Matilda is one of the more unassuming works by Roald Dahl, a prolific British author who gifted children’s literature with many instant classics. His oeuvre features friendly giants, enormous peaches, anthropomorphic foxes, and other outlandish and fantastical beings. By comparison, the almost realistic Matilda seems less ripe for pop-culture adaptation than the rest. James and The Giant Peach received a stop-motion animated Disney movie, while The Witches movie has a transformation scene so memorable it continues to traumatize kids to this day. Willy Wonka himself is a cultural institution with many iterations of his Chocolate Factory available to enjoy, but Matilda can never be overlooked.
Thirty-five years after the book was first published in 1988, Matilda has thrived with two films and a Broadway musical continuing to inspire children. While not as prolific as the silly chocolatier, Matilda remains a heavily analyzed piece of kids’ entertainment with a bumpy road around its many successes. Is this the greatest Dahl book of them all? Or is this a problematic catastrophe?
The Miracle at Crunchem Hall
Five-year-old Matilda is gifted, in more ways than one. Despite neglectful parents who spend more time belittling her and watching TV than raising their daughter, precocious Matilda teaches herself to speak, read, and do math at a very young age. Not just Dr. Seuss, but Dickens and Bronte, along with serious arithmetic.
Her parents eventually send her to school, with classes taught by the kindly Miss Honey, who recognizes her intelligence immediately. Unfortunately, the headmistress of the institution, Miss Trunchbull, loathes children and makes Matilda her next target. This threatening principal was once an Olympic hammer thrower, and revels in spinning children by their ears and pigtails, or punishing them in a homemade prison called “The Chokey.” As Matilda’s pent-up frustration comes to a head, she discovers her gifts include controlling objects with her mind, leading to a showdown with Trunchbull that changes her life forever.
Brave and independent, Matilda is easy to identify with for many young kids. Her book smarts and humility go a long way in making her relatable to other voracious readers, and it’s impossible not to root for her or Miss Honey as their problems collide.
A prototype for Matilda may have appeared in a short story by Roald Dahl two decades earlier. The Magic Finger features another little girl whose powers manifest through anger, although her uncanny abilities are far more unpredictable and grimmer than Matilda’s, including transforming people to have animalistic features.
Dahl’s books often feature downtrodden children or creatures who seek a better life through their wits against physical strength, and Matilda continues that trend, this time employing telekinetic abilities to make it happen. Matilda herself would be a perfect addition to the X-Men, for example.
Today, Matilda is sometimes viewed as a feminist-forward story in some circles, empowering girls to overcome obstacles. Matilda fights for her right to be educated and treated as an equal, while Miss Honey battles for financial independence. However, some argue this tale is still presented through an antiquated and sexist lens, which was even antiquated in the 1980s.
Many of Roald Dahl’s have been involuntarily censored or altered, something the author vehemently spoke out against. His publisher, Penguin Books, announced earlier in 2023 that many of Dahl’s writings would be altered to better fit modern times. The changes stemmed from accusations of misogyny and racism, as well as physical descriptions of characters deemed offensive or out-of-date. Dahl’s literary catalog is filled with archaic and demeaning depictions of several problematic topics, and Matilda falls into the same quandary. Meanwhile, Dahl’s real-life antisemitism was so well known that his estate actively donates to charities in an attempt to mitigate some of his more distasteful beliefs.
The sixty-plus items altered in Matilda range from removing phrasing that body-shamed children and adults, eliminating names of controversial authors, and inflammatory terms regarding gender, mental health, and skin color.
The backlash about Dah’s sudden censorship from fans and fellow writers alike was intense, enough to have Penguin reverse the decision and offer “classic” uncensored versions of the author’s books in addition to the newer ones. While Matilda arguably could be considered less offensive than others, and the overall topic of expurgation is a prickly one, Matilda suffered fractions compared to Dahl’s other books, whose themes will be debated for years to come.
Revolting Children In Revolting Times
For parents, it’s likely that Matilda remains an overall positive influence to readers seeking the story of liberated women. That said, you’re still dealing with old-fashioned unnuanced stereotypes. Young kids might be okay with these tropes that are newer to them, but it might not hold up as well to adults wanting to reread it for nostalgia’s sake.
But that’s not the true legacy of Matilda. Oddly, the original book is less important today than its adaptations. Less than ten years after the book touched store shelves, Danny DeVito directed the beloved movie adaptation which launched Mara Wilson’s acting career. Fast forward to more recent times, and Matilda has enjoyed a Broadway musical that’s also toured the globe, and a Netflix movie based on that same show.
These versions maintain all of the familiar elements of the book, but take the story in some different, and fantastic directions. The musical and its movie adaptation take things one step further, with a theme of revolution instilled as part of standing up for one’s self, banding together in solidarity instead of battling solo. Whether feminism was an intended theme in Dahl’s book or not, the lawbreaking ladies seen in the newest iterations remind viewers that well-behaved women seldom make history.
Whatever your views of Dahl’s work might be, Matilda is a story that took on a life of its own that will continue to evolve with future adaptations, and empower future generations of kids to fight back against inequality in whatever form it takes.