My Not-So-Secret Love for ‘The Secret Garden'

Spring is almost officially here. That means the temperature is rising, flowers are starting bloom and  I have to watch The Secret Garden.

I am obsessed with The Secret Garden. Specifically, Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 film version. It’s more than a lovely adaptation of Frances Hodgon Burnett’s delightful children’s novel. It is a work of art and I enjoy it greatly for these reasons:

1) The Petulant English Children

I love petulant English children. Whether we’re talking about Veruca Salt or Charlie Rawlins or Edmund Pevensie, I will always love a snotty English child. They’re just so much more charming than polite American children to me.

The Secret Garden boasts not one, but two, of my favorite petulant English children: Mary Lennox and Colin Craven.

When we meet Mary Lennox in the 1993 film version, she is being dressed like a doll, playing alone on a sand dune and then hiding under a bed while an earthquake and fire kills everyone she’s ever known. Goths wish they were Mary Lennox and Mary Lennox wishes everyone would  stop acting like smiling idiots. Mary is the heroine of The Secret Garden, which only serves to make her more badass. Her greatest triumphs not only come in picking herself up out of depression, but everyone around her through her indefatigable force of will–including her sickly cousin, Colin Craven.

Colin is even more churlish and petulant than Mary, so in my mind that makes  him even better. He’s like the Morrissey of children. Every time he opens his mouth, I expect him to sing, “Call me morbid, call me pale,” before calmly explaining how he’s going to die from everything. The interesting thing about Colin is that his physical afflictions are really just a result of his mental affliction. He’s sick in bed because he’s decided to be. As Mary tells him, “If everyone thought that [I was going to die], I wouldn’t do it.” She teaches him how to harness his innate petulance towards self-improvement, as we all should do.

See? Petulance is a positive trait.

2) The Moors

Never has bleakness looked so beautiful.

One of my dreams in life is to wear a flowing black gown and spin around in circles on a moor while crying things like, “My love!” or “Come back!” or “I’m in the garden!” or “I just want to dance and eat chocolate!”

Basically, my dream is to be Florence Welch.

I wish I could be smart and say that my love of the moors came from one of the Bronte sisters (whose books I love), but really it came from watching Dickon ride a small white horse across empty plains towards Misselthwaite Manor and into Mary’s pre-pubescent heart.*

The landscape in the film is absurdly beautiful. There has to be at least one grown woman out there who saw this as a child and decided to become a horticulturist. Or a person who rides small white horses around moors.

3) The Maggie Smith-ness of it all

For those of you who only know her as the Dowager Countess or Professor MacGonagall, let me just say: you don’t know Maggie Smith as well as you should, nor as well as you should like.

I mean, sure, start with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but watch The Secret Garden as soon as you can.  Mrs. Medlock is the most amazing character. She’s mean to the children, but that’s because she loves the children! She has bizarre leg shocking machines! She threatens to box ears! She cries at work, but they are steely tears of strength! She eats a chicken leg in a horsedrawn carriage!

4) The Cinematography and Soundtrack

This film is just pretty.

5) Martha

As much as I hate doing chores, I also think having a maid would be super awkward unless that maid was like Martha. Mary’s maid, Martha, is the sweetest and funniest maid I’ve ever seen in books or cinema. She brings Mary’s porridge every morning, she covers up for Mary’s shenanigans and she teases Mary when Mary is being a little pill. There’s also the fact that Victoria Beckham’s “Little Gucci Dress” joke from Spice World was originally Martha’s “Black, black or black?” joke in The Secret Garden. So, essentially, Posh Spice wants to be a 19th century Yorkshire maid.

Let’s also not forget that Martha teaches Mary the importance of “skipping rope”.

6) The fact that the story is an allegory for overcoming depression

Okay, okay…it’s not just an allegory. It is a story about people overcoming depression. Mary, Colin, Colin’s dad, the crotchety gardener, and the house are all miserable when the story begins. Because Mary chooses to be proactive and to bring the garden back to life, everyone else learns to do the same for themselves. They choose to fight their depression and “to plant seeds…to make things grow!” in their life.

The Secret Garden is a story about how terrible things can happen to us, but that doesn’t mean our lives have to be terrible. Just as winter gives way to spring, loss can lead to love. However, just as Mary and Dickon have to actively pull the weeds out of the garden to bring the beauty back to life, we need to learn how to get rid of our bad habits.

It’s really beautiful and inspiring.

7) Those Animals

There’s a robin who befriends people. There’s a baby lamb who learns how to walk. There’s a duck. There’s a crow. There’s a grown man with a hunch back who needs to get a tan and a hair cut. What else do you want?

So there it is, The Secret Garden is an amazing film and should be watched every spring in the same way that Love Actually is watched every winter. I’m sure this specific version would benefit from more Colin Firth (Hello, 1987 version!), but it’s still one of my favorite all-time films and I think it should be everyone’s.

Who wants to get dressed up and spin around a moor?

*By the way, the weird Mary-Colin-Dickon love triangle in The Secret Garden is just Lady Chatterly’s Lover for children, right? If you know what I’m talking about, discuss. If not, make sure you’re an adult before looking that stuff up. I don’twant to cause another trial like the one in the UK in 1960.

