‘The Secret Garden’: Overstuffed Adaptation Lacks the Magic of the Classic Novel

A beloved children’s book gets something of an update with “The Secret Garden.” In this latest adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, the time period has been moved up to 1947, and promising young actor Dixie Egerickx takes on the role of Mary Lennox, a spoiled 10-year-old orphan who is forced to leave behind her privileged life to live with her distant uncle, Lord Craven (Colin Firth), in a drafty mansion in the English countryside.

Director Marc Munden and screenwriter Jack Thorne depart from the source material in a number of ways, but their film begins with the same eerie opening in which Mary, the daughter of wealthy Brits who has lived her whole life in India, awakens one day to find herself completely alone, as her parents and their servants have died suddenly from a cholera outbreak. After being discovered by British soldiers, she is whisked to a country she has never been to in order to live under the care of an uncle she has never met. There, she is treated mostly as a nuisance, not only by her cold uncle, but also by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), who encourages her to amuse herself and stay out of the way of the adults, which is a far cry from her previous life in India where her parents’ servants dressed and fed her and supposedly catered to her every whim.

The post-WWII setting doesn’t add much to the story, save for the fact that her uncle’s estate served as a hospital during the war. Housemaid Martha (Isis Davis) and her brother Dickon (Amir Wilson) — the only people who initially have any interest in getting to know Mary, and originally writen as working-class white people from Yorkshire — are Black in this version, although there is wasted opportunity to get to know about their background and lives at home. While Martha mostly stays in the background, Dickon, who works on the grounds of the estate, is more active, acting as a guide to Mary as she ditches her prissiness and becomes more attune with nature. An adorable, scruffy dog by the name of Hector also helps.

Mary does come to know Colin (Edan Hayhurst), her sickly cousin who is ordered by his father to stay in bed, as he supposedly cannot walk and is too delicate to venture outside of his room. Like Mary in the beginning, Colin has an air of entitlement, but he eventually comes to trust his cousin, and with help from Dixon and Martha she is able to introduce him to the great outdoors. It’s uplifting to watch as he heals and becomes a more “normal” kid.

As for the garden itself, in the novel it’s meant to symbolize a Garden of Eden of sorts. Previously a favorite spot of Colin’s late mother and Mary’s maternal aunt, a grief-stricken Lord Craven locked it up following her untimely death. Once nurtured by this dear lady, it has been neglected until Mary stumbles upon it, and the work she puts into bringing it back to life is part of her emotional journey. Here, Munden relies too heavily on CGI, which takes away from some of the inherent magic in the original story.

But the biggest drawback in “The Secret Garden” is the excessive backstory. While in the novel and previous adaptations it was just accepted that Mary’s parents neglected her because they were rich and selfish, Muden and Thorne try too hard in offering up explanations for their behavior that make them more acceptable to the modern viewer. They also attempt to explain away Lord Craven’s neglect of Colin — basically, the kid is a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy that stems from his father’s grief over the death of Lady Craven. There’s also a subplot involving Mary and Colin’s mothers, twin sisters who were inseparable. In the end, all this exposition detracts from the heart of the story, the friendship between Mary and Colin, and their own personal journeys. 

Overall, “The Secret Garden” is a forgettable adaptation; although it’s only 97 minutes, it feels rather overstuffed. However, fans of Firth will enjoy his performance, as his Lord Craven is more present than his character is in other versions.

The Secret Garden” releases Aug. 7 on VOD.