Big Lessons from a Small Girl: YPG’s Book to Film Club Reviews Matilda

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“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.” That’s Roald Dahl’s opening line for his book MATILDA (Penguin, 1988). And he’s right; it is a funny thing about mothers and fathers. They have the job of bringing us into the world. We have the job of breaking out of theirs. And that’s what makes us who we are.

Matilda is the unbelievable product of Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood and the totally believable creation of Roald Dahl. She is a tiny girl with an outsized intellect who can effortlessly run circles around her family but who meets her match when she starts school at Crunchem Hall and locks horns with the vicious schoolmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

As he does so well, Dahl brings us once again into the world of a child, where it is tough being small and young and always at the mercy of the adult world. Matilda’s secret weapon is her intellect, as well as her kindness, compassion, and determination to always do the right thing. And Dahl’s secret weapon is revealing the truth to us in ways that are simultaneously funny and horrifying. Funny because we see the warped world through the innocent eyes of a child, and horrifying because we often recognize ourselves as card-carrying members of that warped world.

I read the Scholastic school book club version of Matilda, illustrated by Quentin Blake. The beauty of the story is that it is rather timeless. Yes, we realize it takes place relatively recently since Matilda’s father is a used car salesman, but it could be the ’60s or 70s . . . or today. Regardless, you get the sense from Dahl’s writing that this is a little old-school, taking place before e-mail and cell phones and texting, before there were PCs (and maybe before we were so “PC”). It takes place in a small town that could be anywhere in England. And there are the totally charming illustrations by Blake that really do bring the story of Matilda to life: the tiny girl with the long hair and the bright eyes, the beloved Miss Honey, with her sweet face and owl-like glasses, and the dreaded Trunchbull with her taskmaster uniform and perpetual scowl.

It was a small and excited group of YPGers that hunkered down on Wednesday, October 12, at 7:00pm in a conference room in the after-hours silence at Penguin’s offices to watch the film adaptation of Matilda (screenplay by Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord). I snuck in a bit late, and it was startling to pull my jacket off in the dark and see that this was a Danny DeVito production. The story had been moved—hijacked, I thought at first—from the dreamy light of a sleepy village in England to the blaring strip-mall brightness of suburban America. I blinked, feeling a bit cheated, but it soon became clear that no matter the location, this film was very much the same story Dahl intended.

While there are some lovely moments in the book that do get lost in translation in the movie, the YPG club members agreed that Danny DeVito deserved some serious credit for taking the chances that he did in the film adaptation, particularly in setting the tone by making his character (Mr. Wormwood) the narrator rather than Matilda, which served to further reinforce the “adults-in-charge-and-it’s-out-of-control” vibe. Brave! He was also brave to cast himself as Mr. Wormwood, going the extra mile by casting his real-life wife, Rhea Perlman, as Mrs. Wormwood. It is a marriage made in Day-Glo heaven, and one gets the sense that they were both having a field day with the experience. They played a walking contradiction; he’s a criminal and she’s an enabler, but they somehow both convince themselves that they are living the American dream.

It’s a dream their daughter wants no part of, but while conventional wisdom says that when you are a child and don’t see eye-to-eye with your parents you just have to tough it out, Matilda’s wisdom tells her to push the world back and make room for the person she is–a big lesson from a small girl.

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