Matilda the Musical Returns to Roald Dahl’s Great Britain Setting

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The original Matilda novel was extremely British, but the 1996 film eliminates nearly all of this. Here’s how the 2022 musical movie brings it back.

Adaptations are always a touchy business; many despise the on-screen treatment of their favorite characters or properties, even as adaptation continues to be a gold standard for the success of literature. Regardless of what is being adapted, changes are going to happen during the translation, and those changes can range from minor nudges of the narrative one way or another to massive adjustments in plot and character. One adaptation that made some changes but still managed to be successful and faithful was 1996’s Matilda movie.

Matilda is a touchstone of sorts, with many being more familiar with the movie than Roald Dahl’s book. However, the inherent Britishness of the original novel was almost entirely abandoned, with only Miss Trunchbull remaining British, reinforcing a trope of villains being foreign. However, the newest film adaptation of Dahl’s novel, a screen adaptation of the stage show Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, restores this, not only by giving all characters British accents but by restoring the British locale of the novel in the details of the story.

RELATED: REVIEW: Matilda the Musical Delivers a Delightful Take on Roald Dahl’s Classic Tale

At one point in the original novel, Matilda visits Miss Honey’s cottage home. The two have tea, and Matilda realizes the extent of Miss Honey’s poverty because instead of butter, she presents Matilda with margarine. Between the teatime and the discussion of the spreads presented, Matilda’s British associations are made clear during one of the most important moments in the book, with Dahl masterfully bringing to bear the mind of a child and her flawed — if correct — logic. This moment is a crowning one of many that speak toward the novel’s closeness with British culture and their strong association.

The issue with this sequence is that Matilda’s thoughts are completely internal. Short of narration, demonstrating these events on-screen borders on the impossible. For this reason, one of the most inherently British portions of Matilda has to be left out of most adaptations. Matilda the Musical uses a roundabout way of linking to the British locale, doing so musically in the “School Song.” In this song, Matilda is introduced to Crunchem Hall via alphabetical puns, with the last line warning, “just you wait for phys ed,” a pun on the British pronunciation of the letter Z, “zed.”

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Matilda the Musical Uses Linguistics, Not Narrative

Alisha Weir and Emma Thompson in Matilda the Musical

By using the British English pronunciation for the letter Z, Matilda the Musical once again uses a subtle aspect of British culture (or here, language) to link Matilda to Britain. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is Matilda the Musical‘s approach to the concepts of fascism and authoritarianism, which the musical emphasizes repeatedly. All of these link to the power dynamics at play in the movie, and the British setting is important for this play at power and rising above one’s station, especially as a child.

Matilda the Musical is a great example of adaptation, bringing forth the spirit of the novel while changing portions to make subtler points better. However, one of the best parts of Matilda the Musical is the fact that it brings back a subtle but important part of the original novel. In doing so, it stands out not only as different from the 1996 version but as a slightly better adaptation of the original; and it’s all because of phys ed.

To see the story in its original setting, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is now streaming on Netflix.

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