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Matilda: A regressive film from your childhood

This past weekend, I went to Gould Library with my friends and held an exclusive screening of the classic film “Matilda”. Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” made its silver screen debut in 1996 under the direction of Danny DeVito. Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord adapted the original novel for the screenplay that DeVito would use. In translating the story from text to film, “Matilda’s” social critique became far more salient for an American context. Particularly notable is the film’s representation of education’s limitations, promise, and social position. 

The novel contains vivid scenes and character descriptions. The film creates a true to novel interpretation of these characters. However, visual representation clarifies the ambiguities of mental representation from reading. Matilda’s money-oriented parents are seen in all their suburban garishness. The novel’s original setting is a small British village, but DeVito’s film transposes the original story onto suburban America. Matilda’s mother is seen in her ungapatchka house with bleached-out hair and bingo aspirations. The family is upper middle class but are presented as new moneyed and tasteless. They are also extremely disdainful of education. The film ends with the new conclusion that Matilda’s parents flee to Guam from the FBI, a critical detail for an American audience. The subtle representational and narrative modifications serve the film’s social commentary.

The Trunchbull is presented as the tyrannical, violent principal of Matilda’s school. In her first on screen appearance, she purchases a car from Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s father. She immediately aligns herself with Mr. Wormwood, bonding over their love of a good deal and hatred of children. Matilda is referred to as Mr. Wormwood’s mistake, something The Trunchbull assents to with her seminal line, “They’re all mistakes, children.” Matilda is certainly an excessive presence in her family. Her father admonishes her love of reading by saying, “Why would you want to read when you got the television set sitting right in front of you? There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from a television faster.” Here, Matilda stands as firmly traditional in her love of “Moby Dick”. The Trunchbull values education as an institution of discipline, something Mr. Wormwood appreciates enough to trade a car for school tuition. This transaction orients the remaining narrative politically. The Trunchbull’s love of school is borne from its potential as a site of totalitarian politics. What she hopes this forced submission will lead to is unclear. She seems to enforce the maintenance of preexisting social order and role conformity—read, conservatism. Mr. Wormwood sees the radical potential of totalitarianism to pacify his disobedient daughter, whose ethics and intellectualism stand in the way of his ruthlessly capitalist pursuits. It is notable that his attempt to acquire this education for his daughter comes in the form of a scam against The Trunchbull. This reincorporation of state power into the capitalist’s toolbox is markedly neoliberal.

Matilda and Miss Honey stand in opposition to the undirected totalitarianism of The Trunchbull and to the entirely amoral capitalist pursuits of the Wormwoods. Miss Honey responds to the Wormwoods’ disdain of reading saying, “Don’t sneer at educated people, Mr. Wormwood. If you became ill, heaven forbid, your doctor would be a college graduate.” Miss Honey reminds these kitsch suburbanites that morality and virtue lie within the educated class. As we learn, Miss Honey grew up in a social class that provided her with the educated polish she has held her entire life—she only recently lost access to her trust fund. She is the stronghold of morality within the film, a morality that comes from having grown up with the finest education. We are to understand Matilda as an anomaly. Children do not direct their own burgeoning intellectualism—it is almost certainly an effect of an education in classed constructions of value. Miss Honey suggests that the moral backbone of society lies within a class of people that have maintained the correct moral, aesthetic and intellectual tastes within an increasingly neoliberal world. Her classroom pedagogy is steeped in conservative traditionalism. As such, “Matilda’s” class critique seems to reify classical notions of value within American and global society. The film illuminates the limitations of The Trunchbull’s conservative totalitarianism, and to an even greater extent, the death drive of American neoliberalism. However, DeVito’s suggestion for a step out of this fever dream is a reaffirmation of the virtues of the old-money class. The film reminds me that education does indeed have a radical potential, just not the one Miss Honey suggests. 

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