Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Matilda: Child Power

There are films (and books) that are meant for children, but sometimes they have a message for people of all ages. In my opinion Matilda directed by Danny DeVito is one of the latter. The film was released in 1996 and is based on a novel that Roald Dahl first brought out in 1988. Today the book titled after its heroine Matilda already is a classic of children’s literature although its story is rather dark with a basic plot revolving around child neglect, abuse and revenge. Luckily, Roald Dahl was a true master of black humour and Danny DeVito is known for his comical talent. 

Matilda is a film comedy that starts on the day when Harry Wormwood (played by Danny DeVito) picks up his wife Zinnia (played by Rhea Perlman) and their newly born daughter Matilda at the hospital. From the first moment it’s clear that the Wormwoods are no model family. They ‘lived in a very nice neighbourhood in a very nice house, but they were not really very nice people’, declares the narrator later. Her father is a crook of a used car salesman. Her mother only cares about bingo and game shows. Her brother Michael is a school boy who takes after them. Matilda is different.

The little girl is not just extraordinary. Matilda is a genius… and nobody notices. As a baby she writes her name with the finger into a blob of spinach on the kitchen sideboard. At the age of two she has learnt to take care of herself and as a four-year-old she reads whatever she can find in the house. When her father denies her books because he thinks that television is much better, Matilda becomes a regular visitor of the local library rummaging through the shelves. She can also add and multiply big numbers in her mind and one night she discovers that she has telekinetic power.

At last Matilda (played by Mara Wilson) is sent off to Crunchem Hall, the school of ogre-like Miss Trunchbull (played by Pam Ferris) to whom he just sold a scrap car. The former shot-putter and hammer-thrower Trunchbull is the absolute tyrant of her school holding pupils as well as teachers in her iron grip, often in the literal sense. The counterpart of the mean and cruel headmistress is good-hearted and kind Miss Honey (played by Embeth Davidtz), Matilda’s class teacher and friend who makes school a pleasure. Before soon Matilda takes up the fight against Trunchbull’s terror regime and... you'd better see for yourself.

The story of Roald Dahl is a reckoning with adults who don’t listen to their children and who don’t pay attention to what they really need. Parents and teachers alike are called to question their usual attitude towards children. Of course, everything in Matilda is exaggerated like in a cartoon, and yet, there’s a grain of truth in every scene. We are all so settled in our own worlds with our own points of view that often it doesn’t even occur to us that another person (child or adult) could have different needs and desires than we have. How good to be reminded of it and to get a chance to have a laugh!

For those who prefer the book:


  1. As usual, I vastly prefer the book to the movie. The book Matilda has the added bonus of being a list of great literature. I don't think anyone could go wrong with following Matilda's reading plan. In fact, even though when I originally read the book (it's on the banned and challenged list) I borrowed it from my local library. Then, I promptly went out and bought a copy.

  2. Oh dear, 'Matilda' on a banned and challenged list!?! Such lists don't even exist here in Austria - you can read and get almost any book you like no matter what age you have(except "writings ... glorifying or advertising the aims of the Nazi Party, its institutions or measures" because they are forbidden and you can be charged with re-engagement in National Socialist activities if you print, distribute or own any of those).

    I just checked a list of 100 most frequently banned and challenged books and I was surprised to find some great classics on it that are recommended for reading in school here.

    Thanks for your comment Joanne that added yet another dimension to the story of Matilda - censorship by parents, teachers, religious leaders or state authorities. Remember Matilda's father didn't want her to read at all!


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