Secret Garden (1949)
Secret Garden (1993)
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“What good is a secret if you have no one to tell it to?”
That’s the wisdom according to 10-year-old Mary Lennox, who discovers a secret garden hidden behind the curling vines in the manor estate where she is being raised.
Mary discovers the garden in ruins – unwatered, uncared for. But she takes a spade and some fresh soil and nurses it back to health, one flower at a time.
As the garden grows, so do the children in the story. Both Mary and her cousin Colin evolve from spoiled rich kids to caring friends. As a final symbol of rebirth, Colin, bedridden and wheelchair bound, will walk again.
“The Secret Garden” is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved 1911 story of the orphan Mary, who is sent to live with uncle Archibald whose wife died, causing him to lock up her beloved garden forever.
Enter Mary (Kate Maberly), who will respond to grief with a healing spirit. She is inspired by a red robin who leads her to the buried key and then to the secret door… and a small bird shall lead them.
First of all, read the book to your kids.
And then watch not one, but two splendid adaptations of the book. They are both quite wonderful, for slightly different reasons.
The 1949 version stars Margaret O’Brien, as fine a child actress as ever lived. She is the embodiment of Mary Lennox. We watch her hear the news of her parents’ death from cholera and follow her to Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors.
The screaming match between spoiled Colin and indomitable once-spoiled Mary is both funny and wise. Mary calls Colin’s bluff – refusing to accept his self-pity and demanding that he grow up and stop whining. Checkmated by a master, Colin begins to heal.
The film borrows from The Wizard of Oz. Everything’s in black and white, until Mary plants new seeds in the “dead” garden – and then the garden explodes into full color.
The 1949 film is the classic version, but the 1993 version is excellent as well and includes a more nuanced resolution. The direction by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is poetic.
Once again, Mary arrives at a house that really doesn’t want her.
“I hoped you might be beautiful,” says her uncle. In the early version, we had heard: “Your mother was a beauty. But she didn’t pass much of that down, did she?”
Those beginnings set the stage for her reaction to a compliment from a boy later on: “Did you really mean what you said? That I’m not too bad looking?”
Oscar-winning Roger Deakins’ camerawork in this later version is high art. The score includes high harmony from the Boys Choir of Cracovia, that will bring tears all by itself.
In both versions, Mary calms Colin to sleep one night, after one of his tantrums. Both are sweet, precious moments. Hearing O’Brien sing sweetly is another scene that I wanted to hug.
The finding of the garden is spiritual.
“When you open the door, you can’t see anything,” explains Mary. “Then you go down some stone steps. By the time you reach the bottom, you’re surrounded by flowers. Every day new flowers open. It’s like magic.”
Uncle Archibald credits Mary with awakening him from grief.
“You brought us back to life, Mary,” he says. “Something I thought no one could do.”
“Secret Garden” is timeless because it assures us that no matter how dark the night, we can find sunrise. Not by waiting passively, but by taking action to look for the key that will unlock the secret door.
Then we must find a spade and some earth, and nurture the colors back to the wilted plants.
The book has seeds of spiritual optimism, traceable to Burnett’s faith, Christian Science, a religion built upon the power of faith to heal.
If a 10 year old can rejuvenate a garden and heal her family, what excuse have we got not to lean into the wind?
Ironically, there are people wearing masks in the 1993 version. They rip them off in a celebration of Colin’s recovery, a timely reassurance.
Mary’s journey begins with the death of mom and dad, a pain so deep she could not cry.
But after the flowers bloom and the family heals, Mary starts healing, too.
“My uncle learned to laugh,” she said. “And I learned to cry.”
We are all, each and every one, looking for our Secret Garden.
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