The Secret Garden – Book and Film

Recently I watched the 2020 film of The Secret Garden. The first thing so say it is that it is not like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book. The basic premise is the same – Mary Lennox is an orphaned child who goes to live with her uncle in Yorkshire where she discovers a secret garden. I’m not going to describe the differences between the book and the film – there are so many – but the main difference is the garden itself. And that is what disappointed me the most about the film.

The ‘garden’ is not a garden – it is a huge version of maybe the Amazon rain forest, a digital fantasy, nothing like the garden in the book. And Misselthwaite Manor has been morphed into Misselthwaite Hall, a huge palatial building dominating the Yorkshire skyline. And what has become of Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener and Mrs Sowerby, Dickon and Martha’s mother? They are just not in the film!

If you don’t like modern versions of old favourites, then steer clear of this film – it is nothing like the book. It’s CGI ‘magic’ is simply not the real Magic of the natural world.

This is what I wrote about the book when I last re-read it 8 years ago. I’m tempted to read it again to obliterate the film from my imagination.

I read The Secret Garden several times as a child and the story has stayed with me ever since. For years my picture of the ideal garden has been a walled garden, just like the secret garden. The story can be read on different levels. As a child it seemed to me to be a straight forward story of Mary Lennox, orphaned after her parents died of cholera in India. Up until the age of nine she had lived a cosseted life looked after by servants, in particular her Ayah, ignored by her parents. After their death she was sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, on the bleak Yorkshire moors, with her uncle, who was a hunchback recluse, who took little interest in her. Soon after Mary’s arrival, her uncle went abroad leaving her again in the care of servants. These were very different from the servants in India and Mary struggled to adjust.

Soon after she discovers she is not the only child in the house, when she finds Colin, her cousin, a hypochondriac, unable to walk, who believes he won’t live to grow up. Both Mary and Colin are selfish children, hating both themselves and the adults in their lives. Both also hate the outdoors, but encouraged by Martha, her maid, Mary wanders in the gardens of the Manor house and comes across a walled garden, which apparently has no door. There seems no way to get inside it – until guided by a robin, she finds an old key buried in the earth. I loved the descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, the garden and how under the influence of Martha and her younger brother Dickon and even the grumpy gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, Mary blossomed as the year progressed along with the garden.

Reading it now I can see it is full of symbolism using nature, the Bible and myths, that I never noticed as a child. The image of the garden is used as both paradise lost and paradise regained. As the garden is nurtured and begins to blossom so do Mary and Colin, through springtime and into summer, culminating in the autumn when both are brought to full health. Dickon is accompanied by a young fox, a lamb, a crow and tame squirrels, reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi and plays his pipe to charm the animals, like Pan. His mother, Mrs. Sowerby, is a plain-speaking down-to-earth Yorkshire woman, full of common sense and wisdom, who through Dickon and Martha helps the children, feeding Mary and Colin with both her words and wholesome food. At times I thought the language becomes over sentimental and a bit syrupy (I never thought that as a child). But there are descriptions that still appeal to me, such as this description of the roses in the garden:

And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sundial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades – they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair, fresh leaves and buds – and buds – tiny at first, but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air. (page 210 in my copy)

Above all it is the power of Magic that is invoked in this book. The magic of nature, that makes plants and people grow and develop, the magic of the power of positive thinking and prayer, of the healing power of the mind, and of laughter and love. Sometimes it seemed too simplistic and yet at the same time I was swept along with the sentiments and enjoying the experience of re-reading this book.

5 comments

  1. Fair warning, then, Margaret, so thanks. I think I will steer clear of the film, because I loved the book as it was. The garden itself was such a wonderful character in the novel, and I really couldn’t imagine a good film version without it. And not to have Ben or Mrs. Sowerby in the film? No, thank you. Now you’ve got me thinking of re-reading the book, too…

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  2. Margaret,
    The Secret Garden is sacrosanct, to my mind. I love rereading it, I love viewing new illustrated editions, but I cannot abide film versions that tamper with the original. So I agree with you, that submerging yourself with the original is a great idea. Like minds!

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