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20 October 2011 @ 04:25 am
Psi for Children -- Matilda (Film)  
Matilda the film (1996), adapted from the book, was actually something of a pleasant surprise. When the movie came out, I remember intentionally boycotting it. Perhaps I made that decision because it was released on the heels of Phenomenon, which my family encouraged me to see because "it's about a guy who develops powers!", and which I found very upsetting and disturbing in ways I couldn't adequately express. This may have been a factor in my avoidance Matilda.

Pros of the movie: They removed several problematic elements, namely,

1) Matilda no longer develops PK poof out of nowhere
2) Psychokinesis is no longer framed in an explicitly Christian way
3) Matilda no longer loses PK at the end (and expresses that she is glad to have lost it),
4) Miss Honey no longer reacts to seeing Matilda do PK with fear, disbelief, and other "othering" responses

Cons of the movie: What they add into the movie, or use in place of the problematic parts above, is not necessarily any better. Namely,

1) The new "explanation" for psi used in place of the explicitly Christian framework is not an improvement,
2) There is much more PK in the movie than in the book, and it is vastly more exaggerated and "dramatic" once she figures out how to use it (the movie is very special-effects heavy),
3) Though she is still psychokinetic at the end, the way the narrator frames her "happily ever after" is actually not much of an improvement over the book's ending

Miss Honey's dialogue with Matilda over Matilda's abilities does, however, remain universally positive. The only concern I have here is that some of the more important things Miss Honey says end up getting drowned out in the plot, which is all full of flashy special effects and dramatic macro PK that always works perfectly, on command.

The movie script appears to be a tug of war between two very different forces: 1) the typical Hollywood cartoon-style super exaggeration of psi, for the sake of flashy visual special effects and a "fun, campy kid with super powers" movie, and 2) an attempt at adding realism to this movie and intentionally pulling out the anti-psi bias.

I was so floored by the clear presence of force number two that I think I may be giving too much of a pass to force number one. Part of me was just going, "They made an effort not to make this suck?!?!?!"

If you take away the points for having made the effort, however, the result is still less than satisfying.

There are two authors listed for the screenplay, so for all I know, this really was the behind the scenes debate. One author appears to have more science fiction and horror credits, while the other appears to have credits for more realistic films, like "Little Women." I don't know.

Also, before I go through the movie in detail, please note that my complaint about gender roles that I made in the first Matilda post still stands -- the negative presentation of masculine/athletic/butch women is not one bit better in the movie as it is in the book. This is still a problem. This review, however, focuses on the treatment of psi.

The story begins on a positive note, with our narrator's voice: "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 Jello salad. One way or another, though, every human being is unique. For better [shot of baby Matilda], or for worse [shot of her dad]."

The movie, unlike the book, starts the PK narrative from a place of realism. In the book, she just suddenly develops PK out of the blue, whereas in the movie, she develops PK before she is aware that she has it, and then discovers that she can do it when she tips the glass. So the suggestion I made here that it should be worked in developmentally, instead of just "poof" out of the blue, was also spotted and corrected by the writers in the movie version.

Next, Matilda develops realistic PK before she develops unrealistic PK. (I'm not sure whether I like this narrative device or not.) The first thing Matilda does is make the TV explode. I'm not speaking from personal experience here, but I do happen to know someone who has PK experiences who has actually made the TV explode (NOT ON PURPOSE!). So, if you want dramatic and realistic (and um, expensive, too), you've got it here. ^_^ Exploding electronic devices for the win.

She's not sure she's done it -- she exclaims "I didn't do it!" as soon as it explodes.

At this point, the narrator comes back,

"Was it magic, or coincidence? She didn't know. It is said that we humans use only a tiny portion of our brains. Matilda might never have discovered her own great strength of mind, were it not for the events that began on the very next day."

OK. This is where I first got mad at the movie. The 10% Myth is complete bullshit. (Here, have Scientific American's take on it, too!) As you can see, Scientific American even specifically reference the myth that this "mysterious other 90%" could give rise (in absolutely anyone) to psychokinetic abilities. That is how prevalent this 10% Myth as an explanation for psi is.

The addition of this "explanation" adds nothing to the story's narrative. While I am very glad that this version at least took out the explicitly Christian explanations for the events (psi people can be of any religion or no religion at all), there is nothing actually added to the narrative by having the unnamed narrator come in to "explain" these events with some junk science. Why can't we just not know how this works, like little Matilda herself obviously does not know (and doesn't seem to care to know at her age)? Why is that sentence about a "tiny portion of our brains" necessary at all?

The "10% myth" is this story's equivalent of the radioactive spider. Look, it's even listed in the TV Tropes list of How To Give A Character Superpowers. It adds no value, except to teach the children watching this that the myth might actually be true, that "real" psi has a clear and simple "explanation", and that this is a sensible explanation for psi. WHICH IT IS NOT.

Does anyone know why PK happens? Not that I know of. So this is where I say, "quit pseudo-explaining and shut up." I hate an explanation which is obviously and demonstrably false, tossed in for the sake of "needing to have an explanation".

