“Matilda The Musical” is strictly for the book fans. Roald Dahl’s stories have always been known for a certain kind of whimsy, where logic doesn’t rule, and nothing is ever too serious. Yet there is an underlying wisdom to it all, one that makes sense to children trying to understand the actions of adults. While he is best known for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” we would say that “Matilda” and “The Witches” are some of his better works. The story of the chocolate factory did not hold back on the eccentricities of Willy Wonka, which is exactly what has made him so iconic. The other two works, despite their absurdity, were somewhat closer to reality.
While “The Witches” is a bit more obvious since it does not come with an entirely happy ending, looking at “Matilda” in this day and age makes us aware of the tragedies of the primary protagonists, something we had not caught onto as children. It can be said that they gained a happy ending after all, but the path to it was laden with struggles not exactly meant for children. That is what sets apart these stories from the one about the chocolate factory. On that note, Roald Dahl wasn’t a fan of his stories being adapted for the silver screen. It is famously said that he camped outside the theatres when “The Witches” was released and told people to just go read the book. He wasn’t happy about the ending being changed. And we agree with him.
“Charlie” was a fairly easy story to adapt from the book to the movie since the journey of the characters just went from strength to strength. But with “Matilda,” there were nuances to be captured—that of a child wise beyond her years who was trying to survive in a neglectful household. That is the exact reason we did not like “Matilda (1996)” or even the musical that has come out in 2022. Neither of them managed to capture the complex mind of their heroine, as Roald Dahl intended. While the 1996 one at least tried to stay true to the story, this one went completely off the rails in the sense that it was more intent on turning it into a musical than capturing the essence of the story. For example, one particular difference that irked us was Matilda’s trying to get back at her parents every time they wronged her as her way of paying them back. But in the books, the payback is not just that; it is also her way of coping with the injustices thrust upon her. They also got the sequence of events wrong. Her first payback, the one where she dyes her father’s hair wrong, happens after he tears out her book. The second, which is the glue to the hat trick, happens when she is insulted by her father and called a cheat. But we don’t entirely hate this change of sequence. What we did hate was the motivations of her character changing.
Ms. Trunchbull is pretty much the same through every adaptation; we don’t really have any complaints about her. But we would like to note that in the books, when Bruce Bogtrotter finishes the entire chocolate cake, it is a moment of victory for the kids of the entire school. It is the first time that Ms. Trunchbull has faced such an obvious defeat. They really should have left that as it is instead of trying to insert Matilda’s heroism into every aspect of the narrative. Also, while Trunchbull was always caricaturish, there was a calculation behind her actions. Matilda points this out when the headmistress snatches the girl’s pigtails and hurls her across the grounds. The punishments that Trunchbull doles out are so beyond ridiculous and cruel that the parents would never believe it when the children told them what had happened to them. She says that the girl would cut her pigtails herself if her mother didn’t do it for her, which is what happens in the book. But in “Matilda the Musical,” the girl shows up with her pigtails again. A seemingly small error, to be honest, but another step in murdering the essence of the story. However, credit where credit is due; we like what they did with the character of Ms. Honey. While the book and the 1996 movie just depicted her as a mild-mannered teacher, the musical actually sought to address the effects of a childhood full of neglect and abuse on her psyche. Here, she is not just mild-mannered; she is nervous and is trying to come out of an ingrained mindset, probably influenced by Trunchbull, that she is pathetic. It is not shown that she ever gets out of it, but we can hope that once she gets her happy ending at the end of “Matilda the Musical,” she starts her journey toward it.
The character of Mrs. Phelps was tweaked a bit for the musical, but this is a change we found rather adorable. Even in the book, she was Matilda’s support system before she found the school and Ms. Honey. As for the story of the escapologist and the acrobat, while it was intriguing, they needed to find a better use for it than as a segue into Ms. Honey’s past. Not because it wasn’t clever, but because it strayed from the events of the book in a way that we liked less and less. Matilda was a girl who functioned on logic and not on a fictional story fitting with a real-world narrative. If we had to be honest, we would say that “Matilda” is still waiting for a good adaptation. It takes a special kind of mind to find the wisdom in whimsy, and this book hasn’t found anybody who could depict that. Had that already happened, we would have been a little bit more welcoming toward the musical, viewing it as another rendition of a beloved story. But it is hard to give it that status when it is not preceded by a faithful adaptation. On that note, people who have not read the book are not going to like the musical very much because there are gaps in the narrative that only someone who has read the book can fill. Even Matilda’s telekinesis was something that she had extensively discussed with Ms. Honey before carrying out her plans instead of just bringing out the weapons by herself. Also, without the context of the book, Matilda’s pranks on her father aren’t that funny. So, this is going to be our advice for “Matilda the Musical.” Please read the book because this isn’t it.
“Matilda The Musical” is a 2022 Comedy film directed by Matthew Warchus.