“Everyone is born, but not everyone is born the same. Some will grow to be butchers, or bakers, or candlestick makers. Some will only be really good at making Jell-O salad. One way or another, though, every human being is unique, for better or for worse.”—Narrator, Matilda (Film version)
The classic 1996 children’s movie Matilda is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel of the same name. The book/movie tell the story of a little girl by the name of Matilda Wormwood who is not only a genius, but also has telekinetic powers. Forced to deal with her crooked and cruel father and mother, as well as the evil, bullying principal at her school, she takes solace in the library and reading. When Matilda discovers that she has telekinesis, she starts using her powers to exact revenge on her parents and her school principal. Below are 42 fun facts about this beloved story.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda Facts
42. A Country’s Favorite
In 1988, the book Matilda won the Children’s Book Award from the Federation of Children’s Books. The award is voted on by actual children, and is awarded every year in the UK to the books the kids choose as their favorites. Ten years later, the book was voted “The Nation’s Favorite book” in England in a Bookworm poll conducted by the BBC.
41. Together On and Off Screen
Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito played Matilda’s parents in the movie, and Perlman was also DeVito’s wife at the time. The couple briefly separated in 2012 after about 35 years of marriage, but later reconciled. In late 2016, they split again, this time for good, but the two remain friends.
40. An Author’s Cameo
In the movie version of Matilda, the portrait of Miss Honey’s father is really a picture of the Roald Dahl himelf. Dahl died in 1990 just two years after the release of the book, and the painting was included as a tribute to him.
39. Self-Cleaning Clothes
Attentive viewers love catching the “mistakes” in movies, and one such error can be spotted in the scene where Miss. Trunchbull throws Amanda Thripp over the fence by her pigtails. When she gets thrown over the fence, her clothes are covered in mud, but in the scene that follows, Amanda’s clothes are clean again.
38. A “Toxic” Name
Matilda’s last name Wormwood has a secret meaning. Wormwood is a shrub with a bitter taste, and toxic or poisonous properties. When you think about the Wormwoods’ characters, the name is especially fitting.
37. Two and Twice
Roald Dahl took two years to write and rewrite Matilda. After spending between 6-8 months writing the book, Dahl felt that it wasn’t right, and so he started the whole thing over again.
36. Self-Writing Chalk
For the scene in the movie where the chalk writes by itself, magnets played a big part in creating the effect. Someone wrote the letters backwards on the other side of the board, and then a magnet was placed on the chalk. Next, someone stood behind the chalkboard and used a magnetic device to write the words backwards.
35. Almost Honey
Mariska Hargitay, the actress known for her role as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, was originally offered the part of teacher Miss Honey, but she turned down the role. Three years later, she landed her landmark role—Embeth Davidtz appeared as Miss Honey in the movie.
34. Not Really a Fan
Bruce Bogtrotter loves all things sweet in the movie/book, and when he steals a slice of Miss Trunchbull’s chocolate cake, she forces him to eat the whole 18-inch cake in front of the entire school. In real life, Jimmy Kartz, who played the role on screen, didn’t even like chocolate. His aversion was so strong, they even kept a spit bucket for him off screen.
33. Hidden Appearance
Roald Dahl’s second wife also made an appearance of sorts in the film. Dahl’s wife’s name was Felicity Dahl, and Miss Honey’s childhood doll “Lissy Doll” is a nod to her. Felicity (Liccy) was also a producer on the film.
32. Genuinely Frightening
Pam Ferris played the role of the evil principal Agatha Trunchbull in the movie, and to make sure that the kids were scared of her in earnest, she would stay in character even when the cameras stopped filming.
Danny DeVito is well-known for his TV and movie roles such as Taxi, Twins and L.A. Confidential, but he’s also a director. Matilda was the fifth film that he directed, and was notable for being his first movie for children. Outside of Matilda, all of his other directorial efforts have been for adults.
30. Accidental Injury
Pam Ferris suffered from a number of injuries during filming. In the scene where she is “whacked” by chalkboard erasers, the actress had to keep her eyes open, which resulted in her getting chalk dust in her eyes and having to go to the hospital to get her eyes washed out. She was injured again in the scene where she twirls Amanda Thripp by her pigtails. The little girl was supported by a harness with wires threaded through her pigtails. The wires were looped around Ferris’ fingers to give her a better grip, but the force tore the top part of her fingers and she needed several stitches.
