disguised van, collecting notes eating fast food, making contact and engaging detailed questions in the living room with her mum, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), as speedboat salesmen, something Matilda can see through straight away – in a corporate America that regularly approves of unethical and illegal business that doesn’t benefit the consumer? As a self-made American man outside of an educational background that is regularly valorised and celebrated? With an FBI that concentrates its efforts on the actions of the American government and fighting against African American and leftwing activism with fatal consequences? Does the family really need to relocate to Guam, abandoning Matilda in the process?

Though it seems at times too intense and tonally inconsistent for children, Matilda is best read as a satire and an exploration of the harmful effects of parents and adults that neglect and abuse their children – an ‘all ages’ version of Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). For an abused child, the film could be a lifeline for understanding their abuse and knowing there’s a way out of it. DeVito finds the core of his story in examining 1990s American identity. The Wormwood family is a victim of broadcasting practices that neglect informative and complex programming and literary adaptations in favour of diversions, the ludicrous capitalistic gameshow of Million Dollar Sticky. The ‘couch potato’ is an archetype that dominated media critiques in the 80s, 90s and 00s that seems to have receded as television viewing patterns shift, but it’s an image that carries a lot of power – conformity to the broadcast schedule is fundamental to the family’s interaction as a unit. Matilda’s desire to quietly read a book in the corner is not okay. There’s an irony to this: the Wormwoods don’t want to be bookworms, or surveying the pages that, in another lifetime, could have been built as wood. As parents, they refute the power of school and Matilda is failed and isolated by both her parents and the local authority unable to recognise she isn’t being taken to school. It’s easy to wonder whether Matilda’s older brother Michael (Brian Levinson) picked up words like ‘dick’ and his aggressive behaviour from his family and the TV. 

The way Trunchbull is able to maintain her power through subordinates isn’t surprising – kids and schools will put up with whatever shit gets things run. Physical, psychological and sexual abuse becomes normalised, and many schools are able to get away with it without oversight. How can you resist through nepotism between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey? The children that are thrown through windows and end up rescued by the manifestation of Matilda’s telekinetic powers, or fly through fields of flowers are corpses, quickly brushed over as just a ‘tragic accident’. The world of Matilda may seem heightened: impaled children bleed from sharp metal protrusions of being kept in solitary confinement. The tragedy in the film can be difficult to square with the family friendly jukebox soundtrack. The victims of Trunchbull’s tyranny include a victim of suicide, Miss Honey’s father Magnus, that Matilda reincarnates as a ghost – an unexplained death that still has questions all these years later. The tragedy that affected one childhood affects another generation, but DeVito utilises it as a plot device to explain why things are the way things are and scare Trunchbull away from the school. 

Matilda’s character plays as a pre-pubescent, supernatural Stephen King girl – a younger version of Carrie (1976) before the onset of menstruation and high school, or the kid from Firestarter (1984). It’s this element that displays the film’s most magical element, moving water and blackboards merely through the power of her mind. Matilda has become a figure for libraries and World Book Day to promote the power of reading alongside Quentin Blake’s memorable illustrations. She’s an easy candidate for neurodivergence, not through her magical powers but her dedication to one thing without really thinking about it, calculating a mathematical sum meant as a throwaway joke and her father’s accounting he pushes onto his children, or seeing past the veil of boat ‘salesmen’. She’s presented as a girl with a high IQ who can easily get into college in only a few years. But I’m thinking of Devon Price’s Medium article Autistic Superpowers. Matilda’s neurodivergent quirks that she doesn’t think about goes together with her literal superpowers.

Perhaps I see myself most in the hordes of books she drags home from the library, piling up around her bedroom. It doesn’t matter if she actually reads the books, or intends to read them soon, or place them in piles, or properly process their meaning and the words on their pages. I remember at the start of middle school where we were asked to fill out postcards with a sketch of our hobbies. I drew myself sat down reading a book in my bedroom, surrounded by a full bookcase of Roald Dahl books and Horrible Histories. It seems an image out of Matilda itself. In adulthood, it seems harder to consume so many books so easily, but it seems an autistic quirk that everything else goes out of the window – plans, priorities, adult responsibilities – because reading and finishing a book is the most important thing – to go onto the next chapter, however long it is. I become hyperfocused; this is the only thing. So it’s wonderful when she gets to have her talents and insights actually nurtured by a responsible adult. The dismissive nature of Matilda’s biological parents becomes confirmed when they so easily sign away the adoption papers Matilda wrote and researched herself, without a tear or a second thought. Matilda is the film for the kids who struggled to survive school.

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