The astronomical success of Matilda the Musical can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the popularity of Roald Dahl himself. Yet, anyone who knows the novel cannot help but notice that this award-winning musical has made significant changes to the original plot. While revisions are to be expected when novels are adapted for stage or screen, the modifications made by playwright Dennis Kelly and lyricist Tim Minchin are not just theatrically expedient choices, but also intelligent expressions of a metatextual discourse on moral values and literacy that runs through Dahl’s oeuvre. By rearranging the chronology of events and placing Matilda’s active story-telling at the heart of the theatrical experience, Kelly and Minchin have paid structural homage to earlier Dahl novels in which the hero is ultimately revealed to be the author (James and the Giant Peach, The BFG and The Witches). As in these novels, first-person narration is used in the musical to emphasize Matilda’s moral imperative to act, sometimes questionably, within the context of her specific conflict. Moreover, the musical captures the metatextual essence of the character-as-author device, which encourages the reader and audience to associate literacy with moral superiority and which places authorship at the pinnacle of achievement.
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I refer to the February 2015 revised version of Matilda the Musical, kindly provided by Dennis Kelly.
Matilda the Musical is not the first reworking of this novel for a different medium—it was adapted for the screen in 1996 by Danny DeVito. Altogether, over seventeen adaptations of Dahl’s children’s books have appeared so far.
Recent work on adaptation theory tends to focus on the relationship between novels and film. While film and theatre adaptation are not exactly comparable, the theoretical issue of translation of an original text written by one author to a collaborative piece raises similar issues (McFarlane, 1996).
This is so in as much as a rewriting or revision alters the structure of a book while potentially keeping some features, while an adaptation tends to update the features but stays fairly loyal to the overall structure.
To his credit, Kelly insists that “anything we might say about the structure doesn’t matter… what matters is that the book gets into your heart, and if it gets into your heart with a wonky structure—then the structure is right” (2016, n.p.).
This article is based on a paper presented at the Roald Dahl Centenary Conference at Cardiff University in June 2016, organised by Catherine Butler and Ann Alston. The author is grateful for their support and encouragement. She also thanks Dennis Kelly for his time and assistance.
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Einat Natalie Palkovich lectures in Children’s Literature in the English Literature department at Haifa University, Israel.
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Palkovich, E.N. “Put it Right”: Matilda as Author in Matilda the Musical. Child Lit Educ 50, 210–222 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-017-9322-x
- Matilda the Musical
- Roald Dahl
- Reader response