Revisiting the Earthy Children's Classic 'The Secret Garden'

The Secret Garden

With a remake out next year, the time is ripe to revisit this gothic kids’ classic.

Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to predict what impression this era of filmmaking will leave, but it certainly feels likely that future film scholars will be talking about our current fixation with remakes. At their very core, remakes have their foundation in nostalgia, which explains why so many recently-announced remakes are reworkings of the ’90s kids’ movies that today’s adults loved best. Just look at Disney’s upcoming slate for proof: Dumbo, Mulan, Aladdin, and The Lady and the Tramp are all due within the next couple of years. But even beyond the well-trodden path of animated-to-live-action remakes, beloved family films like Mary Poppins and the decidedly rougher-edged The Secret Garden are being remade for the benefit of Generation Z audiences.

Now in its 25th year, the last cinematic iteration we saw of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s supernaturally tinged children’s novel was in 1993, when Polish director Agnieszka Holland enchanted millennial kids with the story of an arrogant little girl and the idyllic, healing garden she stumbles upon. Its original audience has fully matured since then, and so, with a remake pending next year, it’s about time Holland’s captivating classic had a critical revisit.

In many ways, The Secret Garden was the brooding older sister to its perky genre peers in 1993. Its lead, Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is, to put it politely, a compelling ad for contraception for a sizeable chunk of the film. A haughty and spoiled little orphan, she’s the inverse of Oliver Twist; emotionless and sour, she resembles Miss Trunchbull more than she does Matilda Wormwood. In short, she’s the polar opposite of the kind of sweet, innocent kid that makes up the archetypical kids’ movie protagonist. But while she might not win our sympathies straight away, her character offers us something her movie peers often don’t: the chance to witness a journey to maturity.

As unlikeable as she is at the outset, Mary begins to soften and warm when she discovers the garden, which acts in the film as both a physical sanctuary and a kind of spiritual panacea for all the problems of the soul. The garden works its charm on her organically, encouraging her to move on from sulking and instead discover the delights of nature and the joys of feeling (this is, after all, the girl who refused to mourn her parents).

Because of her age, Mary’s doesn’t qualify as a coming-of-age story, but there is that same metamorphosis of personal character here that we’re most used to seeing in movies with higher target ages. In fact, it’s precisely The Secret Garden’s lack of condescension in this regard that makes it stand the test of time and the aging of its first audience. And in some respects, it has even improved over the last quarter century; you don’t need to hear the stats to know how rare it is for complex female characters like Mary to get adequate screen time. (In case you’re wondering, The Secret Garden passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.) And even now, the scenes in which she is most unpleasant and self-contradictory – like the one in which she explodes with contemptuous rage at Colin (Heydon Prowse) – feel like anomalies in the cinema of today insofar as they depict a female character granted the rare luxury of expressing negative emotions.

The Secret Garden Mary Colin Dickon

It’s also striking just how many grown-up topics The Secret Garden touches on. There’s class antagonism galore, and it’s rich in subtle imagery and nuance, drawing inspiration not from children’s stories but from the books and films that usually fill adult shelves. There’s that same air of menace from the landscape here that there is in Wuthering Heights; both films are set in Yorkshire, an austere and unyielding region of England that has long been associated with gothic horror. There is, too, a shadowy echo of Brontë-esque romantic jealousy in Mary, Dickon (Andrew Knott) and Colin’s uneven friendship. The Gothic trappings don’t end there, either: disembodied screams and stray gusts of wind hint at the lingering ghostly presences of Colin and Mary’s deceased twin mothers, and a brief scene of occult magic shows up to confirm just how real the dark energy Misselthwaite Manor exudes is.

And what of the children? Thoroughly unpleasant though Mary and Colin first are, they’ve both suffered from a horrific level of parental neglect and grief. Mary’s cold-heartedness is the result of the emotional abandonment she experienced while living in India, while Colin is literally shut away from society under the strict orders of his grief- and guilt-stricken father, Lord Craven (John Lynch). There’s a whiff of Munchausen by proxy syndrome (an increasingly popular illness in psychological thrillers) about the way Colin is forced to live a claustrophobic existence, although, in the end, both the film and book make the uneasy conclusion that his disability was “all in his head”. (Another uncomfortable feature of both movie and novel is the racist colonial attitude Mary brings from India, which is never addressed again after it’s revealed.)

Director Holland isn’t afraid to lay bare the complexity of the children, a strength shared by her films Europa Europa and Olivier, Olivier. Mary and Colin’s emotions are deeply felt and varied: one interesting feature of the film lies in the many conversations the children have about death and the great frankness with which they discuss this traditionally tricky topic. To them, it’s a plain fact of life, one that is no more morbid than the way the adults in their lives have treated them. Mary and Colin have lived too close to death to treat it with hushed awe, and in this respect, The Secret Garden shares something with movies like Coco in that it makes death an approachable topic for audiences usually deemed too fragile.

The Secret Garden’s appeal isn’t entirely philosophical, though. Maggie Smith provides subtle comic relief as the anxious housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, who exists on the other side of the upstairs/downstairs binary from her Downton Abbey character. (Incidentally, Julie Walters, is a sublime casting choice to take on Smith’s role in the remake: she’s equally excellent at playing severe characters with a hint of humor.)

And visually speaking, Holland’s The Secret Garden is a real treat to look at – but that’s to be expected, given that cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins was at the lens. The gothic elements of the story are perfectly reflected in the drab greys and dead browns with which Deakins paints the gloomy Yorkshire winter, but because spring is the most naturally cinematic of all four seasons, it’s really in these scenes that he’s in his element. The garden’s blooming lushness invokes an organic sense of wonder rarely reproduced in children’s movies since the advent of CGI filmmaking. Time-lapse footage illustrates the miracle of life following death, as the last dregs of winter are pushed out by sprouting green buds and replaced with a rainbow of flora and fauna: red-breasted robins, milky-white lambs, and the pastel blues and yellows that signal the arrival of spring.

It will be difficult to replicate the magic of The Secret Garden in the upcoming remake: so many of the technical advancements that have made filmmaking easier as the antithesis of what made this such a beloved staple of a generation’s childhood. There is hope, though: it’s been given stellar casting (including Colin Firth), is being made by the same studio partnership behind the delightful Paddington films, and has a script from Jack Thorne (Wonder, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). As far as differences go, Thorne has updated the story by around 40 years, meaning the action will move away from the Edwardian era to straddle Partition-era India and post-war England. If anything, this time-jump will bring to the fore the 1993 movie’s underserved political undertones, forcing the filmmakers to reckon with the original story’s racism. You’ll be able to assess their success (or otherwise) when it’s released next year.

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