When I first heard this movie was coming out, I was so excited. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d never seen a film adaption before—in fact, the thought of looking for one had never even occurred to me. I mean, the book is pretty much perfect. Why would I look for a film that would most likely fall short? So, even though I was pumped to see the new adaption, I had high standards. And unfortunately—but not surprisingly—it did in fact fall short. But let’s start with what I did like about the film.
Colin and I have a love-hate relationship because one tends to hate him, yet pity him, which in the end culminates in frustration. I got that feeling as strongly while watching the movie as I do reading the book. So let’s get one thing straight—Edan Hayhurst as Colin Craven did a fantastic job. In the book, Colin is childish, obstinate, fearful, and prone to tantrums, and Edan Hayhurst perfectly captured all of these crucial aspects of Colin’s character. He also marvelously portrayed Colin’s somewhat reluctant fascination with Mary, his admiration for Dickon, and his painfully slow yet genuine change of heart. And he looked right, too. They pretty much took how I imagine Colin right out of my head. xD
To be honest, the way the Misselthwaite estate was depicted in the film is a far cry from the way I’d always pictured it. I imagine Misselthwaite as a warm, well-lit, and invitingly mysterious house, while the film’s Misselthwaite appeared cold, bleak, and almost foreboding (heck, the electricity barely works!). I imagine the house as busy and bustling with servants, while in the film, the only servants to be seen are Mrs Medlock (who doesn’t really count), Martha, and the cooks. But despite my own imaginings, the film’s Misselthwaite kind of grew on me throughout. I like the subtle botanically-themed wallpaper and the endless maze of dark halls. I like the Gothic exterior and the solemn, grim cave that is Lord Craven’s study. The film’s interpretation of Misselthwaite is still subordinate to my own headcanon, which likes the warm and cozy version of Misselthwaite better, but I can appreciate a new, bolder, darker take on an estate I’ve loved for years.
(Am I biased by the fact that I typically love old houses no matter what they’re like? Probably. But whatever.)
Also, while I did not like the secret garden (more on that later), I did enjoy seeing Misselthwaite’s beautiful and expansive grounds. Watching Mary romp around in the mist reminded me of Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett. ❤
Not a whole lot to say here, but I’m gonna say it anyway, since there really is a lot more about the film that I disliked than I liked. 😛 Basically, Julie Walters rocked it as the stern matron Mrs Medlock. She perfectly captured her strict and no-nonsense mannerisms as well as her devotion to and concern for the Craven family. Her initial interactions with Mary were priceless. xD
No. This kid is not Dickon. Not my Dickon. In the book, even before she knows him, Dickon is almost something of a legend to Mary. In fact, the moment she learns of him from Martha (his sister), she wants to meet him, though she doesn’t quite know why. And when they do meet, her awe of him only increases. Dickon is kind, wise, somewhat shy, and nature-savvy—like Fantastic Beasts’ Newt Scamander—which makes him contrast beautifully with Mary’s natural unpleasantness. And while Amir Wilson’s Dickon did, granted, know how to care for animals, his signature sweet personality was all but butchered. Wilson’s Dickon was abrasive, wild, and almost as stubborn as Mary; and Mary’s childlike admiration of him (which is so cute in the book) was basically nonexistent. In my opinion, the only thing the 2020 film got right about Dickon is his accent…I guess.
(On the note of the Sowerby family, I’d like it on the record that I wasn’t impressed with Martha either. She had some good quips, but her everlasting warmness—which is one of the main things I like about her character—is exchanged for a rather shocking frigidity.)
The secret garden
The secret garden is. Not. Magic. Period.
Now, in the book, Mary and Colin do refer to the garden as having “Magic,” but I at least always interpreted this as the manifestation of the sheer wonder they both experience after watching the garden come so wholly to life before their eyes. In actuality, the secret garden is just a dead garden that was Lady Craven’s favorite place when she was alive, was pretty much abandoned (except by Ben Weatherstaff) for years after she died, and it is only through caring for it that Mary (and Dickon and Colin, but mainly Mary) brings it back to life. It’s what brings her back to life. It’s where she finds herself and makes friends. It’s where she discovers that she would rather create and cultivate than destroy and degrade. And I’ve always loved the garden for that. Knowing that it was just a regular garden inspired me—like I could nurture a secret garden in my own backyard. So to take it and make it fantastical and gigantic and full of weird color-changing tropical plants is so irritating to me, like the filmmakers thought it making it magical was not only a necessary change, but a garishly extravagant one. It’s a timeless book, guys! Come on!
I’ll admit I didn’t hate Colin Firth in this role (well…it’s impossible to hate Colin Firth :P), but he wouldn’t have been my choice. It’s possible my memory of Lord Craven is failing me a little, but I never got the impression that Craven was ever as mentally deteriorated as Firth portrays him here. I imagine Colin’s father as solemn, distant, and stubborn, sure, but in this film he appeared depraved almost beyond character recognition. His lines were heavy, his interactions with Mary unnecessarily unfeeling. Altogether, I just found his scenes sad and even a little sickening to watch, which is never how I feel about the book’s Craven. His interaction with Colin at the end of the film was sweet, however.
Okay. *deep breath* I spent a fair amount of time while watching this film going back and forth on whether Dixie Egerickx (*double-checks the spelling of her surname fifteen times*) did a suitable job as protagonist Mary Lennox. So, for that alone, Egerickx gets credit. And to be fair, I do think that when it comes to Mary’s signature stubbornness and resolve, Egerickx did well. But—and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it—something in her portrayal was just…missing. She was far less bratty. Her change of heart happened too quickly. (And yes, I know that a character arc can’t be perfectly captured in a one-and-a-half-hour movie. But it seemed like as soon as she met the dog Hector, everything was just peachy from then on.) And her personal desires seemed inconsistent. She went from telling stories to her doll, to deciding she isn’t a child anymore and throwing her doll into the ocean, to refusing to dress herself, to asserting to Dickon that she is “no lady, sir.” This may have been an attempt to show viewers that after a great deal of conflict Mary eventually came to embrace her own state of childhood, but if so, I feel like it was poorly done. It almost seemed like they couldn’t decide on an age for her.
Also, I didn’t care for the backstory we were given on Mary and her mother. In the book, we know that Mary’s parents didn’t spend much time with her, and Mary even acknowledges at one point that no one loves her, but nothing more on the topic is really ever given, and I’d never felt like any was needed. Again, I realize that the filmmakers probably thought the addition of backstory between Mary and Colin and their respective mothers would strengthen each child’s arc as well as the relationship between them, but to me, knowing that it wasn’t true to the book, it just felt…empty. Like it was slapped together last-minute to create a more tragic vibe. (Speaking of which, what was with the sisters’ ghosts just standing together in the middle of a burning room?!)
Other minor irritations
Where was the rest of the cast? We got Martha (even if I kind of wish we hadn’t). But where was rough old Ben Weatherstaff? The sly Dr Craven? The sweet Mrs Sowerby?! Seriously, Mrs Sowerby is one of my favorite characters in the book, and I was so bummed they left her out. Really, they left out all these great characters, and instead we get…a dog. Who we think is a girl but is actually *yawns* a boy. Such suspense.
I also was not a fan of the time period change (from the 1910’s, which was when the book was published, to the 1940’s), and I’m honestly not sure why this decision was made.
Well, those are my thoughts on the 2020 adaption of The Secret Garden. I’m glad I saw the movie, but I don’t think I need to see it again anytime soon. And now I can seek out other, probably better, film adaptions! xD
Have you seen The Secret Garden? What did you think?