Did you grown up reading Tom’s Midnight Garden? I didn’t. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of the book until fairly recently. It’s described as a time slip story, which I had to look up because I didn’t know what it was. Time slip is different from time travel in that it can’t be explained. It’s more of a paranormal event, think 11.22.63 by Stephen King or The Time Traveler’s Wife. Time travel, on the other hand, is when the act of travelling in time can be explained or controlled, usually by some sort of device. Think of the TARDIS in Dr.Who or the DeLorean in Back to the Future.
I picked up a copy of the Tom’s Midnight Garden, written by Philippa Pearce and first published in 1958, at my local library. When I finished reading it I wanted to watch the 1989 BBC miniseries but had some trouble finding it, so I ended up watching the 1999 film adaptation even though I had pretty low expectations thanks to this Empire Magazine review:
“Willard Carroll’s adaptation manages to suck the magic out of the whole tale.”
Both the movie and the book begin with Tom being sent away to live with his aunt and uncle so he can avoid catching the measles from his brother, Peter. He’s not happy about it, but he’s British so afternoon tea cheers him up a little. Then again, Devonshire tea with homemade scones, strawberry jam and whipped cream would cheer me up as well.
Because Tom can’t go outside or interact with anyone (germs!), he gets bored. Sure his aunt is a good cook (and her outfits in the movie are hilarious) and there are puzzles to keep him occupied. But he’s getting zero exercise or fresh air so he isn’t sleeping well. One night when he’s feeling restless with insomnia, he hears something odd: the clock strikes 13. When he goes to investigate, he discovers there’s a lush garden in the back of the house that no one told him about.
Here’s something you should know about Tom: he LOVES gardens. In the movie when he finally gets to explore the garden, he takes a deep breath of the fresh air and looks as happy as a kid on Christmas. Are kids today ever that happy to go outside? Is anyone?
In both the book and the movie, he’s thrilled to see this secret garden but also super pissed that his aunt and uncle didn’t tell him about it. When he questions them about it the next morning, they deny the garden exists. And when he steps outside to prove they’re liars, the garden isn’t there anymore. On top of that, the clock also looks totally normal. No more 13th hour. He writes to his brother, “the garden is gone.” Poor Tom.
But here’s the thing: Tom’s a smart kid. Plus he’s incredibly bored. So instead of accepting the whole missing garden situation, Tom climbs the fence to investigate. And of course, the garden is back. Dewy grass, a pond, a vegetable garden. It’s paradise. But something is off because he’s not leaving any footprints in the grass, and when he goes to open a door his hand becomes invisible and goes right through the latch. But when he tries again the next night he manages to get through. Be warned that if you watch the movie version, you’ll notice that these sequences where Tom enters and leaves the garden are rather cheesy. It’s easier to get immersed in the magic of the story when you’re reading the book, because you aren’t distracted by how dated the special effects are. But where the movie wins is in its ability to show the garden in all the seasons of the year. You can obviously use your imagination when reading the book, but it’s lovely to see it come to life on the screen. That being said, because Pearce based the garden on the one at the house she grew up in, she is able to write about it quite beautifully:
“In earliest summer hyacinths were still out in the crescent beds on the lawn, and wallflowers in the round ones. Then the hyacinths bowed and died; and the wallflowers were uprooted, and stocks and asters bloomed in their stead. There was a clipped box bush by the greenhouse, with a cavity like a great mouth cut into the side of it: this was stacked full of pots of geraniums in flower. Along the sundial path, heavy red poppies came out, and roses; and, in summer dusk, the evening primroses glimmered like little moons.”
I don’t want to give away the story so I’ll just say that while in the garden, Tom meets a girl named Hatty and they become friends. Each time he visits is a completely different period in time and Hatty gets older with each visit. Eventually you find out who she really is and everything makes more sense. Although you’ll probably guess what the so-called twist is long before it happens. Most of the story focuses on the two children playing in the garden, but the pacing seemed slower in the movie so I got a little bored. I perked up a little when I realized that the gardener in the film is David Bradley, the man who plays Filch in Harry Potter. But overall the movie felt a little too prim & proper for me. I’m sure the inevitable movie reboot will change things up quite a bit. Maybe some deadly animals lurking in the garden or something. And definitely higher caliber acting. Sorry, kid who played Tom.
What I really liked about the book was that it explored some pretty deep topics, like time itself:
“Time no longer– the angel on the grandfather clock had sworn it. But if Time is ever to end, that means that, here and now, Time itself is only a temporary thing. It can be dispensed with perhaps; or, rather, it can be dodged.”
Probably a tough sell for a movie targeted towards children, but somehow just right for a children’s book.
The end is the same in both the book and the movie. Tom says goodbye to Mrs. Bartholomew and later in the car Aunt Gwen describes to her husband what she saw: “He ran up to her, and they hugged each other as if they had known each other for years and years, instead of only having met for the first time this morning. There was something else, too, Alan, although I know you’ll say it sounds even more absurd… Of course, Mrs Bartholomew’s such a shrunken little old woman, she’s hardly bigger than Tom, anyway: but, you know, he put his arms right round her and he hugged her good-bye as if she were a little girl.”
I probably just gave away the secret twist. Sorry. But go ahead and read the book anyway.