I had booked a ticket to go see Matilda before I left Australian shores, so when there a damaged copy of the book appeared in the staffroom of the bookshop where I was working, I snapped it up. I had, terribly, never actually read the book up until then, although I had seen the movie. The movie, I discovered, was only loosely based on the book. The musical, which I saw on Sunday, was much truer to the book, to my delight.
Roald Dahl’s work seem to be ideal books to transform into musicals. Strong characters, strong plots and action points (that could be turned into musical numbers), deliciously crafted words that are fun to say and therefore fun to sing. Quentin Blake’s illustrations are so whimsically stylised that they can be flipped almost straight onto the page. I absolutely loved the musical, not not just because it related so strongly to the book. I felt that everything that the musical added to the original story (such as Matilda’s mum’s ballroom dancing, or the number ‘when I grow up’ where the school children play on a whole lot of swings dangling from the theatre flies) could have come from the pages of a Roald Dahl book.
And that’s important, isn’t it? It must be very difficult when writing a musical such as this to decide where to add elements to the original story, where to augment it, and where you absolutely have to deviate from the original plot. Adaption is such a tricky thing in general – I remember one of my lecturers at university lamenting people who always complain about film adaptions that are not true to the book, as a book and a film are very different mediums, and stories that work in books don’t always work on film. It is the same with musicals, I suppose. Musicals or plays that have started their lives as films are changed to suit the stage, and vice versa.
I’m terrible in always thinking the book is better than the film. However, I think the musical of Matilda lived up to the book. I came away with the same feeling of elation, and playfulness, that I had when I was reading the book. And that’s the main thing, isn’t it? Even if you have to change the storyline, or a character, or some dialogue or setting, as long as you capture the essence of the book in an adaption, you have done your job right.