The Secret Garden: How to Lose the Power of a Classic

By relying too heavily on the CGI-driven magic of a fantasy garden, the latest The Secret Garden movie misses out on the catharsis of this classic story.

Photo: STX Films

Children’s fantasy media has long been one of Britain’s chief exports. From Peter Pan to The Chronicles of Narnia, to Harry Potter, the UK has been entertaining audiences around the world with stories of magic. But though Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, The Secret Garden, is a classic of British children’s literature, it is not an example of children’s fantasy. Nor did it ever pretend to be. Rather Burnett’s prose led its readers through a tale of catharsis and wonder that takes place completely in a setting that obeys recognizable laws of horticulture. We need both kinds of stories. One kind of story allows us to escape into a world where anything is possible while the other suggests that we can find happiness and healing in a world that acts like our own. The distinction matters, and it’s one that the latest film adaptation of The Secret Garden, out on video on demand on Friday, doesn’t succeed in articulating.

For those who didn’t grow up with this story, The Secret Garden is the tale of Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), a 10-year-old girl who is orphaned and sent to live with her rich uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) in a cold, lonely manner in the English countryside in 1947 (in the book, it’s the turn of the 20th century). Once there, she discovers, yes, a secret garden. She befriends a working class boy named Dickon (the ubiquitous Amir Wilson) and her bedridden cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst). Together, they cultivate the garden back to its natural splendor and heal their lonely hearts.

In the book and the adaptations that have come before, the “magic” of the secret garden is solely figurative. The neglected garden, locked away by Archibald after the death of his wife, is a metaphor for a life ignored, rejected, turned away from. For the unloved children of the story, it is a metaphor for the neglect they have suffered in the “care” of their parents. Once Mary (and eventually Colin and Archibald) begin to tend and appreciate the garden, so too do they begin to tend and appreciate their lives and one another. It’s a story about the deep pains of loneliness and being unloved, and the ways we can all come back from that darkness.

It might be possible to both portray the titular garden as literal magic, which the new adaptation at times seems to, and to tell an emotionally satisfying journey for these characters. We’ve seen this kind of narrative framework succeed before. In fact, it’s a stable of the fantasy genre: a child (often, a girl) imagines a fantasy world as a way to escape and/or process the trauma of their real one (e.g. Pan’s Labyrinth or Bridge to Terabithia). Sometimes the “realness” of this imaginary world is left ambiguous, but, regardless, the best examples have a clear vision of what this fantasy world represents and why it matters. This allows the emotional through-lines of the story to be felt, even if they are being represented through fantasy tropes and imagery.

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Unfortunately, the new Secret Garden does not have a clear vision for what its maybe-magical garden represents. To be fair, the new The Secret Garden film never becomes an outright fantasy, nor do I think it intends to be. Fantastical events occur in the titular garden—branches suddenly grow to create a handhold for a climbing child, ferns tremble as one of our boy characters shivers in the cold spring, plants die as a devastated child moves by—but it is vaguely implied that these moments of fantasy are external representations of the children’s psychology rather than something that is actually happening.

However, the movie has no consistent internal logic around which to organize these fantasy and supernatural elements. Much of the time, the garden seems to be reflecting Mary’s internal psychology, but sometimes it seems to be making other characters’ feelings external. Sometimes Mary sees visions of her aunt and mother in the garden that one might assume are her own imagination, but then the ghosts appear later to save a different character from mortal danger. (Ghosts do appear in the book, which has some Gothic tendencies.) On one memorable occasion, the garden potentially heals a dog’s wounded paw. The lack of a cohesive logic for these elements not only leaves the viewer unsure what is “real” but, worse, unsure which character is feeling what and why.

This all might be workable if the film did its emotional work elsewhere, but it does not, seemingly hoping that the CGI-driven magic of the garden is an adequate stand-in for character development. In its original form and other adaptations, The Secret Garden is a cutting and cathartic tale that offers its protagonist a path past loss, grief, and loneliness. When we meet Mary, she has been lonely for a long time—long before her parents died and she came to live in a creaky old estate with an uncle she’s never met. While Mary and other characters end the film in a different place emotionally than they started, it’s not clear how they got there other than by spending time in the garden. In other versions of this story, that healing is tied to the natural world. It doesn’t work in quite the same way when that “natural” world is depicted in such an unrealistic way, even if that lack of realism is intentional.

The film does successfully lean into themes of mental illness. Both Mary’s mother and Archibald are depicted as living with depression that keeps them from being able to take care of themselves, let alone their children. The movie’s most successful emotional through-line comes in Mary’s work trying to understand her mother’s mental illness. That being said, the movie avoids addressing or reworking some of the more problematic elements of the source material, including its depiction of people living with disability and the unanalyzed backdrop of British colonialism. (In this adaptation, our story begins on the eve of the Partition of India, an event that is depicted solely as a tragedy for white, English Mary, even though her parents died from an unrelated cause: cholera.)

While the direction may fail in some fundamental ways, the new adaptation is gorgeous to look at, a feast of cottagecore aesthetics that will make hundreds of great Tumblr gifs. From the shadowy extravagance of Misselthwaite to the verdant expanse of the garden, The Secret Garden is as lush as it is textured, an idyllic portrayal of the English countryside (Yorkshire specifically) that will please anglophiles and nature-lovers alike. With the right expectations, the visuals may be enough to forgive the film its narrative faults.

The film also has a stellar cast. Egerickx, who is asked to carry much of the movie on her young shoulders, hits all of the necessary beats but is unfortunately never asked to get too dark. Mary is sad, angry, curious, and happy, but never in a way that gets too raw or messy. Firth, who has proven himself capable of such a performance, is underutilized, which also contributes to the unsatisfying nature of the film’s climax.

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We need both kinds of stories: the ones that offer us a glorious escape and the ones that suggest we might not need one. The Secret Garden, in its most successful forms, is a timeless example of the latter because the path it leads its young, lonely protagonist on is not one of fantasy escape but rather real-world wonders of gardening, companionship, and self-discovery. None of us has a magic garden, but all of us has the power inside to heal.


2.5 out of 5