As children’s stories go, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is refreshingly nuanced and dark. Published in 1911, it is the story of spoiled, emotionally neglected Mary Lennox, “the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” Orphaned in India following a cholera outbreak, she is transplanted to her uncle’s manor on the English moors, in the process trading hot sun for rain and her Indian Ayah for a Yorkshire maid. In both countries, she calls the shots, stamping her feet and hurling insults at the little people entrusted with her upkeep but bound by class from enforcing any discipline. Initially horrid, she learns to respect and show kindness to others.
Hers is a gradual, largely interior transformation, the stuff of literature. Transferred to the screen, as in the 1975 BBC version dramatized by Dorothea Brooking and now available on DVD, it makes for very slow going. Presented in seven half-hour episodes, this Garden is so faithful to the novel that it plays as a live-action picture book. The same expository narrative tells kids and (likely bored) parents what Mary is thinking at any moment.
If the story is somewhat timeless, the execution — now 30 years old — doesn’t hold up. Unhampered by any nostalgic first viewing in childhood, I found Garden‘s dank soundstage look and mix of stiff and outsized performances excruciating: the adults play for the cheap seats, broadly emphasizing their every emotion, while the kid performers are limp until called on to speak. As Dickon, the cherub of the moors who charms wild animals, shrubs, and people alike, Andrew Harrison is particularly comic. Topped off with a fluffy red ‘fro and too much rouge (the outdoors keeps one’s cheeks pink, you know), he’s dwarfed by costume design and too much reverence, as when the camera zooms in to catch some bit of Yorkshire wisdom.
Mary (Sarah Hollis Andrews) and Colin (David Patterson), her sickly, imperious cousin, come into conflict as she becomes less disagreeable. Convinced he will become a hunchback and die before adulthood, he throws tantrums in his bed, bossing the servants. Both cautionary tales for parental neglect, they first square off, then band together. Dubious of Colin’s belief that he is ill, Mary helps him get stronger, if only so that he, too, can see the secret, walled garden she has discovered on the grounds.
It’s there, in the garden, that the film, like the novel, goes for the maudlin, with Colin chanting about magic — it’s in him, it’s all around him — as he makes his first attempts to walk upright all on his own. The book benefited from a greater exploration of the characters’ thoughts and backstories. This TV telling is more about hitting all the marks and letting the audience do the real work.
As a means to lure that audience, the DVD case references Harry Potter by way of an intriguing comment Dinitia Smith made in the New York Times: “Burnett was the J.K. Rowling of her time. What woman did not, as a little girl, love Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best-selling book The Secret Garden?” Lucky for Potter fans, their economic might (thanks, indulgent parents) and advances in filmmaking have ensured them better films of their favorite lad’s adventures. “Real” magic — invisibility cloaks, spell-casting, and whatnot — is believable on the screen in the Potter movies. Brooking’s Garden has only to show us the beauty of the great outdoors, and even that is rendered in choppy fashion, with abrupt cuts from a soundstage garden to close-ups of animals in the wild. Viewers must supply their own magic.