Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden is a children’s novel that has been adapted to the screen four different times. It’s most famed one is Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 film starring Maggie Smith and John Lynch. It is certainly one that most millennials remember; the looming Gothic nature of Misselthwaite manor, the brilliant secret garden, and first crushes on farmhand Dickon (or, like me, an inappropriate one on Lord Craven.)
Anyway, this year HeyDay Films releases a new version to allow a new generation of children into the titular haven. However, sadly, it misses the point of the novel.
Inexplicably moving the tale from the 1900s to 1947, The Secret Garden revolves around Mary Lennox, a young girl who is born in India. After losing her parents to cholera, Mary is shipped off to her absent Uncle, Lord Craven. He lives in the once-lavish Misselthwaite Manor which has fallen into disrepair. Whilst there, Mary is left to her own devices and soon discovers the eponymous place. Soon she meets her sickly cousin Colin and Dickon who figure out that the magic of the garden could help them all…
The main flaw of Munden’s adaptation is that it negates the entire point of The Secret Garden. The original story was about rejuvenation for all the characters and how that comes from hard-work and care. It’s about how tending to the garden transforms Mary, Colin, and eventually Lord Craven. The story is about bringing life and spirit back to Misselthwaite Manor. The effort and love we put into our relationships can turn a neglectful ground into one of fruition and growth, mirroring Mary’s journey. Adding magic to this negates this idea of hard-work, love, and family
The other major problem is this: Historically Mary Lennox’s parents are cold and unkind people but Mary eventually finds a new home and family who truly care for her. In this new movie, Mary’s mother is blighted by the death of her sister, making her cruel and aloof to Mary. When the child then realises this, she instantly forgives her mother, like we are supposed to. Even though, Mary’s mother has done nothing to earn it.
It adds to this troubling cinematic idea that the sins of the parents have to be forgiven by their children, in death or whilst they are dying. It is especially troubling when the child in question is so young, dealing with so much beyond her years. It should never be up to a child to shoulder the transformation and growth of a neglectful adult. Both with Mary, and Colin with Lord Craven.
In some ways, the magic of this new The Secret Garden is enchanting, and the production design is grand and brilliant. It works best when we focus on Mary’s memories and how they feed into her new life at Misselthwaite. Dixie Egerickx is a treasure to watch in these moments. There’s also Julie Walters and Colin Firth but they don’t really add much to the classic story.
There is enough to appeal to a new generation of children but, sadly, it’s substance is lacking. A disappointing adventure.
The Secret Garden is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema 23rd October