Agnieszka Holland’s Great Adaptation From 1993

As a new film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden is being released digitally, I look back at Agnieszka Holland and Caroline Thompson’s 1993 iconic version, starring Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott, John Lynch and Maggie Smith. The film is on Netflix in the U.K.

The book and the 1993 film are so intertwined in my memory that I cannot remember which came first for me. This is the story of Mary Lennox, who loses her neglectful parents after an earthquake in India (they die from cholera in the book). She is sent to England to be with her uncle, Archibald Craven, who lives in Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Her uncle appears to be just as absent and neglectful as her own parents. Mary waits hours to be picked up as she arrives in Liverpool. It is the housekeeper, Mrs Medlock, who comes to fetch her.

Left mostly by herself in the big manor, with only the housemaid Martha for company during mealtimes, Mary wanders the premises and discovers a locked walled garden and a mysterious cousin shut away in his room, having never really moved from his bed. She finds the walled garden, left unattended for years, with the help of a robin who shows her the lock to the door. She finds her cousin Colin by following the sounds of his wailing cries. She revives her cousin and the secret garden with the help of Martha’s brother, Dickon.

The 1993 version of The Secret Garden was directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, from an adapted script written by Caroline Thompson. American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s production studio, produced the film.

There is an elegant sensitivity to Holland’s direction. She translates perfectly Burnett’s portrayal of Mary. Holland introduces Mary as she is being gently dressed like a prized doll. Mary is a child that looks sternly in front of her, never lowering her eyes and always ready for a fight to impose the inherent power and respect she has been taught she was born with.

Holland shows this child’s sense of self-entitlement in the way she fights with her mother, just before the fatal earthquake, and in the sequence with Mrs Medlock when she tells her that she cannot possibly dress herself. Mary’s character though gradually softens after she meets Martha and finally as she tends to the secret walled garden with Dickon. But it is really after meeting her cousin Colin, who mirrors her own behavior, that Mary truly starts to change. Kate Maberly was quite perfect as Mary Lennox, creating a character—who is essentially a very annoying spoiled brat at the beginning— that is likeable and endearing.

Holland’s film touches on the magical imagination of children without pushing the magical realism too far. Holland instead emphasizes the real magic of nature, with time-lapses of flowers blooming. Burnett repeatedly describes in the novel the healing powers of nature, with, for example, the smell of the heather giving color to Mary’s cheeks. In the film, it is the images of the miraculous growth of flowers that infers this.

How an environment affects one’s moods is also suggested through the film’s images. Roger Deakins’ cinematography changes tones to fit the mood of the main character. The dark and Gothic look of Misselthwaite Manor perfectly translates the cold and misty months of winter in Yorkshire, a shocking contrast to the warm orange tones of India. Warmer pastel colors appear with spring, as flowers bloom in the garden and Mary’s character evolves, her tantrums subsiding.

The newest adaptation of the classic children’s book, The Secret Garden, was set to be released theatrically on April 3, through Studiocanal. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the release had to be pushed back. The film is now being released digitally in the U.S. from August 7 through STXfilms. Sky has acquired the film from Studiocanal for the U.K. and Ireland, and is planned to be released to cinemas and on Sky Cinema on October 23.

The new version of The Secret Garden is directed by Marc Munden, from an adapted screenplay written by Jack Thorne. We’ve seen a lot of Jack Thorne adaptations being released lately (Radioactive, His Dark Materials, The Aeronauts and the upcoming Enola Holmes). In this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved novel, Thorne has transposed the story to a different time period. The story no longer takes place in the Edwardian era, but in 1947, on the eve of the Partition of India, and after the Second World War. I am not sure how moving the story during the aftermath of the Second World War makes this story more relevant to a younger generation, but I guess we will have to see.

The new adaptation looks visually opulent, and is now available digitally in the U.S, but the U.K. and Ireland will thus have to wait until October 23 to see it.

Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 version of The Secret Garden is available to stream on Netflix in the U.K.

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