‘Much Too Good For Children’: The Story Behind The Film Adaptation Of ‘Matilda’

In the early 1990s Danny DeVito and his wife, Rhea Perlman, read their children the classic 1988 Roald Dahl novel Matilda, the story of a young girl so intelligent she eventually gains magical powers. When DeVito’s daughter first brought the book home he had never heard of it. “I knew that Roald Dahl was a really great writer,” DeVito says, “[but] I wasn’t an aficionado.”

With nightly Matilda readings — with he and Perlman naturally gravitating towards the roles of Matilda’s horrid parents, the Wormwoods — DeVito became enchanted with the story. He recalls when he told Perlman, “I should make this movie. It’s so cool for kids — it’s unique and it’s fun and all the good things.”

When he contacted the Dahl Foundation, DeVito found that Dahl’s widow, Liccy, already had big-screen plans for Matilda. DeVito adds, “There was a screenplay somewhere, and that was the one that Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan wrote. I read it and threw my hat in the ring to try to get to direct it. And the rest is history.”

Twenty years ago the film adaptation of Dahl’s classic made its debut in theaters. The film maintained the spirit and message of the book, and inspired kids by celebrating the intelligence of an independent protagonist. DeVito, commenting on the changes made for the movie, says, “When you have a movie it’s a totally different thing. It has to be a little bit more exciting, possibly, if you can make it more exciting. But you stay true to the material — it felt really close to Roald Dahl. I went to his little cottage [The Gipsy House in Great Missenden, England]. It’s a beautiful little cottage in the back of a shed where he wrote. I sat in his chair and I felt the whole cool energy. So yeah, there were things we did change but with everybody’s blessing.”

The casting of Matilda was also key to the film’s success. Nineties child-star darling, Mara Wilson, whose previous role was the charming young daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire, was DeVito’s first choice for the main character. “When you get bitten by the bug to do the movie and you’re excited about it you start casting it immediately, “ DeVito says. “[Wilson] was the first person I thought of… I reached out to her and went to have lunch with her and her mom and we had a nice time. We went to Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevard and it was really cool.”

As Wilson recalls, “We got the script after my agent initially passed on it — I think she thought I was too busy at the time. She called my mom saying, ‘So, there’s this script, there’s this script, there’s this one called Matilda, there’s this script.’ And my mom went, ‘Whoa, back up. Did you say Matilda? Send us that one.’”

The book, Wilson says, was one of the few stories from her childhood with a cool girl at the heart of it. “Matilda was a big deal in my family,” she says. “All my brothers had read it at school and my mom actually use to read it out loud to the kids at our school. She was particularly good at the Trunchbull.”

When she met with DeVito for the first time, Wilson says, “I immediately liked him. He felt very much like an uncle. Just a nice friendly guy and, unlike a lot of people in Hollywood, he knew how to talk to kids… He just let me talk about school and let me talk about my life and what first grade was like and he told me later, ‘I knew I wanted you for Matilda the moment you walked in the door.’ Now, he might have been just being nice but it did feel like we had this immediate rapport.”

DeVito and Perlman would play Matilda’s detestable parents. Pam Ferris took on the role of the disgustingly abusive headmaster of Matilda’s school. DeVito says, “For the Trunchbull I put feelers out, looking everywhere. I saw wrestlers, a potpourri of various scary, imposing figures and actresses. I put the feelers out in England and one day I got a videotape from a woman who had done a lot of theater and a lot of TV and a lot of great stuff and that was Pam Ferris. She sent me an audition tape which blew me away.”

The schoolchildren and Matilda’s confidantes at Crunchem Hall rounded out the cast. Her best friend, Lavender, is described in the book as, “small for her age, a skinny little nymph with deep brown eyes.” Kiami Davael, who was cast as Lavender, says, “Originally the character wasn’t quite what I look like. I think she was more supposed to be white but I’m not 100 percent sure. She wasn’t black, I know that much. [Laughs.] But we thought we’d go for it anyway because she was a precocious, smart child but also very intuitive and curious. And that was me.”

