The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, is loved and cherished by so many of the kids who picked it up somewhere around 4th grade. I was one of those kids. The 1993 film version was the perfect visual accompaniment to the book. Twenty-seven years later feels sufficiently distant for a new movie version, but does the 2020 vision of The Secret Garden have a sufficiently fresh take on the story?
Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is a spoiled little girl, orphaned while living in India. She is sent to England to live her with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) at Misselthwaite Manor. As Mary explores her new home, strange noises lead to the discovery of her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst). He’s sickly, bedridden, and surly while claiming he has a hunchback just like his father.
The titular garden is discovered and unlocked by Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson). He’s the animal-loving brother of Martha (Isis Davis), a maid back at the manor. As they spend more time there, the “magic” of the garden begins to change Mary and everyone around her.
There was a time shift in this version of The Secret Garden. In the novel, Mary is sent to live with her uncle after a cholera outbreak in India kills her parents closer to the turn of the century. This film begins in 1947, with a backdrop of the partition of India. The change had little impact on the story other than including a scene with the evacuation of British children from India.
Even though I’m not sure of the point in updating the time frame, it’s not something that detracts from the movie. There are changes from the book that did have a huge impact on the story. I just don’t think these distinctions were advantageous. Mary’s mother, while not heavily featured and only shown in flashbacks, is given a completely different personality in the film. The redemption of Mary’s mother doesn’t add to Mary’s journey. It just sanitizes it. There’s a huge, climatic fire in the third act that wasn’t necessary, and it was not part of the original story.
Perhaps my biggest issue with the changes from the source material is the shift from figurative magic to literal. A huge part of The Secret Garden‘s appeal is the childlike, magical fantasies of Mary and her new friends. As Colin says in the novel, “Of course there must be lots of Magic in the world…but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it.” In the case of this movie, the filmmakers didn’t know how to handle the fantasy magic and instead just made it real. Leaves change colors and plants spring from the ground while embroidered butterflies flap their wings. This takes away from the message in the book that positive thoughts can bring about positive changes. Instead, here things just magically happen.
The gothic tone director Marc Munden added to the film was a welcome addition. The darkness felt appropriate, and leaning into it even more would have been fun. The movie hints that it might have some scary moments, but they are never realized. If anyone ever wants to make a full horror version of The Secret Garden I am here for it.
I appreciate the attempt to put a fresh spin on the story, but I wish it had been done with better results. Those with strong ties to the novel or the previous film version will likely find this adaptation of The Secret Garden lacking. The movie is entertaining enough to make it worth a watch, but perhaps not one that warrants a second viewing.
The Secret Garden is available now for digital rental.
About The Secret Garden
THE SECRET GARDEN starring Colin Firth, Julie Walters and Dixie Egerickx is a new take on the beloved classic novel of the same name written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Set in England during a new time period in 1947, the film follows a young orphan girl who, after being sent to live with her uncle, discovers a magical garden on the grounds of his estate.