I’m sure I read The Secret Garden when I was a kid, but until I reread it recently I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. After I finished it (which didn’t take very long because it’s a super quick read) I decided to watch the 1993 movie version featuring Maggie Smith. My decision to watch that particular adaptation was likely due to the fact that I was in the middle of a Downton Abbey binge-watch at the time.
As much as I wanted to love this movie (Maggie Smith! Gardens! Accents!) I can honestly say that it was just okay for me. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps it’s one of those movies that is only good when you grew up watching it. For example, my nostalgia-fueled love for The Money Pit, which I recognize is probably not a great movie but in my mind is absolute perfection.
Why didn’t I love this movie version of The Secret Garden? Let me start with Mary. Poor, poor Mary. She is a much more likeable child in the book than she is in the movie, even though she’s still quite snooty and self-centred on the page. The way we are introduced to her and the situation with her parents in India is very different in the film. I preferred the book version, where her parents die from a cholera outbreak and Mary is shipped off to live with the uncle she’s never met. And then there’s the issue of the ending, which was drastically changed for the film. That only bothers me because they made it super corny, and I found the book to be just corny enough.
The movie, however, has the clear advantage of being able to actually show you the garden, with all its rich colours and cute, fuzzy animals. They built the garden from scratch just for the movie, so I have to admit that it is pretty perfect. But despite the strong visual element, I’d have to say that the movie felt darker than the book did. Downright depressing, according to BuzzFeed. The Guardian points out that The Secret Garden was “originally serialised in a magazine for adults before being published in its entirety in 1911.” So if you keep in mind that the intended audience wasn’t, in fact, children, it makes sense that the story feels a bit heavy.
I have a feeling that I’ll read The Secret Garden again at some point in my life, but I might give up on the film adaptations. Although I’ve heard the 1949 version is better so maybe I’ll give that one a try.