Moving on in the movie, there is then the newt scene (from the book), which starts to take us into fantasy, but slowly.

Matilda tips the glass over. The following scene is very different from the book. This is how it goes in the movie:

Matilda: Miss Honey, I did it. /looks a little guilty/
Hiss Honey: Did what?
Matilda: I made the glass tip over.
Miss Honey: Oh sweetie, don't let Miss Trunchbull make you feel that way. Nobody did it, it was an accident.
Matilda: I did it with my eyes. Watch, I'll prove it to you. /Matilda pours another glass of water/
Miss Honey: It's wonderful you feel so powerful. Many people don't feel powerful at all.
Matilda: /staring intensely at the glass, whispering/ Come on, tip over, make the glass tip over, come on, tip over, come on, tip over, tip over glass...
Miss Honey: /whispering/ It's all right, Matilda.
Matilda: /sighs/ I really did do it, Miss Honey.
Miss Honey: Oh. One of the odd things about life is... sometimes you can do something until you wanna show someone, and then you can't. /little laugh/ Or sometimes you think something's broken and you take it to be fixed--
Matilda: This isn't like that.
Miss Honey: Oh.
Matilda: I don't know. Maybe I made myself tired.
Miss Honey: Matilda, would you like to come over to my house this afternoon?
Matilda: I'd like that very much, Miss Honey.
Miss Honey: Good.
/They leave the school/
Matilda: I just stare very hard. And then my eyes get all hot and I can feel the strongness. I feel like I can move most anything in the world. You do believe me, don't you?
Miss Honey: Oh, I believe that you should believe in whatever power you think you have inside of you. Believe it with all your heart.

Then they approach Miss Trunchbull's house, and that scene begins.

So to recap: 1) at this stage in the story, psi is presented as not always working on command, especially "when you want to show someone". And Miss Honey is completely positive and encouraging about Matilda's belief in her ability. This is an entirely different scene from the one I reviewed here. Psi is not "othered", and all fear and disbelief reactions have been edited out.

Unfortunately, the very good messages in this scene are pretty much drowned out by the highly exaggerated special effects scenes which are to come. I wish there was a movie made or book written which stayed right here at this level and in this tone, but I don't think such exists. I'm still glad they pulled out the problematic parts of this scene -- it made me very happy -- but I fear Miss Honey's comments about "sometimes you can do something until you wanna show someone" will go right by and over most kids' heads. After all, it's only right after this scene that Matilda learns to do it on command (every time), and very shortly she's into "superpowers" territory. I can only hope that the right kid will actually hear the message in this scene, or that it will have an impact on a less conscious level. But I doubt it, because what happens next really drowns that out.

And there are no stories about psychokinetic (or otherwise psi) kids who realistically can't do "superpowers on command" and who have to come to an understanding of themselves within that reality. We only have these sorts of stories.

From here on out, the movie goes right into fantasy. She gets her dad to yell at her, so she can get angry and make things happen by PK. And from then on, everything always works, on command, the way she wants.

Narrator: No kid likes being yelled at. But it was precisely Harry's ranting and raving that gave Matilda the key to her power. To unlock that power, all she had to do was practice.

And it goes way beyond the PK demonstrated in the book -- she's turning on lights, making cards and poker chips fly around her like a mini tornado, making large numbers of different objects move however she wants, at once. She can have both physical and electrical control of objects, in any way she wants. Suddenly we're out of a realistic PK movie and into pure wish fulfillment, way beyond even what happens in the book (which is much tamer). By the end of this movie she's making her classmates fly (which means she can make herself fly, too, though she doesn't appear to figure this out).

Then, the presentation of her super exaggerated psychokinesis is also inconsistent.

She brings binoculars to Miss Trunchbull's house when she goes to get the doll for Miss Honey, so she can see the doll she's psychokinetically reaching for. This also explains why she's turned on the light. But in the same sequence, she does a lot of things out of sight, such as making the shot put balls come rolling down the stairs, which broke the suspension of disbelief for me. She just had difficulty making the doll come to her against the wind, when the doll is in sight, and yet a moment later is making a pile of shot put balls move off the table, and roll over to the doorway, out the door, down the hallway and down the stairs, all out of sight (and makes the painting fly down from upstairs over to its place over the mantlepiece, also out of sight). No.

Anyway, it's at the very end of the movie that she finally shows Miss Honey that her abilities are real. She happens to pick a moment when Miss Honey is panicking, because Miss Trunchbull is really mad at her and is going to be teaching her class that day. Miss Honey is not thinking clearly.

