It’s hard to say if Dahl himself would have liked “Matilda.” It’s a matter of record that Dahl loathed Mel Stuart’s 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” an adaptation of his 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” According to the Daily Mail, Dahl allegedly felt that Stuart had no talent and that Gene Wilder, in the title role, was a terrible choice for Willy Wonka (he wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers to play the part). Dahl also resented that his screenplay was drastically altered by the last-minute hiring of David Seltzer, who made the movie a lot cuddlier and friendly. Fans of Dahl will know of the author’s misanthropy streak, and that warmth and joy are low on his list of priorities when writing a children’s book.
His experiences with “Willy Wonka” made Dahl infamously tetchy about adaptations of his work. When Nicholas Roeg adapted his novel “The Witches” to film in 1990, he hated that the filmmakers wanted to give his story a happy ending. In the book, the young main character is transformed into a mouse and stays that way for the rest of his life. Roeg and executive producer Steven Spielberg wanted an ending wherein the boy turns back into a human. Roeg even filmed Dahl’s version, an ending that he loved. At the last minute, however, Roeg switched back to a “happy” ending, leading to Dahl’s outrage and threats of an attack ad campaign on the film.
There’s a reason why adaptations of Dahl’s most famous novels didn’t come until after the author’s death in 1990. After he passed, audiences saw big studio adaptations of “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The BFG,” and a second film version of “Chocolate Factory.”
And, of course, “Matilda.”