Subscribe to The Horn Book

A deluge of Dahl

Matilda the Musical, based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, is at the Boston Opera House through June 26th. The BFG, a movie based on Dahl’s 1982 novel, opens in theaters July 1st (and I was lucky enough to attend an advance screening with Horn Book alum and Dahl fan Cindy Ritter).

I had a very Roald Dahl week last week.

matilda the musical posterMatilda was up first. In many ways, the book is one of Dahl’s darker ones, at least among those for kids. Freaky stuff happens in, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it happens in a setting far removed from real life. Matilda’s world, though it does have some magic, is much closer to everyday kid-life. Threats are scarier when they come from parents and school authorities than when they come from vengeful candy factories.

So I was curious about how much of the darkness the musical (directed by Matthew Warchus) would preserve. The answer: plenty. As in the book, Matilda (Sarah McKinley Austin, in the performance I saw on June 15th) attends a school helmed by Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy), who believes that “children are maggots” and locks them up in the sharp-object-lined “Chokey” for small infractions. Her home life is only slightly better: her parents (Darcy Stewart and Brandon McGibbon) make it clear that she’s unwanted and that they consider her deep love of reading weird and distasteful. In one dramatic scene, her dad even…destroys a library book.

That’s another thing that the musical preserves from the novel: the theme that books and stories are important and powerful. For Matilda, they’re a place to escape her world, and in contrast to the evil in it. In the end, this is an uplifting musical, and that’s one of the reasons. Another is that there are loving adults around, particularly Miss Honey (Paula Brancati); Matilda just has to find them. And finally, Matilda and her classmates manage to take matters into their own hands. Because when the rules are wrong, as one of the songs puts it, “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.”

bfg movie posterMy memory of The BFG, the book, wasn’t very clear going into the movie screening, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I know what a Roald Dahl book sounds like, and the dialogue in this Steven Spielberg–directed film sounds like Dahl. Not pure-silliness Dahl, though. Mark Rylance as the titular Big Friendly Giant and Ruby Barnhill as Sophie infuse the dialogue with emotion, even as Rylance’s giant-speak plays fast and loose with the English language. And as many gags as it has, this is an emotional story, too: Sophie, who lives in an orphanage until the BFG snatches her, isn’t very happy, and the BFG, bullied by even bigger (and less friendly) giants, isn’t happy either. The friendship that develops between these two lonely characters is an important one, especially when they start protecting each other. There are threats here, too — and I understand the book is a bit darker — but at least the threat of being eaten by a giant doesn’t come from a particularly close-to-home place for most people.

The movie is visually fascinating, what with all the variance in scale. And just when you get used to the BFG’s size and his general galumphing — in Giant Country, it all kind of fits — he enters a setting that’s as different as it gets from his cave home: Buckingham Palace. (Sophie has her reasons.) A warm and funny palace scene is classy enough that even a dramatically built-up royal flatulence joke can’t drag the movie too deep into the lowbrow.

As long as you and the young viewers in your life don’t mind some brief scares, I would recommend both the Matilda musical and the BFG movie. (But if you see them one after the other like I did, you may find yourself using words like scrumdiddlyumptious).

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.



  1. Very glad to see you liked both of these. I fell in love with Matilda the Musical years ago when it first opened. I saw it several times in short succession due to invites and such and enjoyed it each time. As for The BFG, I was invited to a screening last week and was a bit leery having been unable to read the book (the BFG’s mangled language seemed twee to me). I ended up liking the movie very much — largely due to Mark Rylance’s BFG. (My blog review is here: And now I’m reading the book with a difference stance. Liking it much more.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind