There’s no denying that Emma Thompson’s latest transformation into the sadistic Agatha Trunchbull in Netflix’s new Matilda the Musical film is an act of brilliance, both from the Oscar-winner herself and an army of makeup artists. But explicit scenes of Miss Trunchbull’s violent behaviour are likely to prove to be a traumatic experience for both children and survivors of child abuse alike.
Matilda author Roald Dahl is well known for his focus on cruelty to children, from child-killing witches to body disfigurement for naughty children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Matilda itself contains graphic lines such as: “The Trunchbull simply grabbed me by one ear and rushed me to the Chokey at the double and threw me inside and locked the door … I was sliced and cut all over when I came out.”
This literary interest in child abuse extends back a long way: in Grimms’ fairy tales, The Juniper Tree is a story where a boy is decapitated by his stepmother before being chopped up and cooked in a stew which is then served to his father. So should these books predicated on harm to children be abolished altogether? I don’t believe so – because in reading the stories, there is a distance from the visual imagery and room for interpretation – but seeing a horrific ordeal on the cinema screen leaves no room to escape, nor a way to avoid imprinting the violent imagery on a child’s mind.
It is particularly pungent in Netflix’s new adaption of Matilda, adapted from the stage musical by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly. This not only because of the famous pigtails scene (which also featured in the 1996 Danny DeVito-directed version of Matilda) where we see the innocent Amanda Thripp swung around by her pigtails and we hear her screams and the squelch of her pigtails being yanked from her head – there is a new addition of an even more traumatic scene of mutilation where Eric is lifted into the air by his ears as Miss Trunchbull stretches them out several inches from his head.
Bluntly speaking, seeing these graphic scenes of cruelty on the screen and hearing the screams of the children in agony make for a far worse experience than reading Dahl’s novels. Film makes the abuse seem ever more real; it is right in front of your face, traumatising children and providing an equally uncomfortable watch for those that have experienced child abuse. Added to which the large-scale musical numbers and special effects end up making light of the suffering.
Cinema’s ability to find entertainment in child abuse is nothing new. Just take a look at the 1981 drama, Mommie Dearest, in which we see graphic scenes of violence committed by Joan Crawford against her adopted daughter, Christina – from near-death strangulation to the famous scene where Christina is viciously beaten with a wire hanger. Yet since its release, rather than a legacy of educating the audience about child abuse, it has become a pop culture icon spawning the catchphrase “no wire hangers”. As Faye Dunaway said herself, it became camp.
Or take the 2017 adaption of Stephen King’s IT where seven-year-old Georgie has his arm torn off by Pennywise before being dragged into the sewers to his death. In the new American sci-fi horror film, M3gan we see a young boy’s ear ripped off by a lifelike artificial intelligence doll. The cruelty against children in cinema is becoming greater and, in an age where we are so aware of the long-term impact of trauma, it seems so reductive and contradictory that these graphic scenes of abuse are being pumped out in the cinema, and with a tone that makes entertainment out of this serious issue.
But a key difference is that M3gan and IT are horror movies, both with a 15 age rating, while Matilda the Musical has a PG certificate. In fact, the British Board of Film Classification even refers to the film as featuring “comic violence”. Seriously? If there’s one sure way to disrespect survivors of child abuse it’s to associate violence against children with comedy. But it does also beg the important question of whether any kind of violence against children should be allowed to feature in a PG-rated movie, such as Matilda, where the audience is at such a pivotal moment in their psychological development.
Children should be educated about child abuse in today’s society, of course, but is a movie musical that blends big dance numbers with physical cruelty and mutilation really the best option?