The Secret Garden is technically a kids’ movie. It’s based on a novel for children, and it’s about children. But what we expect from children’s entertainment has changed drastically over the decades, especially as PG movies have evaporated and that audience gets shuttled over into PG-13 entertainment featuring superheroes. A brief glance at the merchandise that gets sold to kids shows you what they’re interested in and what they’re buying, and that makes Marc Munden‘s The Secret Garden a tough sell for today’s audience. It’s even tougher in the middle of a pandemic when your story is about death, grief, and finding solace by playing outdoors with friends.
Set in 1947, Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is sent to live with her reclusive hunchback uncle Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) following the death of her parents due to cholera. The spoiled Mary acts out in the dilapidated old house, but one day discovers a secret garden. Its wonder spurs her to befriend the housekeeper’s young brother Dickon (Amir Wilson) and Archibald’s bed-ridden son Colin (Edan Hayhurst) to show them the lush vibrancy of the garden. But while the garden offers the children some respite both Mary and Colin must wrestle with the deaths of their mothers, who were sisters, while discovering the secret bond between the siblings that caused them to retreat into their own grief.
The new adaptation of The Secret Garden was made last year but releasing it in the middle of a pandemic seems ill-advised. Imagine you’re a child and you know that people are dying from an illness which is why you have to wear a mask every time you go out of the house. Here’s a movie where the young child’s parents die, she’s abandoned, and then sent to live with a relative who doesn’t know or like her very much. The happiness she discovers comes from playing outside with other children, which you can’t do right now because there’s a pandemic. The Secret Garden, with its emphasis on the joys of nature and the rejuvenating power of friendship, seems particularly ill-timed for this moment.
Even outside of a pandemic, The Secret Garden is a particularly odd movie for children. There are kids out there who will enjoy it, but they’re probably kids who watch PBS and have opinions on Downton Abbey. For the audience of children that has no problem with period dramas and stories about grief, they’ll probably go for what The Secret Garden is selling as bizarre as that may seem. But even here, Jack Thorne’s script is bizarrely preoccupied with the relationship between dead moms and their children rather than the living relationship between Colin and his father, which is clearly the heart of the story.
These diversions from the source material rarely improve upon the story, and more often than not, they make The Secret Garden feel like it’s trying to push past some inadequacy as if the story simply isn’t entertaining enough for today’s audiences. Perhaps that’s true, but I don’t think the solution is “More dead moms and more colorful gardens.” The story’s strength is about how the gift of something as simple as a garden can bring people together, and maybe that’s not “big” enough for today’s audience, but I like the sweetness and simplicity of that message.
In the best of times, we would still probably wrestle with who The Secret Garden is for and if it’s a timeless tale or one inextricably linked to confronting the Victorian values the 1911 novel pushed against. There have been quite a few adaptations over the years, and we got a feature film as recently as 1993. I imagine Munden’s handsomely crafted version isn’t the last time we’ll be making a trip to the garden. Hopefully next time its world will make for a more comfortable retreat.