Kira Spencer Cook (credited as Kira Spencer Hesser) took on the role of Hortensia, described by Dahl as a “Rugged ten-year-old with a boil on her nose.” After her audition — in which DeVito introduced her to Keanu Reeves, who was in the vicinity filming Feeling Minnesota — Cook says, “I was in class in the middle of the day and talking to my teacher. I said, ‘It’s been a couple days, I haven’t heard anything. I really want this part so bad.’ I just remember him being like, ‘Kira, don’t get your hopes up. It’s really tough out there, Hollywood,’ whatever, and I hear a bunch of gasps from my friends in the back of the room and I turn around and my mom was in the classroom holding a sign that said, ‘Hortensia.’ I screamed with all my classmates and all my friends and my mom came and hugged me. That was a magical day.”

Why Are All These Women Married? 

For Wilson, Matilda offered a reprieve from the usual fair she was offered. “I definitely did feel a little objectified in some of my earlier performances as a little girl where my only object seemed to be being cute,” she says. “I definitely felt very connected to Matilda from the very beginning. I was a very big reader, and I do think that, even then, I had a very strong sense of justice at that age and I was very passionate. I would channel that anger into righteousness.”

Over the past 20 years Wilson has found that many of her peers connected to that aspect of the character as well. “It’s a movie that I get messages from people every single day, especially young women, telling me that this movie empowered them so much and in so many different ways,” she says. “I hear also that a lot of people didn’t feel appreciated for wanting to read or a lot of people told me that they didn’t really have their intelligence or their studiousness appreciated. That people thought they were weird or a little too quiet. They didn’t want to speak up in class. So the scene where Ms. Honey directly asks Matilda, ‘So, do you like to read?’ and for the very first time Matilda opens up, was something that they could relate to.”

The film also maintains the dark sensibility of Dahl’s work. DeVito says, “There are lots of things in kid’s books that need to be ‘dark.’ People call it dark but it’s really important, very visceral, very engaging. It boils you up. You need to tap into that stuff that we go through as kids or as adults. It’s the yin and the yang of it all. You can’t really tell that story without the reality or the harshness. We did it in a little bit of a cartoon where Mr. Wormwood was pretty brutal to his daughter, so there were a lot of people who gave me a little bit of a pushback on the fact that I picked her up by her ear, that I dragged her into the room, I yelled at her. There’s a lot of stuff that’s in there even though Wormwood was a cartoony character, it is stuff you get pushed back on all the time whenever you’re dealing with a kids’ movie.”

Cook remarks being drawn to the dark world of Dahl as well, having been a fan of his books and some of their previous film adaptations, such as The Witches and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Cook says, “That would not be made today. It’s such a bummer, all of the things that were really good about films in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90, it’s not being made anymore, at all. Everything is like, ‘It’s going to be all right’ patina over it and that’s not what childhood is. You’re scared and it’s dark and it’s horrifying sometimes. And that’s why I think so many kids latch on to this movie, because it’s honest.”

On the set, the young cast found themselves subsumed into an eerie world via a somber school set inspired by a factory in Eastern Europe, and the imposing figure of Ms. Trunchbull. Cook remembers, “Everything was just very realistic, like a weird British schoolhouse adaptation of a terrible boarding school where nobody wanted to be.”

Pam Ferris’s transformation into the brutal Trunchball proved key. The repulsive woman was described by Dahl as “a formidable figure…in her belted smock and green breeches. Below the knees her calf muscles stood out like grapefruits inside her stockings.” Dahl warns his audience, “Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush — climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away.”

Jacqueline Steiger, who played the innocent Amanda Thripp, the girl the Trunchball swings by her pigtails and throws over a fence, says, “I know people to this day who tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, the Trunchbull was my childhood fear.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Oh my gosh, the Trunchbull is so nice you guys, you don’t even know.’”

Davael remarks that Ferris was patient with the kids, even in scenes where they had their revenge by plunging erasers at her. “Some were scared of her, I will say that. But she’s just a gentle soul. She’s so sweet and I couldn’t think of a better person to play Ms. Trunchbull than her. She did a fantastic job and then when the cameras cut she is who she is, she’s sweet, fairly soft-spoken.”

And, for the most part, being abused by the Trunchbull on film was a grand adventure. For Steiger, being flung by her braids was a thrill. “They had a little person to be my stunt double and I don’t think she worked a whole lot because I was really excited to do all the climbing and spinning and the stunt team was really great, all of the effects people were so accommodating and so excited that I wanted to try everything.”

