54 – Matilda: An Adaptation of an Adaptation

This week I am joined by co-host Chloë Townsend. Adaptations of beloved stories don’t always go well, but that’s not the case with Matilda: The Musical or the recent film adaptation! After a chaotic holiday season, my daughter and I finally managed to go to the movies, and here’s our thoughts on this thoroughly delightful film, which is based on Roald Dahl’s final novel.

You can watch Matilda: The Musical with your kids and then talk about how adaptations will always be slightly different from the source material. As long as the original story is treated with respect and changes are made with care, that’s ok! Here are our notes from watching the film. You can make similar notes using the printable form in the activity below.

What things were in the novel but missing from the film?

Matilda’s brother Michael has been written out. There were also many scenes which describe Matilda sitting quietly and reading, but it makes sense to remove them because watching someone sit and read is not very good for a stage show or movie.

What things were missing from the novel but added to the film?

The story about the Escapologists was added, as well as Matilda’s even stronger telepathic abilities. In the book, Miss Trunchbull runs out of the school after Matilda uses her mind to trick her into thinking that the ghost of Magnus is writing with chalk. In the film, Matilda uses her powers to create a physical representation of Magnus using chains, and then braids Miss Trunchbull’s hair before tossing her out of the school. These additions take advantage of the special effects available to filmmakers and make the scene more visually dramatic for viewers. They are big additions, but they are in keeping with the spirit of the original scene.

What things were in the novel but changed a little bit in the film?

Mr. Wormwood’s hair is not bleached but rather turns green. Green would show up better and look more comical onstage, and the bright color also worked well on film. Also, in the book he cuts up his hat after it is glued to his head. In the film, he keeps the hat on until Matilda releases it. This is as slight difference from the book, but it gives Matilda a nice chance to show forgiveness toward her father at the end of the story.

What actor most closely matched the character from the book?

Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull. The makeup team deserves a lot of praise as they were able to give her false teeth and many face prosthetics, but they looked completely natural and didn’t create a rubbery appearance. Despite not being a broadway singer, Thompson gave an excellent vocal performance, which was helped along by the fact that the role is well suited to speaking and shouting many lines from songs. It was also interesting to see this actor in a role as a large, loud, ugly buly, as she often plays characters that are good, quiet, and even timid.

Andrea Riseborough should also be mentioned in her role as Mrs. Wormwood. It would be very easy for this character to be uninteresting or even unlikeable, but she played the part for laughs very well.

Which actor least matched the character from the book?

Lashana Lynch, but only physically. The actor was able to portray Miss Honey’s emotions and personality quite well, but she was less of a physical match for the character as described in the book. Lynch is quite tall and is extremely athletic. She is very physically strong and usually plays characters like super heroes, soldiers, and spies. An important contrast in the book is between Miss Trunchbull’s large and strong body and Miss Honey’s thin, frail one. For many years, Miss Trunchbull made sure that Miss Honey stayed weak, even to the point of making sure Miss Honey never had enough to eat. A very important moment for Matilda in the book is when she realizes that Miss Honey only eats one meal a day as a result of her aunt’s cruelty and controlling behavior. It would not be possible for Miss Honey to look so healthy or strong, as this would require plenty of nutritious food to eat and a regular exercise routine. However, this difference isn’t a fatal flaw to the musical, just a noticeable difference.

What moment from the book was best interpreted in the film version?

The song “Naughty” really portrays Matilda’s spirit. She refuses to allow the adults in her life to mistreat her, and so she decides to “change her story” by using the tools she has to get away from their control. Roald Dahl would likely have approved of this song, as a major theme of Matilda is the idea that bullies should not be obeyed simply because they happen to be in charge.

Activity: Examine an Adaptation

After reading Matilda by Roald Dahl, watch the film version of Matilda: The Musical. Use this worksheet to note changes to the story as well as choices made by the film’s production team. Use the worksheet to start a discussion or prompt an essay about how effectively the novel was adapted into a musical and then into a film, and what decisions helped or hindered the artistic efforts of the filmmakers.

48 – Matilda’s Library

Matilda was Roald Dahl’s last major work, being published just two years before the author’s death. At the end of his life, Dahl left behind a powerful, funny, bonkers story about a little girl who outsmarts not only her useless parents but also the cruel and abusive headmistress at her school. But Matilda is so much more. It’s also a love letter to great works of literature and a powerful statement in favor of the education and employment of women at a time when women and girls had to fight to have their ideas and abilities taken seriously.

Activity: Join Matilda’s Book Club

Roald Dahl had enough life experience and talent as a writer that his book recommendations should carry some weight. The following titles are mentioned in the text of Matilda as being great books appreciated by a very intelligent little girl. Choose one or more of these books and read them with your children. You may wish to do as Matilda did and make yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate, Ovaltine, or Bovril to sip while you read. As Dahl wrote:

It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.

Full disclosure: I’d never drink Bovril but if you like it, I am very happy for you.

As you read these books, talk with your kids about why you think Matilda liked them (or didn’t) and why you think Roald Dahl thought they were important enough to put on his reading list.

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Secret Garden
Charles Dickens – Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, and The Pickwick Papers
William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury
Graham Greene – Brighton Rock
Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and The Sea
Rudyard Kipling – Kim and Just So Stories
C.S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
J. B. Priestley – The Good Companions
George Orwell – Animal Farm
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath and The Red Pony
Mary Webb – Gone to Earth
H. G. Wells – The Invisible Man

There are a few other authors who are mentioned in Matilda, but none of their works are mentioned specifically. These include Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Conrad, The Brothers Grimm, William Shakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien. You could also select one or more works by these authors to read.

43 – Best Audiobook Performances

Audio versions of children’s books can be a great way to keep up on “reading” when you don’t have time to sit down with a book. I listen to lots of audiobooks and prefer to hear authors reading their own work. However, voice actors can also give amazing performances, bringing characters to life in a way that really does justice to the author’s work.

My favorite performances of books children will enjoy are:

      • Matilda by Roald Dahl, read by Kate Winslet
      • Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, read by the author
      • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, read by the author (Note: good for teenagers, not younger kids)
      • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis

Activity: Record your own Audiobook

Kids can have a lot of fun recording their own audio versions of their favorite stories. Any kind of story can be recorded, from a family memory to a well-known folktale. Students can adapt a longer tale, or just record part of it. Children can also try their hand at adding sound effects, experimenting with different objects to produce the right sound. Recordings could be done in a very simple way, using a phone or laptop to record audio in a single take, or you could try a more ambitious project involving editing, multiple audio tracks, and sharing the final result with others.