Matilda is a childhood classic delivered by the grandfather of us all-Roald Dahl. This book tackles with issues such as neglecting parents, unappreciated children oh and an absolutely hellish dystopian school that will haunt you even into adulthood.
Returning to the book at 21 was a strange experience.
I’d been having a Roald Dahl binge as a cool down from Victor Hugo’s colossus, Les Misérables. While my goal was to wind down with an easy read, just like Matilda, my head was working overdrive and I couldn’t help but think critically about the different ways that Trunchbull *shudders* is depicted in book and film (1996).
In both realms Trunchbull is a horror and while there are other power structures in place, i.e the Wormwood parents, when it comes to absolute fear Trunchbull takes the cake.
She’s the walking nightmare of our collective childhoods; a source of physical and emotional violence in a place of vulnerability. She is an overshadowing, athletic titan with the patience of a honey badger and the mouth of a lad in the middle of a footie match.
Craig Els, who plays Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical, describes her as “sort of Machiavelian… and and she’s like Richard the 3rd crossed with Lady Macbeth, she’s sort of every baddy rolled into one”.
Trunchbull is a villain and is not allowed to be perceived in any other way.
Where the dainty and quiet Miss Honey is given a backstory, the monstrous Trunchbull is not. The only background we receive works only to demonise her further. If being an ill-tempered aggressive headmistress wasn’t bad enough, Dahl decided that she will also be an abusive guardian and a murderer.
In both text and film, Trunchbull is abusive, think the Chokey and Amada Thripp being hammer-thrown, but the abuse of Miss Honey is more explicit in the text.
“Did she beat you?”
“Let’s not go into details,” Miss Honey said.
“How simply awful,” Matilda said. “Did you cry nearly all the time?”
“Only when I was alone,” Miss Honey said. “I wasn’t allowed to cry in front of her. But I lived in fear” p. 199
This rather troubling conversation is omitted in the film, possibly to keep the light, comical mood. Instead of physical abuse, Trunchbull is seen to withhold treats from Miss Honey and tease “much too good for children” through chocolate-smeared teeth.
Chocolatey treats aren’t the only thing withheld from Miss Honey as she remains monetarily disadvantaged by the Trunch even as an adult.
When visiting Miss Honey’s house, in both realms, the cottage seems “straight out of a fairy tale” (p. 186). This quaint charm, however, is lost in the text when Matilda enters the impoverished house, holding only a Primus oven and 3 boxes to create a dining set.
“Margarine, Matilda thought. She really must be poor” p. 189
(bit rude Matilda.)
The film, despite it’s light and comical tone, decided to maintain the pinnacle of Trunchbull’s villainy, the murder of Magnus. It’s this crime that comes back to bite the tyrant and allows her to be defeated by the very thing she hates, children.
Speaking of children, those living in the textual realm seem to be more trouble for the Trunch than their filmic counterparts. Not only is the infamous newt in the water fiasco intentionally planted, but Hortensia (who is innocent in the film) has a more mischievous textual sister; admitting to loading up the headmistress’ knickers with ‘Skin Scorcher’ itching powder.
The movie didn’t let Miss Trunchbull off lightly though; think back to Matilda’s traumatic fake haunting (although this was scary, it’s nothing compared to the deadly game of hide-and-seek at the Trunchbull’s house).
Matilda acted a big source of inspiration for me when I was younger, supporting my love of reading and giving me the false hope that I would become telekinetic if I read a lot. One of the biggest messages, that I realized more fully in my revisiting of the book, was that power exists in a multitude of forms, not just the physical. This worked to my advantage through tough times at school and I guess even into adulthood.
Dahl’s books are childish in every sense of the word- quirky, gross, honest, hilarious and fearful. These traits, however, don’t leave us when we become adults. There are Miss Trunchbulls everywhere and, sometimes, we need to go back to the basics and revisit our childhood scriptures to remind us that with the right attitude and an intuitive mind we can deal with anything.