I first saw The Secret Garden in a theater completely devoid of people who were not related to me. It was just me, my mother, my younger sister, and my father. This alone would have made me love the film. A whole movie theater to myself? My sister and I ran up and down the aisles. We sat separately from our parents, then switched to a third, still separate location halfway through the movie. It was an unforgettable experience for an impressionable young girl, made even more unforgettable by the quality of the movie we were seeing.
Watching the movie for the umpteenth time in preparation for this post, I was reminded again of how phenomenally it was cast. There could not possibly be a better Mrs. Medlock than Dame Maggie Smith. She has the unique ability to be both stern, imposing, sinister, and in the final moments of the movie, truly sympathetic. And the young cast is equally perfect. Kate Maberly is convincing as both the contrary and entitled brat who comes to Misselthwaite Manor and the spirited, loving girl who flourishes inside the garden. Andrew Knott as Dickon was a childhood crush for me, and Hayden Prowse (who never acted again) is note-perfect as the “sickly” Colin Craven. The scene where he announces “I’m not sour!” and then proceeds to make one the sourest faces in history still makes me giggle uncontrollably.
Added to the pitch-perfect casting is the excellent setting, score, and cinematography. According to IMDB, the manor was constructed from several different ruins around England, and the garden was built from scratch. The locations they chose are marvelous. The house is looming and creepy, and the garden is a visual delight – who hasn’t wanted to visit that garden?
Of course, no adaptation of a beloved childhood classic is perfect, though in my opinion this movie comes fairly close. My main issue with the adaptation is the changes in the death of Mary’s parents and caretakers (from cholera in the book) to the more cinematic “death by earthquake and fire.” A slow death by cholera is certainly not as exciting as flames and shrieking elephants, but this tragic epidemic leads to one of the most powerful moments of the novel. As you’re reading, you realize that no one cares enough about Mary to make sure she’s safe, or fed, or comforted. She is abandoned by both her parents and her remaining living caregivers. No wonder she’s so contrary.
I am aware that there is another adaptation from the 40’s. I have seen it once, and I am not impressed. Mary is so bratty and awful that you feel no sympathy for her and Dickon is relegated to a side character with no warmth or depth. Additionally, the incredibly fake British accents and incorrect period clothing are extremely distracting. If you’re looking for wonderful screen version of what is (in my opinion) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s greatest story, look no further than this 1993 classic.
Pro-tip: Don’t read the “sequel” to The Secret Garden unless you crave a headache from rolling your eyes constantly.