My Not-So-Secret Love for ‘The Secret Garden'Meghan O'Keefe

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

  • Emily Cathcart


  • Kelly Cumbers

    This movie, along with A Little Princess, were two staples when I was a little girl. A Little Princess was a bit scary for me, but I adored Secret Garden. My grandpa had a huge yard with a mini garage on the opposite end of the yard from the house. We used to sneak into the garage and open the old door and walk into his big garden and play Secret Garden. LOVE this movie!

  • Hannah Lopez

    I adore The Secret Garden & this is my favorite adaptation (& one of my favorite movies period). I was 11 when I saw it in the theatre & it was the first movie that gave me goosebumps, it was that beautiful. Dickon was lovely & I crushed on him hard, too. Check out the 1994 version of Black Beauty for more of him. :) By the way, I agree that A Little Princess is an absolutely gorgeous film, but it always bothered me that they moved the boarding school to the U. S. & made Sarah an American. What?! Where are the petulant English students? *sigh*

  • Katie Glenn

    I still have my well-worn, slightly tattered paperback copy of the book, and I adore the movie! I still have the special locket that came with the VHS waaay back when.

    And…I’m studying horticulture and am working toward owning a plant nursery. Here I am, your “at least one grown woman out there who saw this as a child and decided to become a horticulturist”

  • Katrina Van Heest

    Thanks to that book and its movies (especially the 1987 one with Colin Firth, ever so briefly), I know the word “wick.”

  • Cate Foradori

    My favorite part is the creepy dream sequence: “I’m in the garden…garden…garden…with Colin…Colin…Colin!”

  • Tarah Van Wyk

    aaah the memories… the book continues to be one of my all time favs and i love this film version of it as well.. for ALL the reasons you stated above … thanks for reminding me how awesome they both are!

  • Jessi ‘Marrott’ Parrott

    I love this film, as well as the book, of course. I’m from the UK, so every year my Mum and I (still – I’m 20) go out onto Hampstead Heath, which is this huge park/heath opposite our house in London and watch the very first flowers bloom – and then go and watch the film. I had it on video and wore it out.

    I have Cerebral Palsy and use an electric wheelchair, so when I told people that this and Johanna Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ were my favourite books as a kid, I mostly got the response that it was wishful thinking because I’d never walk. Clearly they didn’t know the power of the mind because, while I’m not saying that people should create a culture of self-blame and -guilt around having a disability (that’s a trap I’ve fallen into before and it’s not a fun one!), we do affect our bodies with our emotions and stress makes things worse. Once I felt able to acknowledge the part that I play (however small it may be, according to Western medicine) my adolescent struggles with depression and the physical difficulties that came with it began to get easier, because I changed my thinking. It’s a hard struggle, and it’s been a huge mountain to climb (it still is) but I’m getting there…and learning to walk at the age of twenty. Thank you, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

    (Wow, that’s long and rambly – sorry!)

  • Lourdes Juarez


  • Rae Ghun

    Oh wow. I forgot how much I love this film! I remember watching it after trying (too many times) to finish the book as a kid. Sooo next on my list for reading on my kindle. I don’t have the double volume but I remember marking every chapter at the top and putting a sticker of a bug at each. The Secret Garden and The Little Princess I think was the second. Oh! Childhood, how I miss thee!

  • Meredith Bagdazian

    I just ordered the DVD for $6 on Amazon! Can’t wait to celebrate spring with a viewing this weekend!

  • Lauren Nespoli

    I hated this movie as a child. I watched it once and it scared me. I don’t remember how old I was when I saw it, but I didn’t fear things that “normal” children did, like ghost stories or heights. I feared terrible things that could possibly happen in life. I don’t remember anything about this movie other than that there was someone with a hump on his back. For months I was terrified that a hump would grow on my back. My mom said it only happened when you’re old and stooped over. So, I tried to keep good posture. But how old was “old?” What if it was like 10? I needed a guarantee that I was not going to wake up with a hump. But there was no guarantee, no matter what adults said to me, therefore I walked around with a fear and uncertainty that couldn’t be cured. It’s probably been 20 years since I saw this movie for the first and only time. Maybe I should give it a try again? I don’t think I’d be so afraid of the hump this time, since I can think more rationally now! haha.

    • Rae Ghun

      Oh I defo think you should give the movie another go. Like foods, sometimes we just have to get a bit older to appreciate some movies or books. They take on another light really once you’re older. And something either seems very much enlightening or ridiculously stupid….>.> Alice In Wonderland for example. I didn’t think that girl was THAT stupid.

  • Alexandra Sjögren

    I watch it many times a year too and I know the lines by now! I love the book as well, yeah it is a really old movie and a lot of people seem to think that it must suck because of that. BUT I don’t care how old it is, it is still one of my absolute fave movies! Everyone should see it! It makes me really happy each time I watch it :)

  • Jessica Gourley

    Have you seen the gorgeous bound copy at Barnes & Noble? My husband got it for me for Valentine’s Day. It’s stunning. Also, the only problem with that adaptation for me is that they technically die of a disease…not an earthquake. Otherwise? I remember clearly seeing it in theaters for the first time in 4th grade. Love.

  • Kellyn Carole Denton

    Gonna be totally honest. I am OBSESSED with The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Frances Hodgson Burnett owned my 10 year old soul. Yeah, I totally ran around my house dreaming of India and the tiny purple flowers on the Moors…and what the earth smelled like inside the secret garden. I may have also planted my own garden in my back yard and cried when I realized I have no idea how to make seeds grow. I even have a first edition copy of The Secret Garden. Because I am hardcore in love with The Secret Garden. SO! Point is: YOU ARE AWESOME. Just sayin.

  • 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.

  • 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 :)

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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