Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: The Secret Garden Book-to-Movie

Note: Literary Flashback has been renamed to Literary Miscellanea because the older name no longer makes sense. Literary Miscellanea is the section of my blog dedicated to “non-book-review stuff” (reflection posts, essays by famous authors, passages from favorite works, etc.). 

For the next few weeks I will briefly discuss some book-to-movie adaptations that I enjoy. Spoilers will be included. You have been warned.

The Secret Garden

Today I will focus on The Secret Garden by  Frances Hodgson Burnett and the 1993 film adaptation directed by Agnieszka Holland (Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Medlock).

You can read my review of Burnett’s The Secret Garden here. As I wrote in my review, I mostly enjoyed the book, but I found the philosophy a bit off-putting. I am quite open-minded when it comes to other peoples’ religious or philosophical views, but Christian Science’s belief in praying away sickness just doesn’t sit well with me. Colin is a hypochondriac, so his sickness was imaginary anyway, but Burnett implies in a few places in the book that good thoughts can help legitimately sick people be cured. Still, the book is a celebration of childhood. Friendship helps overcome personal and family challenges.

The 1993 film adaptation is the first Maggie Smith movie I ever saw. The film itself is (in my opinion) far superior to the book. The philosophy that I found so problematic in the book is mostly absent from the movie. Magical realism replaces positive thinking. The focus is entirely on the power of friendship.

The garden is stunning. I think we can all agree that English moors and gardens look better on the screen than on paper. Roses and Empress of India lilies grow everywhere, and Dickens’ robin is a charming character. We never meet Martha’s family, but Martha’s character makes up for the lack.

But the most compelling character in the movie is Lord Archibald Craven. When his wife dies he locks up the garden and runs from the world. Mrs. Medlock never questions Lord Craven’s belief that Colin is dying. He has cast a spell on the whole manor, and only Mary knows the truth. She has to convince Colin and his father that their fears are imaginary, but this is a tall order. As expected, innocence is restored when Lord Craven returns to his garden.

The 1993 Secret Garden film may not be a masterpiece of cinematography, but it is still very good. Some critics fault it for not being optimistic enough, but the darkness underscores Lord Craven’s neurosis. His fears and sorrows have crippled (in more than one way) not only himself but his 10 year old son who has never even experienced sunlight. If you have read and enjoyed Burnett’s book, I highly recommend the 1993 film adaptation.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, Children's/Coming-of-Age

Review of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Illustrated by Russell Barnett
Illustrated by Russell Barnett

Here is what Goodreads has to say about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett:

What secrets lie behind the doors at Misselthwaite Manor? Recently arrived at her uncle’s estate, orphaned Mary Lennox is spoiled, sickly, and certain she won’t enjoy living there. Then she discovers the arched doorway into an overgrown garden, shut up since the death of her aunt ten years earlier. Mary soon begins transforming it into a thing of beauty–unaware that she is changing too. But Misselthwaite hides another secret, as Mary discovers one night. High in a dark room, away from the rest of the house, lies her young cousin, Colin, who believes he is an incurable invalid, destined to die young. His tantrums are so frightful, no one can reason with him. If only, Mary hopes, she can get Colin to love the secret garden as much as she does, its magic will work wonders on him.

While most of the work concentrates on Colin’s personal transformation, I would like to say a few words about Mary’s transformation.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary is presented as a spoiled and selfish child. Mary clearly grew up in a privileged environment. At Misselthwaite Manor, she screams at Martha for thinking she was a native:

“You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people – they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India.”

It is important to note that Mary is shouting at Martha who is a servant herself. Mary later admits to never having experienced hunger.

But like Colin, Mary was neglected by her parents. She got everything she wanted but not what she needed (parental love, friendship, etc). Mary’s transformation is brought about both by learning to appreciate those with lower social standing than herself and by finally encountering love and friendship. To understand Mary’s growth as an individual, it is important to understand her upbringing as both a privileged and unprivileged girl. The same can be said about Colin’s upbringing.

What did I think about it?

I enjoyed reading The Secret Garden. This is a somewhat atypical coming-of-age story in that the children help each other find their inner strength without much help from adults. For example, Dickon’s love for animals and the earth is contagious; he helps Mary and Colin overcome their personal challenges. Dickon reminds one of St. Francis of Assisi.

There was a lot of mention in the book of Magic as a force of renewal and healing in the world. I think that this was a reflection of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s personal beliefs in Christian Science. The children, especially Colin, come to be very interested in this Magic. I couldn’t help but cringe, though, when Colin said that he considered studying Magic as a type of scientific discovery. Colin is a child and is discovering his inner strength so his beliefs are understandable, but the study of Magic is not exactly scientific.

Martha is my favorite character in the novel. She is worked to the bone at Misselthwaite Manor but she never fails to help her mother and eleven siblings on her holidays. She is also extremely patient and kind toward Mary and Colin.

If you are in need of some inspiration, The Secret Garden is the book to read. It is refreshing to read something with such a positive message.

Favorite Quote:

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done – then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”