29. Nod to a Novel
While describing her affinity for Charles Dickens to Miss Honey, Matilda accidentally calls him Dahl’s Chickens. Fans of Dahl will remember another of Dahl’s books in which Dickens’ name is mispronounced. In the BFG, the BFG constantly mispronounces Dickens’ name.
28. Minor Modifications
As often happens, there were several differences between the book and the movie. Among them was some “Americanizing” of the story. The location moved from the UK To Los Angeles for the film; the Wormwoods, as well as the majority of the characters, were made American instead of British; and Crunchem Hall is made into an American Public School instead of a British Private School.
27. Reasonable Reception
The film was well-received by critics when it released. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90% fresh, and Roger Ebert gave it a 3/4 while noting that it’s “not in any sense a children’s movie, although older children will probably like it a lot.” The film didn’t quite recoup its production budget of $36 million in the United States, but earned back almost double its budget in worldwide release and through video and television revenues.
26. Batty Reunion
Danny DeVito starred as the Penguin in Batman Returns, and two other actors from the film were cast in Matilda. The FBI agents Bill and Bob were portrayed by Tracey Walter and Paul Reubens, who played who played Bob the Goon and Tucker Cobblepot, respectively, in Batman.
25. Last Minute Recast
Twins Keaton and Kylie Tyndall were originally set to star as Matilda, but when they came down with the flu, the role was recast with Mara Wilson.
24. A Familiar Conversation
In another “Easter Egg” for Dahl fans, the movie version of Matilda makes two separate references to his 1983 novel The Witches. The first reference is a visual nod where a copy of the book can be seen on a bookshelf. The second reference is a discussion between Miss Honey and Matilda about the speed of a mouse’s beating heart—the main character and his grandmother also discussed the subject in The Witches.
23. A Cozy Setting
Roald Dahl wrote most of his books from a small, cozy hut in his garden. The author would sit in his mother’s old armchair with a custom-made desktop in his lap, and he’d write with pencil on yellow legal paper. According to his daughter Lucy Dahl, his garden was a sacred space, and he saw the hut as his nest.
22. An Idea is Born
Danny DeVito and Rhea Pearlman decided to adapt Matilda into a movie after reading the novel to their kids. Prior to his daughter bringing home the book, DeVito had never even heard of it, but as he and his wife acted out the roles of the parents, he realized it would make a great movie. Luckily for DeVito, Dahl’s widow had already planned to create a screen version of the book, and there was already a completed screenplay.
21. The “Homemade” Homemade Doll
In the movie, Matilda has a homemade doll, and it actually was homemade—Mara Wilson made the doll in real life, and named her Wanda.
20. Live with Orchestra
In 2017, Matilda made its live concert debut with the help of IMG (International Management Group). The score was played in sync to an HD projection of the movie, and enjoyed its world premiere in Texas with the Houston Symphony Orchestra on June 9, 2017. Danny DeVito was also on hand to provide narration for the premiere.
19. Tim Burton Connections
Danny DeVito musically referenced a couple of different Tim Burton movies in the trailers for Matilda. In one trailer, he used an instrumental version of one of the more popular songs from the Tim Burton movie Nightmare Before Christmas, and in other versions, they used the song “Jump the Line,” which was featured in the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice. Tim Burton also has his own connection to Roald Dahl, having produced the adaptation of James and the Giant Peach.
18. Newt, Newt and Newt
If you pay attention to the credits at the end of Matilda, you’ll notice that the three newts in the movie are credited as Mr. Speaker, Sir Isaac and Wayne. These names reference then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Sir Isaac Newton, and Wayne Newton.
17. From Book to Screen to Stage
In addition to being adapted into a movie, Matilda has also been adapted into a popular stage musical. The musical version of Matilda opened in London’s West End in 2011, and on Broadway in 2013. The musical won 12 Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical, and five Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical.
16. A Real-Life Character
Roald Dahl based Harry Wormwood on someone from his hometown of Great Missenden in England. Wormwood was modelled after a man named Ginger Henderson who owned the gas station in town, and was known as a “black market dealer.”