Featured image via, copyright Warner Brothers

  • Christine Ho Van Assche

    You brought me back in time to one of my favoritest movies ever! I need to watch again.

  • Alicia M. McBoss

    this will forever be my favorite movie! I would love to dance around the moor!

  • Andrea Cervenak

    Omg! Colin singing: “Call me morbid! Call me pale!”. It’s just too great! The Secret Garden has always been a gem in my heart: my go to “sick movie” and just a favorite that I watch at least a few times a year. I never had thought of Mary as such a strong character or as the movie being about overcoming depression, but you are so right! It’s wonderful hearing someone else who still feels such a passion for this movie. Most people our age just don’t get it anymore! Thank you for putting an extra spring in my step today!

  • Jessica Engel

    The soundtrack to this movie is so beautiful…

  • Allison Maxwell

    Its one of my favourite movies

  • Marianna Portela

    she looks like Carey Mulligan.

  • Julia Gazdag

    Totally just watched this a week or two ago because I LOVE IT (also re-read the book — it’s Spring!)

  • Andrea Cervenak

    AlsO yes I have watched the credits on my vhs copy and paused the part where it shows where it was filmed so that I could google it and hope to visit it.

  • Rachel Casey

    He’s like the Morrissey of children – that sentance is all win. Plus I love this movie and the 90’s “A little princess”

  • Mary Krajnovich

    I love this movie as well! I hope I have passed the love on to my 2 daughters :) Your “The Maggie Smith-ness of it all” made me crack up!

  • Lauren Taylor Anderson

    I love The Secret Garden and this 1993 movie is probs one of my favorites ever! If you like the story, the original book is fabulous.

    The free LibriVox audio book by reader Karen Savage is fantastic. Always good for a long car ride!

  • Naomi Brackett

    One of my favorite films of all time! I’m obsessed with the soundtrack.

  • Robert Remillard

    You’ve gone a million miles
    How far’d you get
    To that place where you can’t remember
    And you can’t forget…

  • Kerry McCombs

    I think it’s wonderful that you encourage us to watch this film in the spring. It’s a beautiful film. But I would also suggest going back to the source material and reading the book! It’s such a gorgeous little garden of a book and the film follows it fairly closely. But I’ll never understand why they changed Mary’s parents’ death from Death By Cholera to Death By Earthquake??

    • Meghan O’Keefe

      I have read the book, but it’s been years and years so I didn’t want to compare and contrast the two. My hunch with the cholera change is that the earthquake is far more dramatic film-wise. Also, if you want to make Mary’s relationship with the “earth” to parallel her emotional growth, having the earth take her family gives her ability to claim a bit of earth for herself all the more powerful. Just thoughts…

  • Michelle Kim

    obsession is putting it mildly! i used to have it on repeat in the VCR after school~

  • Lauren Alvarez

    One of my favorite movies. I fell in love with the garden itself and when she discovers the aunts room with the garden key. This movie is just beautiful and I always pair it with my other favorite, a little princess (the 90s version). I’m pretty sure when I get married it’s going to be secret garden style.

  • Miranda Ley-Lippincott

    Because an Earthquake is so much more cinematic and easy for kids to understand. It’s not like 20th century children had a frame of reference for cholera epidemics.

    • Kerry McCombs

      Good point! I don’t love the film any less for these little differences, I just love the book so much more! I’ve read it dozens of times since I was a young girl and it was and is magical to me. It also instilled in me a profound wish to visit Yorkshire. Someday, I will.

  • Rosemary Costello

    It’s been years since i’ve seen this movie! I remember completely falling for Dickon. My favourite scene was where they danced around the fire like tribes people. It s weird how I can remember all the dialuge and scenes with no prompting.
    @Kerry: I imagine they changed it so the loss would be much more sudden for Mary. That way she did’nt even get to say goodbye.

    • Alex Mason

      This article is an absolute gem – The Secret Garden is my all time favourite movie, and never have I come across someone who appreciates it as much as me! I wore out the videotape replaying it! (And Rosemary, I too completely fell for Dickon – who wouldn’t!) Thank you, from NZ, for making my day

  • Shelby Bradfield

    Recently I asked my mother to transfer her VHS of it to DVD so that my 4 year old clone can obsess over it the way I did :)

  • Beth Wilde

    Everything you wrote: YES! I am still obsessed with The Secret Garden to this day. Especially Dickon. I adore Dickon. I literally did a knee-slide in front of the television when, while channel surfing in 2005, my father came upon Andrew Knott talking about The History Boys film (which I am also obsessed with). I then snatched the remote from him and sat like a kid in front of the TV just because Dickon was THERE! Dickon grew up very nicely. So I had to watch The Secret Garden immediately, as I do when it’s dreary outside. Because if I have to look at a dreary landscape, I want heather, gorse, and a kid on a white pony to be what I see. And petulant English children FTW. And Martha is how I learned a proper Yorkshire accent. And I always said ‘skipping rope’ instead of jump rope because that’s what Martha did. Basically, I am just as in love with The Secret Garden as you. It’s nice to know there’s someone out there who can quote that movie just like me.

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