As a lover of classic novels, especially children’s classics, I eagerly reread the 1911 classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett this spring in anticipation of the new movie’s release. (The film’s original spring release was waylaid by COVID-19 and bumped up to August and a streaming release.)
The trailer intrigued me and also bothered me. Even though the movie starred Colin Firth (a favorite actor of mine since he emerged from a pond in a puffed-sleeved shirt as Mr. Darcy in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice), the trailer seemed too magical in a CGI, hyper-Disney kind of way.
My fears were confirmed when I watched the movie, which misses the mark in several key ways.
But first, the good news. The movie still gives viewers the basic storyline of Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), a young girl who is orphaned in a cholera epidemic in India and is sent to live in the palatial manor in England with her reclusive uncle (Colin Firth). Sullen, spoiled, and unlikable, Mary is transformed in the book and the movie as she begins to interact with children her own age and they all engage with a lush, walled garden on the manor’s grounds. With any luck, viewers will be inspired to read the luminous novel, maybe for the first time.
However, the source of Mary’s transformation alters significantly from the book. In the book, the magic lies within the regenerative powers of God in his creation. Burnett gives readers stunning descriptions of seeds moving and growing underground, just waiting to burst forth in resurrection glory. Even a non-gardener such as myself was inspired and moved by her depiction of spring and things growing. In the book, Mary’s transformation is tied to her planting, digging, weeding, and then reaping the rewards of her good labor. The movie strips all the real magic out and gives us a fantastical substitute that rings hollow. “She doesn’t plant a single thing,” I complained to a fellow book lover.
In the novel, a local village boy Dickon (Amir Wilson) is a masterful gardener and animal whisperer, able to coax birds out of trees and lush flowers where there was nothing but weeds. He is an integral and beloved character in the book; his patient friendship with the elitist Mary is a catalyst for her change. In the movie, though Wilson does a fine job with what he is given, he isn’t given nearly enough space to do his character the credit he deserves. Dickon’s mother, another crucial character for Mary’s transformation, is left out entirely.
Other liberties abound. The time frame is changed to the 1940s with no explanation. A whole subplot is added about the dead mothers of Mary and her cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is sequestered in the manor as an invalid in a misguided attempt on his father’s part to keep him safe. And a dramatic action scene is tacked on at the end, with the manor going up in flames, for no apparent reason.
Directed by Marc Munden and adapted by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the movie was heralded as being made by the makers of Harry Potter. But what worked for Harry Potter falls painfully short here. The Secret Garden novel is lovely in its quiet strength, a story of children bereft of their parents, living and dead, who are healed through nature, wholesome food, and loving friendship. But by dunking the film in magical realism and unnecessary drama, this adaptation is way off the mark. Even Mr. Darcy can’t save it. My advice: Watch the superior 1993 version, or better yet, read the book. (Streaming now on Amazon Prime and other platforms for $19.99.)