‘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.”