Adapting Broadway musicals for film is no easy task. For every West Side Story (1961) or West Side Story (2021), there as a Dear Evan Hansen or Cats (2019). There are several key aspect to musicals that make them work and need to be carried over if a film adaptation is to stand the test of time. The songs need to serve the story/characters, the choreography needs to match the songs being sung and the story being told needs to fit the medium its being told by. A lot can be discarded through adaptation but the trick is to only cut moments that don’t massively impact proceedings. Matilda: The Musical, is an example of adaptation done right.
Based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl, it follows Matilda as she escapes the horrors of her un-adoring parents for a school run by a tyrant of a headmistress. Adding some sweetness to the pot is her equally book-loving teacher Miss Honey, who hides her own sad backstory. In a change from the original source material, Matilda is an only child who frequently visits a mobile library run by Mrs. Phelps who has no idea of her home circumstances. It adds an extra layer of tragedy to an already tragic character. Perhaps the biggest change, aside from the addition of Tim Minchin’s magnificent musical numbers, are the characterisations. The Broadway musical, upon which this film is sourced, is noticeably different to the book’s 1996 film adaptation by Danny Devito. That take had more rounded edges compared to this one which has a little more bite. It had whimsy and darkness but a wholly book-like feel whereas this film is often more upsetting. Matilda’s rage and grief feel more visceral here and her parents more disparaging. Meanwhile, the Trunchbull is slightly more militaristic with a more crazed look behind her eyes. Emma Thompson captures her loss of sanity in a more manic way than the great Pam Ferris.
The look of the film is different too. Adapting a Broadway musical means deciding whether or not to adapt the staging too, which was handled differently by both sides of West Side Story. The 1961 version chose matte painted backgrounds and minimalistic sets to closely replicate the fell of the stage while the 2021 version chose to shoot primarily on location in New York and replicating the real world settings. Both films, as a result, feel totally distinct. Matilda: The Musical manages to find a happy medium between the two. A tiny slice of Matilda’s suburb, Crunchem Hall, Jenny’s hut and several outdoor locations are all that are seen but never much of what surrounds them. The suburbs is more of a street, Crunchem Hall is located in a vast field and all the outdoor locations are…well…outdoors. It feels like a more minimalist (more timeless) design choice but the sets themselves are bold and extravagant. The suburbs are bright and neon, like the colour pallet of an early 70s show whilst Crunchem Hall feels like the stoniest prison imaginable where nobody is safe.
The cherry on top of this delicious chocolate cake of a production are the musical numbers. Not all of them made it in (Telly is a minor miss) and the opening number is reduced for time but they are all marvellously choreographed. When on stage, it’s a general rule to use the space provided unless otherwise required, and the screen should have the same applied rule. From the opening number, it’s clear that Matilda understands this perfectly, whisking us through hospital halls before dissaassembling the set before our eyes for a classic tiered dance. This continues throughout particularly in songs taking place at the school. Not only is the space used, but it’s never just walked through. The ensemble are dancing constantly in choreography that reminds us how important choreography is to detailing the excitement of these numbers.
The biggest flaw is that not all of the Broadway material is present. Several songs have been cut for time and the Wormwood parents feel like strangers. Brilliantly dislikable strangers. This change is understandable, given how often people have complained about the growing length of films but if all 3 hours were adapted, there would be no complaints here. There’s nothing revolting about this musical adaptation.