“Put it Right”: Matilda as Author in Matilda the Musical

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    I refer to the February 2015 revised version of Matilda the Musical, kindly provided by Dennis Kelly.

  2. 2.

    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.

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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.).

  6. 6.

    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.

References

  1. Albrecht-Crane, Christa and Cutchins, Dennis Ray. (Eds.). (2010). Adaptation Studies: New Approaches. Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Beauvais, Clémentine. (2015). Child Giftedness as Class Weaponry: The Case of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Children’s Literature Quarterly, 40(3), 277–293.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bosmajian, Hamida. (1985). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Other Excremental Visions. The Lion and the Unicorn, 9, 36–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Butterfield, Elizabeth. (2014). Matilda, Existentialist Superhero. In Jacob M. Held (Ed.), Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A little Nonsense Now and Then (pp. 33–45). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Cameron, Eleanor. (1972). McLuhan, Youth and Literature. Horn Book, Vol. 48, No. 5 (pp. 433–440).

  6. Cameron, Eleanor. (1973). A Reply to Roald Dahl. The Horn Book Magazine.

  7. Cameron, Eleanor. (1976). A Question of Taste. Children's Literature in Education, 7(2), 59–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Culley, Jonathon. (1991). Roald Dahl—“It’s About Children and It’s for Children” But is it Suitable? Children’s Literature in Education, 22(1), 59–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Curtis, James M. (2014). "We Have a Great Task Ahead of Us!": Child-Hate in Roald Dahl's The Witches. Children’s Literature in Education, 45, 166–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Dahl, Roald. (2016/1988). Matilda. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. London: Random House.

  11. Dahl, Roald. (2016/1964). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. London: Random House.

  12. Dahl, Roald. (2016/1982). The BFG. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. London: Random House.

  13. Donaldson, Eileen. (2004). Spell-Binding Dahl: Considering Roald Dahl’s Fantasy. In Thomas van der Walt, et al. (Eds.), Change and Renewal in Children’s Literature (pp. 131–140). Westport, CN: Praeger.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Ebert, Roger. (1990). Review of The Witches. Retrieved May 15, 2017, from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-witches-1990.

  15. Gardner, Lyn. (2011, November 25). Review of Matilda the Musical. The Guardian. Retrieved April 2, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/25/matilda-review.

  16. Guest, Kristen. (2008). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Resistance and Complicity in Matilda. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 33(3), 246–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Held, Jacob M. (2014). On Getting Our Just Desserts: Willy Wonka, Immanuel Kant, and the Summum Bonum. In Jacob M. Held (Ed.), Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A little Nonsense Now and Then (pp. 19–32). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Kelly, Dennis. (2015). Matilda the Musical: Script. Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin. Amended script for Cambridge Theatre run.

  19. Kelly, Dennis. (2016, May 4). Personal interview about Matilda the Musical by Einat Natalie Palkovich.

  20. Lantos, John and Mukherjee, Debjani. (2001). Witches, Pubertal Development, and Minimal Risk. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 155(11), 1195–1196.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Leitch, Thomas. (2007). Literature vs. literacy: Two Futures for Adaptation Studies. In James M. Welsh and Peter Lev (Eds.), The Literature/Film Reader: Issues of Adaptation (pp. 15–34). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Leitch, Thomas. (2003). Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory. Criticism, 45(2), 149–171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Leitch, Thomas. (2008). Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads. Adaptation, 1(1), 63–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. MacDonald, Laura. (2012). Sometimes You Have to Make a Little Bit of Mischief: Matthew Warchus’ Hybrid Approach to Musical Theatre Directing. Studies in Musical Theatre, 6(3), 355–362.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. McFarlane, Brian. (1996). Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Merrick, Anne. (1975). The Nightwatchman and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as books to be read to children. Children's Literature in Education, 6(1), 21–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Parsons, Elizabeth. (2007). Buckets of Money: Tim Burton’s New Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In Leslie Stratyner and James R. Keller (Eds.), Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays (pp. 93–102). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Petzold, Dieter. (1992). Wish-fulfilment and Subversion: Roald Dahl’s Dickensian Fantasy Matilda. Children’s Literature in Education, 23(4), 185–193.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Pulliam, June. (2007). Charlie’s Evolving Moral Universe: Filmic Interpretations of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays (pp. 103–114). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

  30. Raw, Laurence (Ed.). (2012). Translation, Adaptation and Transformation. London: Bloomsbury.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Rees, David. (1988). Dahl's Chickens: Roald Dahl. Children’s Literature in Education, 19(3), 143–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Sturrock, Donald. (2010). Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Thacker, Deborah Cogan. (2012). Fairy Tale and Anti-Fairy Tale: Roald Dahl and the Power of Stories. In Ann Alston and Catherine Butler (Eds.), Roald Dahl (pp. 14–30). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Verrone, William. (2011). Adaptation and the Avant-Garde: Alternative Perspectives on Adaptation Theory and Practice. New York: Continuum.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Ward, Annalee R. (2002). Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Wardetsky, Kristin. (1990). The Structure and Interpretation of Fairy Tales Composed by Children. The Journal of American Folklore, 103(408), 157–176.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. West, Mark I. (1990a). The Grotesque and the Taboo in Roald Dahl’s Humorous Writings for Children. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 15(3), 115–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. West, Mark I. (1990b). Interview with Roald Dahl. Children’s Literature in Education, 21(2), 61–66.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Einat Natalie Palkovich.

Additional information

Einat Natalie Palkovich lectures in Children’s Literature in the English Literature department at Haifa University, Israel.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Matilda the Musical
  • Metatextuality
  • Adaptation
  • Roald Dahl
  • Reader response