Matilda is a 1996 American fantasy film directed by Danny DeVito, based on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. The film was released by TriStar Pictures on August 2, 1996 and stars Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris and Mara Wilson.
Matilda Wormwood is an extremely intelligent girl with a bright personality from an early age, but her spiteful and ignorant parents, Harry and Zinnia, neglect and even mistreat her, never noticing how gifted their daughter is. When Matilda reaches four, her father refuses to buy her a book, prompting Matilda to discover the local library and walk there every day to read while her family is out (Harry works as a used car salesman, Zinnia goes to play bingo, and her older brother goes to school)
By the age of six, Matilda begins to lose patience with her parents. In retaliation for her father belittling her, she mixes his hair tonic with her mother's hair dye, making him accidentally dye some of his hair blond. Harry later takes Michael and Matilda to his workshop, where he reveals that the cars he sells are actually faulty and irresponsibly managed. Matilda accuses him openly and he belittles her again. One of Harry's clients, Agatha Trunchbull, is the abusive headmistress of a poorly-run school, Crunchem Hall. Harry enrolls Matilda in the school, where she befriends several children, but at the same time, learns, especially from Lavender and Hortensia, of Miss Trunchbull's nature and her particularly harsh punishments towards the students, such as the dreaded "Chokey", throwing students out of windows and forcing a boy who stole her slice of cake to eat a whole cake in front of the entire student body to make him sick (though he finishes the cake without getting sick). Fortunately, Matilda's teacher, Miss Jennifer Honey is a kind and lovely woman who adores her pupils and takes an immediate liking to Matilda for her intellect. Miss Honey speaks with Miss Trunchbull and requests that Matilda be moved up to a higher class, but Miss Trunchbull, having been fed a pack of lies about Matilda by Harry, promptly refuses. Miss Honey pays Matilda's parents a visit and requests that they pay a bit more attention to their daughter, but they refuse to listen, effectively making Miss Honey the only person who truly understands Matilda. Meanwhile, Matilda discovers that she and her family are under FBI surveillance, but her parents refuse to believe her, the FBI agents having already fooled them into thinking they are speedboat salesmen.
Sometime later, Miss Trunchbull goes to Matilda's class for a weekly "check-up" and starts to bully the students. As a prank, Matilda's friend, Lavender Brown, places a newt in Miss Trunchbull's water jug to frighten her. Miss Trunchbull, however, accuses Matilda, and Matilda's rage at the injustice leads to her telekinetically tipping the glass over and splashing the water and the newt onto Miss Trunchbull, frightening her. Feeling sympathy for Matilda, Miss Honey invites her to her house for tea. On the way, they pass Miss Trunchbull's house, and Miss Honey reveals her secret to Matilda: when she was two years old, her mother died, so her father, a doctor, invited his wife’s stepsister, Miss Trunchbull to live with them and look after Miss Honey while her father was at work. However, Miss Trunchbull mistreated and abused her step-niece at every opportunity. When Miss Honey was five, her father died of an apparent suicide and in his will, he left all of his assets to Miss Trunchbull, leaving his daughter with nothing. Eventually, the Miss Honey moved out of her aunt’s house into a small cottage she rented from a local farmer. Matilda and Miss Honey briefly sneak into Miss Trunchbull's house while she is out, but her unexpected return leads to a cat-and-mouse chase with Matilda and Miss Honey only barely escaping unnoticed.
When Matilda's telekinetic powers manifest again during an argument with Harry, Matilda trains herself to use her ability at her own will, and her first act is to sabotage the FBI agents' attempt to search Harry's garage without a warrant. That night, Matilda returns to Miss Trunchbull's house, and from outside, wreaks havoc in an attempt to scare Miss Trunchbull away. Miss Trunchbull almost flees in terror, but she finds Matilda's ribbon in the process and realizes that she was there. The next day, Miss Trunchbull visits Matilda's class again to get Matilda to admit her guilt, but as she begins abusing the children again, Matilda uses her powers to write a message on the blackboard, posing as the ghost of Miss Honey's father accusing Miss Trunchbull of murdering him and ordering her to leave town. Miss Trunchbull is driven insane by the terror and attacks the students, but Matilda keeps them out of harm's way with her powers and the student body forces Miss Trunchbull out of the school by pelting her with food until she leaves forever. Miss Honey's father's true will is discovered by the police, which named Miss Honey as the sole beneficiary of her father's assets, and Miss Honey moves back into her home, with Matilda visiting frequently.