DeVito recalls the additional effort needed for this particular scene, and many of the film’s magical flying moments, due to the lack of CG. He says, “The only scene we did with green screen was the carrot [flying]. And we do most things… Like the chocolate going out the window, we did with wires and we took the wires out. But most of it, like throwing [Steiger] over the fence, we did that in a studio. We actually put her in a harness and swung her around in circles or with a crane. So she did all that, she loved doing it. It was amazing.”

Situated in her harness, Steiger would sit and read between takes of being catapulted over the spiky fence. Steiger says, “Whenever they would swing me back around I would scrunch up all my limbs into a ball so that they couldn’t catch me so that I could fly around again before we shot. And now, having been on set as a producer, I’m imaging how much time and dollars my little 9-year-old brain was wasting by going, ‘Wee!’”

The famous cake-eating scene also required a great deal of patience. Wilson says, “It must have taken days [to film] but it all blended together. I remember that by the end of it we were very tired. Jimmy [Karz], who played Bruce [Bogtrotter], I remember asking beforehand, ‘So, do you like chocolate cake?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sort of.’ And I just remember thinking, oh this poor guy.”

“He ate quite a few pieces of cake, Bruce.” DeVito says. “He was into it. I did a little cutting and let him eat and spit. It’s kind of disgusting but that’s the way you do those things. He eats and eats and eats and eats and then he spits it. You clean him up and he goes again. He survived the scene. He’s actually a doctor, a surgeon or something or orthopedic specialist. He’s a functioning human being, Bruce.”

Every Human Being Is Unique, For Better Or For Worse

The film shot in Pasadena, Calif. during the summer under brutal heat. Kids stayed in air conditioned tents but not all creatures on set survived. Cook says, “There are all these animal wranglers on set for the newt scene and one of the newts died, got dehydrated or whatever and died and there was this huge f*cking uproar. Meanwhile there are kid extras passing out from the heat everyday, all day.”

This became particularly challenging for Ferris due to the suit she was wearing to bulk up as the Trunchbull. To combat the issue the suit had a built-in air conditioner. DeVito says, “Pam went through so much. We had her in the big suit, she was all padded up and when we shot the stuff in front of Crunchem Hall I remember it was one of the hottest days of the summer.”

Everyone on set had their fair share of costumery. Perlman bleached her hair and went to Vegas to find clothes for Mrs. Wormwood’s look. DeVito donned marble toupees and a new set of teeth. And Wilson wore a great deal of makeup explaining that, “In other movies I kind of just had to look like a normal kid or just like a cute little kid and they didn’t need to do much more than put sunscreen on me. Matilda though, they set out to make me look more pale and more tired than I actually was. [Laughs.] So they had to put dark circles under my eyes, which I don’t think I was too happy about because I already had dark circles under my eyes. They made me look a little sadder than I was.”

Cook was thankful that her character’s look steered further from the book. “I was so worried they were going to put the boil on my nose. In the Quentin Blake illustration she had a big boil.” She did, however, have to remove her glasses because too many kids on set already wore frames. She says, “I’m truly blind and have been since I was very young. So I did the whole thing blind. Pretty impressive, right?”

Being blind became especially frightening when locked up in The Chokey, Ms. Truncuhbull’s punishment for the students. In the book Hortensia describes it as being “pitch dark and you have to stand up dead straight and if you wobble at all you get spiked either by the glass on the walls or the nails on the door.”

On the last day of shooting, Cook says, “I was really sad because I did not want it to end and it was the Chokey scene, so they shot me, did the thing, and then I was already locked in there and Danny was like, ‘All right everybody, that’s it, let’s go to lunch!’ And it sounded like everybody was walking away and I was like, ‘What?’ And I tried opening it but it was locked. I was seriously panicking. Then he’s like, ‘Just kidding!’ Pulled a prank on me.”

I’ve Had Them Since I Was Big Enough To Xerox

“There began to creep over Matilda a most extraordinary and peculiar feeling,” Dahl wrote, describing when Matilda first possesses her powers. “The feeling was mostly in the eyes. A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them. A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside.”

Wilson says that this particular power, and that slight squint of the eyes that came with it, was referred to as “the whammy” on set. “[DeVito] would just say, ‘Whammy that chair,’ ‘Whammy that over there,’ and I would know exactly what he meant,” Wilson says. “I really loved [DeVito] as a director. He was very vaudevillian in everyday life as well. He taught me how to do prop falls and fake slaps and things like that. We had a lot of fun doing that.”

