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The Secret Garden on Screen: Old and New

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, has been a beloved story in my family for many years. My mother read it to my aunt when she was young, and then later to me and my sister. Carrying a message of hope and renewal, the tale of a little girl who learns to bring a garden back to life, and along with it, the hearts of all whose lives she touches, including her own, is a timeless classic of children’s literature. And since there hasn’t been a major adaptation for years, not since the 1993 film directed by Agnieszka Holland starring Kate Maberly (Daniel Deronda), I was really excited to see what this adaptation would be like. Now after having viewed the film, I wanted to share some of my thoughts.  

Visually, the new film directed by Marc Munden is stunning. The cinematography is really beautiful and the colors are so vivid and clear. I loved the contrast between the sun-saturated shots of India and the dark, moody-atmosphere of the moors surrounding Misselthwaite Manor. Dixie Egerickx, (The Little Stranger) also brings a liveliness to the role of Mary that is charming, if a touch more modern than Maberly’s subtler portrayal of the lonely orphan. Though both versions start out depicting Mary as sour and spoiled, Egerickx is more boisterous and outspoken in her rendering than Maberly. Both versions though attempt to show the audience the bitterness and anger Mary carries inside her, due to the neglect from her parents. 

The 2020 version also takes a different tack by altering the time period from the late Edwardian era, the time period of both the novel and the 1993 version, to WWII. Some of the finer details were also changed, perhaps reflecting a desire to update the story for a modern audience. In this adaption, it is implied subtly that Mary’s mother, as well as her cousin Colin Craven’s, suffered from depression, and the friendly robin that Mary befriends here is transformed into a scruffy, lovable dog. The casting is more diverse here as well, since both Dickon (Amir Wilson, The Letter for the King) and Martha are played by non-white actors. The climax of the story also plays out differently. I have come to the conclusion that maybe the change was an attempt on Munden’s and the writers’ parts, to align the story back up with its original message and the idea of rebirth and new beginnings. 

Even though there was much about this film that was attractive, I personally felt that the deviations from the original detracted from the narrative. We see plenty of interactions between Mary and Dickon, as well as her cousin Colin Craven, (Edan Hayhurst, Genius) we don’t see much of her interactions with Martha at all. One of the major elements that altered the tone of the story for me was how the garden was portrayed. The filmmakers in this version opted to make the garden nearly entirely CGI, and though what resulted from their efforts may have been a more “impressive” garden, they sacrificed much of the charm of the original. Instead of a wild, old-fashioned, English garden, the garden in the 2020 adaption feels too grand and too overtly “magical.” The simpler, more unruly garden of the 1993 version better captured to me the allure and mystery of the novel. The garden of Burnett’s novel is abandoned, desolate, and dormant; a place once full of beauty shuttered away from the world and left to deteriorate until Mary comes and revives it, with the help of Dickon. In contrast, Munden’s version is full of exotic and fantastic flowers, taking the idea of the garden being “magical” much more literally. 

 In the book, it is through nurturing the garden, along with hard work and industry, that Mary transforms as a person from a sullen little girl, to a more thoughtful, kind child. By making the garden essentially be already complete, the new film ends up shifting the focus away from personal growth. The process of seeing the garden grow is removed from the story, and instead its role becomes more about bringing Mary and her cousin and uncle together through the magic that it already seems to possess, rather than magic cultivated and created by Mary and Dickon and Colin. The garden becomes less of an integral element of the narrative, and ends up taking a backseat to the exploration of loss and grief, as well as the effect of emotional neglect on children. Though these themes are absolutely a part of Burnett’s novel as well, I wish that the role of the garden in helping to heal these emotional wounds had been better preserved. 

Though this new version definitely has its own interpretation, I will always have a special fondness for the 1993 film. It serves as a reminder for me of my childhood and its overall feel fits so well with what I imagined in my head while reading the book. There is a certain magical quality to it that makes me nostalgic for simpler days. It may have a lower-tech look to it, but it possesses an earnestness and poignancy that more than makes up for any perceived defects in this regard. The 2020 adaptation was an attempt to bring a classic to a new generation of children, but for me it cannot surpass the older version. 

What did you think of the new adaption? Do you have a favorite film version of The Secret Garden? Feel free to drop a comment and tell me!

4 Comments

  • Lisa Kelly

    I definitley agree with your thoughts on the new film. I, too, prefer the 1993 version. While I loved the updgrade in cinematography, I wish that they had better used it to portray a more authenic version of the story.

  • Katy Beaumont

    I agree with your points too. Two main differences I also spotted were the fact that Mary doesn’t have to do anything to restore the garden and so that metaphor and personal growth is lost. Also I feel that the relationship with Martha is such a big part of the book that it was a shame it wasn’t covered as much. I think my kids preferred the new one though, mainly because the 1990s version is quite gothic and gloomy in comparison.

    • Hannah Kelly

      Ah yes I can see that! I like all things gloomy and spooky though so I’d never thought of it that way before. I also loved how the 1993 version played those parts up because it gave me flashbacks to Jane Eyre, which many people believe inspired Burnett. I agree though the new version has a lighter tone though. 🙂

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