Matilda, alongside Toy Story and The Flintstones, defined my childhood. One of these is not like the other. Of this, I’m fully aware. But I digress. Matilda was – always will be – one of a rare species, the movie I’ll watch through to completion whenever I happen across it on television. Other movies might be higher in my affections, yet for Matilda I have a very special, unconditional type of love, the kind that makes me put the remote aside for it when I may very well pass right over those other movies. You can call it nostalgia, or argue that it’s a feeling bred by familiarity. Personally, I have no desire to understand the rationale behind it.
Matilda is a movie I hope to raise my own children on, maybe that they’ll grow up to be like her or, at least, like Matilda herself, Mara Wilson, writer of thisenlightening article. Yes, Mara Wilson wrote for Cracked, and did a lovely job at that; adjust your image of her accordingly. Don’t allow her to change it for you, though; puberty wasn’t especially kind to her, yes, but she’s wrong to rate herself below Lindsey Lohan in the looks department. Perhaps she’s not quite as well-adjusted as she seems.
Anyway, having watched Matilda more times than I can remember, reading the book without constantly comparing and contrasting the two was beyond me. Likewise, the movie was never at risk of losing out. As much as I love Roald Dahl, this was always going to be a case of does the book live up to the movie instead of the other way around. The short answer to that burning question is no.
The long answer is that the movie seems more sure-footed than the book, its strokes less broad and clumsy. Compared to the movie, the characters in Dahl’s book are more exaggerations than human beings, which I think is especially apparent in the dialogue. While the movie borrows pieces of dialogue here and there from the book, most of it has been noticeably reworked or re-written entirely to allow for more natural speech, particularly from the children, and for the demonization of the adults (save Miss Honey) to be dialed back.
Miss Trunchbull, whose last name I’ve seen as everything from Trunchbottom to Trunchbowl over on Goodreads, amusingly enough, spends most of the book launching into practically the same excessively mean-spirited diatribe. Moreover, her physical harrassments of the students reach all new levels in the book. If you’ve seen the movie, do you recall the scene in which she throws a child out a window? In that case, Matilda was there to help rescue him. Not so in the book, as there’s nothing to stop him from plummeting right to the ground.
That’s the tale of the tape here, so to speak. Seemingly minor differences that actually change the spirit entirely. This is no clearer than in the treatment of her powers; in the movie, her having them, and how she uses them, is central to the plot, whereas in the book they’re more of an afterthought, a means to an end, not even coming into play until a little bit past the halfway mark.
In the movie, Matilda is an active force; in the book, she’s more passive, her actions more passive and defensive than aggressive and offensive. It’s for this reason that I plan on having my future children follow my example by watching the movie first, and reading the book second. I feel there’s more to admire in and aspire towards with the Matilda of the movie, as well as more warmth and three-dimensionality. That being said, lovers of the movie will still find a good deal to love about the book.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.