This book to film comparison contains spoilers.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the story of Matilda, even though I probably hadn’t seen it in a decade. After watching the musical, reading the book, and re-watching the movie in a six-month period, Roald Dahl’s tale has earned a special place in my heart once more. The movie and the book differ in many ways, but the general story and its moral remain the same throughout.
One of the most obvious changes is that of location. Roald Dahl’s book is set in the United Kingdom, whereas the 1996 movie was set in America. I assume that the change in locale was to try and make the story more relatable to a US audience; however, considering the fact that Danny DeVito produced, directed, and starred in the film, I think the location may have been beneficial for him as well. Ultimately, the location matters very little as it is not an integral part in the novel.
The biggest change from the location is the slight shift in humour to fit American audiences rather than the more subtle snark of Dahl’s writing. I think the different countries and schooling systems may have also contributed to the slight difference in Matilda’s age. In the book, she started school at five and a half, whereas the movie had her at six and a half.
Police and adoption
The FBI agents who watch Matilda’s house in the movie are not a huge part of the book. Mr Wormwood does eventually flee the country for receiving stolen goods, and there’s a vague mention of strange cars often parked outside Matilda’s home. Book Matilda does know about her father’s dirty dealings but she seems blissfully unaware of just how much trouble he could get into until Miss Honey explains it to her.
With her family in such a hurry to leave, Book Matilda is merely passed off by her parents with barely a second glance. In the movie, Matilda conveniently has adoption papers in her backpack for her parents to sign. Their parting is slightly more emotional and it seems like Matilda’s parents might even miss her. Maybe. Just a bit.
Powers and revenge
In the movie, Matilda’s powers begin manifesting before she even starts school but it’s not until the incident with Trunchbull and the newt that she does something knowingly. Unable to replicate the event for Miss Honey, she spends time practising control. Once she has that control, Matilda uses her powers far more liberally.
The book, on the other hand, features Matilda’s powers only a few times and mostly to enact revenge upon Miss Trunchbull. Matilda has no difficulty in showing Miss Honey her new abilities immediately after the newt incident, and her exercises in control correlate directly to her big plan for Trunchbull.
Matilda’s plan differs drastically across mediums. Movie Matilda’s plan is two-fold: scare Trunchbull in her own home, and (when it becomes necessary) finish off the job at school. Book Matilda never actually steps foot in Trunchbull’s house; there’s no mention of Miss Honey’s childhood possessions or fond memories associated with the house for Matilda to try and salvage.
Instead, Book Matilda succeeds in scaring Trunchbull with the blackboard message from Miss Honey’s father. There’s no need for any other magical intervention as the message sends Trunchbull into a dead faint. After recovering from her faint, Miss Trunchbull marches out of the school—unfortunately without having children throw food at her—and disappears. Miss Honey’s inheritance is recovered, and she moves back into her childhood home.
While the movie shows that Matilda retains her powers after her more trying ordeals are over, Book Matilda’s powers disappear entirely with time. Her abilities are explained as being an effect of her overactive and underutilised intelligence. Once she is moved into an older class and receiving appropriate mental stimulation, her powers are no longer necessary or wanted.
Though there are marked differences in the delivery, the overall story of Matilda remains similar and enjoyable in book and on screen. Mara Wilson plays a beautiful Matilda and there could not be a more perfect Trunchbull than Pam Ferris. It’s hard to separate my childhood love for the movie from my adult assessment but I’ve developed a deep appreciation for Roald Dahl’s original work. Matilda is the first book of his that I’ve read, and I’m a sucker for Dahl’s narrative style.