15. Liccy’s Blessing
Liccy Dahl wanted to adapt Matilda into a movie, but wanted to find a way to keep control over the screenplay’s development. Literary agent Michael Siegel had been set up with Dahl through her husband’s publisher, and he came up with an unorthodox approach: He invited two screenwriting friends to take a shot at adapting the novel, paying them only if the family approved the script. When Liccy received the draft a year later, she loved it. The film was sold at auction to Tristar Pictures for a record $4 million, and nothing could be changed without Dahl’s estate okaying it.
14. Introducing…Craig Lamar Taylor
Craig Lamar Taylor is known for his role as wheelchair-bound Stevie on the popular sitcom Malcom in the Middle. The actor made his big screen debut in Matilda, playing the little boy who catches the falling newt.
13. A Secret Reference?
Harry Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull both use the word “twit” several times throughout the film. Some fans have speculated that this might have been a reference to The Twits—another book by Roald Dahl.
12. Ambitious Reading List
Matilda is a little over four years old when librarian Mrs. Phelps first encourages her love of reading. The first story she selects for Matilda is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Over time, her reading list grows to include classics such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
11. Mailing with Matilda
In 2012, the Royal Mail honored Roald Dahl with a special set of stamps commemorating his books. Matilda is featured on the 76p stamp, and the set also includes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, and The Twits. A special set of four stamps celebrating the 30th anniversary of The BFG was also released as a special collector’s set.
10. It Was Only Pretend
The “chokey” in Crunchem Hall was where Miss Trunchbull put kids for punishment. As terrifying as it looked in the movie, in real life, it wasn’t dangerous or scary at all. The fictional cupboard was filled with razor-sharp nails, but for the film the nails were actually made of rubber, and wouldn’t hurt anybody.
9. Librarian Top Pick
In a 2012 School Library Journal Survey, readers were asked to vote on their top 100 chapter books of all time. Matilda was chosen as #30, and altogether, Roald Dahl had four books in the top 100—more than any other writer. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was #61, The Witches was #81 and BFG was #88.
8. A Revolting Recipe
Roald Dahl’s Completely Revolting Recipes is a collection of 50 recipes from the author’s most popular books. Among them is a recipe for Bruce Bogtrotter’s Cake, which is based on the chocolate cake that he had to eat in Matilda.
7. An Important Reminder
Mrs. Trunchbull never hesitated to give out the worst punishments imaginable, but even she seemed to have a place where she drew the line. In her office is a sign that reads “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” suggesting that murder is the one punishment even she won’t dole out. Good to know.
6. Lunchbox Message
One of the lunchboxes from the movie contains a reference to Danny DeVito’s hometown. The slogan reads “Greeting from Ashbury Park, New Jersey,” which is where the actor was raised.
5. For the Love of Books
In a 2013 NPR interview with Dahl’s daughter Lucy, she explained the primary reason that Matilda was so important to him: At the time the book was written, television had grown in popularity. According to Lucy, one of Dahl’s biggest fears was that books would eventually disappear, and he wanted to write a story about his love of books. Lucy Dahl also stated that this fear made Matilda one of his most difficult books to write.
4. A Borrowed Idea
Famous horror writer Stephen King used an idea from Matilda in one of his books. The idea of writing on a chalkboard with the mind is used to send messages by a character in Dr. Sleep (the sequel to The Shining).
3. Pressing On
During the filming of Matilda, actress Mara Wilson’s (Matilda) mother died from breast cancer. The young actress continued on and finished the movie, which she dedicated to her mother’s memory.
2. Hollywood Drop Out
Mara Wilson has scarcely been seen on screen since Matilda. She cites her mother’s death as the reason, explaining that once she was gone, she simply lost interest in acting. In 2016, she published a book called Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, which outlines her experiences as a child actress.
1. A Wicked Beginning
Roald Dahl initially made Matilda Wormwood wicked in one of his early drafts of the novel. Dahl, who is now known to have held many morally questionable views, originally described her as “a devilish little hussy,” and she started out as a character who wreaked havoc at school and harassed her poor, kind parents. In that same draft, Dahl nearly killed off Matilda after using her powers to save a bus full of children after an accident. It wasn’t until he swapped the characters around that he began to be satisfied with the story.