Sometime later, however, the FBI finally uncovers enough evidence to prosecute Harry, and they prepare to flee to Guam. They stop by Miss Honey's house to pick Matilda up, but she refuses to accompany them, claiming she wants to stay with Miss Honey, who admits that she has come to see Matilda as the daughter she never had. In that moment, Harry and Zinnia then state that Matilda was the only daughter they had ever had and never understood, but they decide to let Miss Honey adopt her, this time on good terms with her. Harry, Zinnia and Michael escape, while Matilda lives a happy life with Miss Honey.
Differences from the novel
The film is a modernized and Americanized version of Roald Dahl's novel of eight years earlier. Various plot points are shortened or removed, while new details and action sequences are added.
- There are some changes in characters' motivations; for example, in the novel, Matilda's pranks against her father are purely done as acts of revenge. However, in the film, she gets the idea that when a person is bad, he or she has to be taught a lesson, and interprets this as justification for punishing her parents. In the novel, she plays three tricks on her parents, such as mixing her mother's hair bleach with her father's hair dye, hiding a parrot in the chimney tricking the family into thinking there is a burglar in the house, and putting superglue in her father's hat. In the film, she only plays two tricks, the hair dye (with her replacing it with hydrogen peroxide), and the glue-in-the-hat tricks, with both being done on the same day.
- In the novel, Matilda's father destroys the library book The Red Pony by John Steinbeck out of pure malice and that he thinks American authors are morally bankrupt, while in the film, the book he destroys is Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and his reasons for doing so are that he thinks it is trash due to the title (possibly due to the film being set in America).
- In the novel, Mrs. Wormwood is described and illustrated as being tall and podgy, and Mr. Wormwood is described and illustrated as being small and wiry. In the film, their body shapes are reversed, but their heights are still the same as in the novel.
- Smaller changes are those of ages, TV programs and the like; Matilda's brother, Michael, is turned from an ordinary boy into a bullying child, and her mother shows some humanity by giving her away because she is better suited to a life with Miss Honey, while in the novel, both parents drop her without a second thought.
- In the film, the school's name is "Crunchem Hall Elementary School" while it is named "Crunchem Hall Primary School" in the novel.
- Matilda's mother is named "Zinnia" in the film, as she has no name in the novel. Also, Amanda Thripp is ten years old in the novel, but is Matilda's age and in Miss Honey's class in the film. In addition to this, there is no Nigel, Rupert, Eric, or Wilfred in the film. However there is a scene in which Miss Trunchbull holds a boy upside down by his ankle as she does with Wilfred in the novel. This boy also appears to have long hair as Rupert does in the novel. Miss Trunchbull also drops the boy on the floor like she does with Rupert and Wilfred in the novel.
- In the film, it is revealed that Miss Trunchbull is superstitious, but this is not mentioned in the novel.
- At the end of the film, Miss Honey is made the new principal after Miss Trunchbull vanishes; in the novel, however, the job goes to Mr. Trilby, the sympathetic Deputy Head, who has a minor role in the novel and does not appear in the film at all.
- In the film, when Mr. Wormwood sells Miss Trunchbull a car, it shows them talking. In the novel, it does not. Also, in the novel, when Miss Trunchbull says she is glad she was never a child, she says it in Miss Honey's classroom. In the film, she says it when Mr. Wormwood sells her the car. In the film, the car he sold to her was a barely functional red and black 1970 Buick Electra 225 sedan. In the novel, she jokes to Miss Honey that he sold her a car that was almost new, and previously owned by a woman who drove it once a year and had 10,000 miles (in actuality, it was doctored by him using a drill).
- In the film, Matilda's psychokinesis is treated more as a conventional superpower and less as a miracle. Also, she only uses her telekinetic powers after remembering all the mean things her family and Miss Trunchbull have said to her or about her. In the novel, she rigorously practices her psychokinetic powers, which leaves her mentally drained. She also loses them after the incident with Miss Trunchbull. In the film, she still has them in the end, but almost never uses them. The final confrontation with Miss Trunchbull is turned into a match of physical force versus mental powers. In contrast, characters in the novel have a sense of awe at supernatural forces whereas in the film, they are unaffected by these. In the novel, when Matilda attempts to show Miss Honey her powers, she does it sitting at her desk. Then she knocks over the glass with ease, without telling it to tip. In the film, she fails to lift it, however she manages to lift the pitcher later in the film to show Miss Honey her powers. In the film she practices them by moving every loose object around the house, such as playing cards and poker chips, however in the novel she steals one of her father's cigars and practices them with it alone.
- Miss Honey's story about her childhood remains the same. However, the nickname her father used in the novel is "Jenny", while in the film, it is said he called her "Bumblebee". In the film, her father has chocolates which he shared with her as a girl, and she had a doll which she called "Liccy", likely a reference to author Dahl's wife, Liccy, a coproducer of the film. She has none of these items in the novel. In the film, they visit Miss Trunchbull's house while she is temporarily gone. In the novel, they never visited it.
- Hortensia has a boil on her nose and is eating potato chips in the novel. She does not have or do either in the film. She is also revealed to have done bad deeds to Miss Trunchbull in the novel. She never does this in the film, although she mentions that she has been put in the Chokey twice. When she meets Matilda and Lavender in the novel, it is at a time when Matilda has settled in at school. In the film, she meets them when Matilda walks around the playground. In the novel, she repeatedly insults Matilda and Lavender and is a bully, while she is friendly and protective over them in the film.
- Lavender catches the newt all by herself in the novel; she was with Matilda, Bruce, and Hortensia in the film when she did so, and mistook it for a frog. When Miss Trunchbull throws it out to the class, it falls on a light, then a boy catches it. In the novel, it landed right next to Lavender's desk, and she put it in her pencil box.
- In the novel, when Miss Honey asks the class if they know their multiplication tables, Matilda is the only one to raise her hand. In the film, the whole class knows them, Matilda's special ability is discovered when Miss Honey jokes that they could soon solve 13x379, which she solves immediately.
- There is a large food fight between the students and Miss Trunchbull near the end of the film, while there isn't one in the novel. Miss Trunchbull faints in one of the students in the novel, and is carried out of the classroom. In the film, she flees after the food fight.
- Miss Trunchbull's violence and cruelty towards children is slightly mitigated in the film. When she hurls Amanda Thripp into the air, she lands safely gathering flowers (however narrowly missing a spiked fence) in the film. In the novel, she bounces three times but ultimately trots back to the playground. In the film, Matilda is locked in the Chokey while it is only described in the novel. In the scene where Miss Trunchbull throws the boy out of the window, he was eating two M&M's during a literature class. In the novel, he was eating licorice during a Bible study class. In another scene, after Bruce Bogtrotter successfully eats an entire chocolate cake in one sitting without throwing up or getting a stomachache, Miss Trunchbull then demands that everyone stay for five extra hours after school and copy from the dictionary as punishment, while in the novel, she tells them furiously to leave the assembly hall.
- The sub-plot about Mr. Wormwood's shady deals landing him in trouble with the police is hardly mentioned at all in the novel, but in the film, it is expanded and built upon; Matilda notices the two FBI agents spying on them and repeatedly tries to tell her family without any of them believing her that they are (reiterating that no one takes any notice of her despite her trying to help them) cops, with her parents insisting that they are speedboat salesmen. She even comes into direct confrontation with them on one occasion, when they are searching the family garage for stolen car parts. She confronts them for searching without a warrant. When they offer her a chance to cooperate with them against her father, she takes the handbrake off their car, causing it to roll off, and them to end their search prematurely. When the Wormwoods are found out to have used car parts, the locations they move to were different in both the novel and the film: it was Spain in the novel and Guam in the film.
- In the novel, Matilda ran home to find out they were moving. In the film, they dropped by Miss Honey's house and told her that they were doing so.
- In the novel, the Wormwoods' car seen at the very end was a black Mercedes-Benz saloon. In the film, it were a red Chrysler LeBaron convertible and a faded green Ford LTD station wagon, the latter being the getaway vehicle.
- In the novel, Mrs. Wormwood simply asks her husband for permission to allow Matilda to live with Miss Honey, while in the film, they need to sign official legal adoption forms, which were xeroxed from a book. At the end of the novel, Michael is the only family member to say goodbye to Matilda when the family flees the country, but in the film, her mother is the one who does so.
- YoungStar Awards
- Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Comedy Film — Mara Wilson
- Oulu International Children's Film Festival Starboy Award
- Young Artist Award
- Best Performance in a Feature Film — Leading Young Actress (Mara Wilson)
- Best Performance in a Feature Film — Supporting Young Actress (Kira Spencer Hesser)
Two songs are featured in the film. One of them, "Send Me on My Way" by Rusted Root, is played twice: when the four-year-old Matilda is left alone at her house, making pancakes, and at the end of the film, set to a montage of Matilda and Miss Honey playing at Miss Trunchbull's former house. The other song is Thurston Harris's "Little Bitty Pretty One", played when Matilda first discovers her psychokinetic powers.
The film's score was composed by David Newman.
Matilda received critical acclaim at the time of its release. On Rotten Tomatoes it holds a "fresh" rating of 90%. The film fared moderately at the domestic box office, earning $33 million in contrast to its $36 million budget. It fared better during its worldwide release and ended up earning back nearly double its original budget.