Miss Honey: Sweetheart, you promised you wouldn't go back in that house again.
Matilda: I didn't. I was on the garage roof. I did it [got the doll] with my powers.
Miss Honey: OK, on the garage roof. With your powers. All right, I need to think [about how to get out of this mess]. Let's see... /sigh/
/Miss Honey inhales deeply and sighs, while Matilda makes the pitcher float. Miss Honey just pushes it down again, since it's distracting her. Matilda giggles and does it again, and Miss Honey stops and notices, and looks open-mouthed at Matilda/
Miss Honey: Powers?
Matilda: Mm hm. /nods/
/Miss Honey passes her hand under the floating water jug, and Matilda giggles/
Matilda: I think I've got them down. Watch this. /She points her finger at various objects in the room and moves things around to be ready for Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey startles as the blackboard behind her rises up, hiding what was written on it/
Matilda: No more miss nice girl.
/Miss Honey stares at Matilda open-mouthed, as Miss Trunchbull's voice is heard and she approaches, chasing children into the room. Miss Honey thinks quickly and grabs the handle of the still hovering pitcher/

And that's her reaction! That's it.

Then we get to the climax of the film, which goes way beyond the message on the chalkboard, to include flying erasers, Miss Trunchbull spinning around on a globe (at Miss Honey's suggestion, even!), and flying children. Then all the school kids chase Miss Trunchbull out of the school, pelting her with food, and she is never heard from again.

Interestingly, Lavender thinks her flying was her own doing!

Matilda: Let go [of the pipe from which she is hanging].
Lavender: Ah, cool! I didn't know I could do that?
Matilda: Pretty good, huh?

Then we get to the very ham-fisted ending.

Matilda: Miss Honey, you can adopt me!
Matilda's dad: Look, I don't have time for all these legalities.
Matilda: One second, dad. I have the adoption papers.
Matilda's mom: What? Hey, where'd you get those?!
Matilda: From a book in the library. I've had them since I was big enough to Xerox.

So... we are expected to believe that for the past two and a half years, she's just had these papers around, and has been carrying them around waiting for the right moment to whip them out???

Oh, puh-leeze!

I know this complaint isn't about psi, but it is a valid complaint about how adoption is presented in far too many stories: the parents who put kids up for adoption are completely evil, heartless, shallow, immoral and inhuman creatures, while those who adopt children are super sweet, caring, loving perfect heroes -- saints, even. And even for one-dimensional caricatures, this one is pretty clumsy -- Matilda's parents could have left her with Miss Honey like in the book, and then in the epilogue the movie could have explained that eventually Miss Honey adopted her. This is really pretty crappy writing.

Anyway, in the end, Matilda does not mysteriously lose her powers because she is in more advanced classes, so we're not pulling a Flowers for Algernon. But that doesn't mean that everything is actually OK with the ending:

Narrator: But the happiest part of the story is that Matilda and Miss Honey each got what they wanted -- a loving family. /Shot of Miss Honey putting Matilda to bed/ And Matilda never had to use her powers again! (emphasis mine) /Matilda beckons with her finger and Moby Dick flies to her off the shelf/ Well, I mean almost never.
Matilda: Call me Ishmael. Several years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular...

So... she is still psychokinetic, but the narrator says "and Matilda never had to use her powers again" in his happily ever after voice, like this is totally the right way for things to wrap up. So, even without pulling a Flowers for Algernon, we have still managed to stay right smack in the same tropes. Her "powers" exist to serve some specific narrative function, rather than just being a trait she has. Since her "powers" exist to solve other people's problems, or to bring justice to "bad guys", once there are no more "bad guys" in her life, or in the story, and there are no more problems to solve, well, she clearly never had to use them again, isn't that sweet?

Well, um, no, it's not.

No one is saying, "And Matilda never had to use her intelligence again (well, almost -- look, she just did a math problem!)." They're not saying, "OK, we'll let her stay a child prodigy at the end of the movie, but we'll make sure the audience knows it's happily ever after by assuring them that she never actually has to use this intelligence again now that the evil headmistress is out of town! She's only a child prodigy to serve the narrative of 'she's so smart, she solved this big problem'. The audience will feel much more comfortable knowing she doesn't ever have to use her intelligence again now that she's solved some big life problem at age six and a half."

Really, pick absolutely any other human ability which is not psi and place it in this ending and see how stupid it sounds. Couldn't we have an ending that just showed her living happily ever after with Miss Honey, including showing that she's still psychokinetic, and not commented on that? Why do her abilities need "commenting" on, like, "oh, she lost them, and she's glad" or "well, I guess she still has them, but don't worry, she never has to use them again"? How about telling us that "she lived happily ever after with Miss Honey until she grew up, but that's another story [and showing her grabbing the book from across the room]?"

The narrative power of this ending is not lost on the Wikipedia authors, either, who have written here: "Matilda and Miss Honey live happily ever after, Matilda rarely using her powers again, and both realizing that they have finally gotten what they had always dreamed of: a loving family."

See? Rarely using her powers again! What could possibly be a better ending for a little girl who can do so many things psychokinetically? Just giving it all up! I mean, she has no more need for them, right? The narrative says so!


Forget how empowered any of that made her feel. She doesn't "need" it anymore.

In sum, I am really glad the movie fixed many problems with the book. I do, however, have new complaints about the movie. I think it is certainly heading in the right direction, but it seems that there were competing interests at work in the script. It feels like a compromise was made, and this is the result. The presentation of psi here does not outright, standing on its own, suck, like it does in so many movies. But it is not done in a problem-free manner, either.
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