Wilson’s fellow castmates had an equally lovely time working with DeVito. Steiger says, “He was very friendly with all of us kids and he wanted us to have fun on set and think of him as a father figure.” Cook adds, “In between takes I’d take breaks and sit in Danny’s chair and he had an on-set masseur and I’d be like, ‘I’ll do it now!’ and I would give him massages. Very sweet. There wasn’t a separation of like, you’re kids, you’re here to come in and do your job then leave. No, we were all like family.”

Wilson felt creatively involved on set as well. When Danny asked her to design Matilda’s doll, she gladly accepted the task. DeVito also had techniques for freeing Wilson from her particular insecurities. When Matilda gains full control of her powers she dances around her house to the Thurston Harris hit “Little Bitty Pretty One,” while turning on lightbulbs, making plants dance and flicking a deck of cards and poker chips into the air.

Wilson says, “I’ve never been really comfortable dancing so I felt very nervous about doing the dancing scene. So I went up to Danny and I told him, ‘Look, I feel really nervous about this scene,’ and he said, ‘Okay, the deal is that day if you’re on set today, you have to dance. Everybody has to dance.’ So the whole cast and crew was dancing, everybody was dancing. As soon as the music went on, and it was just like they were having a big dance party. Even my mom was dancing on the sidelines.”

I Did It With My Powers

Mara Wilson’s mother, Suzie Wilson battled breast cancer during the filming of Matilda, dying while the film was in post-production. DeVito says the movie was important to Suzie and that she was on set everyday. “I brought the movie up to her hospital room,” DeVito says. “She saw a rough cut on tape at that time. I’m not sure if I showed her the whole thing. We dedicated the movie to her. She was great and very strong and forceful in a positive way, just reinforcing Mara and going through what she was going through. Being there for me, being there for the movie, being there for Mara with great spirit and positive energy.”

Wilson says, “If you look at photos of me taken around the time Matilda was filmed, you’ll see there’s a light in my eyes that’s not there after the movie came out. I’ve seen interviews of myself that I did for Matilda and I was so tired, so exhausted, and so sad. I probably should have stopped acting then, although I did get to meet so many wonderful people on sets in the next few years.”

Wilson describes her mother as “very strong, very intelligent and, to be frank, pretty head-strong woman,” who had a great deal of influence on her film roles. After her death Wilson became less choosy and admits that she should have stopped there, but continued acting to keep hold of what had become a constant in her life.

Davael says, “When you’re dealing with things like that you have to allow people to have their space and grieve. But in the end she always knew that she had a group of people who love her and support her and will always be there for her… I love Mara, I always call Mara my sister from another mother. She’s an amazing person.”

It was also a few years post-Matilda that Wilson was diagnosed with OCD, first identifying the condition via the book Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser. After years of re-reading the book she made the connection that the author was the mother of her Matilda co-star, Kira Cook. Cook says that Mara reached out to tell her that her mom had saved her life. “It’s such a beautiful story,” Cook says. “So that was a funny way we reconnected, then I gave her my mom’s email and they talked — my mom saw her when she went to New York.”

Much of the cast also reconnected a couple of years ago to celebrate the Blu-ray release of the film. DeVito gathered the now-grown cast in his backyard to reminisce and celebrate their current accomplishments. Davael continues to act and is in the process of creating a non-profit called Pieces of Lavender. Steiger teaches English to children in Thailand. Cook hosts the PBS travel series Island Without Cars and is writing a kids book. And Wilson is a writer with a forthcoming memoir, Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Famebeing published by Penguin with a September 13th release. 

Looking back at how her early career affected her life, Wilson says, “I kind of felt that I couldn’t win for a long time. If I did mention [my career] then people were like, ‘Well, why are you dwelling on the past? Why are you using this? Are you using this to get ahead?’ And I felt guilty doing that. But then if I didn’t talk about it I felt like people were thinking I was denying it and I was ungrateful for the opportunities that I’ve had. Now I really don’t care as much what people think. [Laughs.] And I have taken pride in it. It took me a long time to realize it but Matilda is definitely a movie that I’m proud of and it is definitely something that I have happy memories of.”