I know this post may seem unusual, since I never reviewed The Secret Garden on this blog. But I enjoyed the book so much, and I had so many thoughts about the 1949 film adaptation that I felt that I couldn’t resist writing about it here.
The Secret Garden is a book I was actually intrigued about for years, mostly because it was mentioned as the first book Matilda read in the classic Roald Dahl novel. (I have always had an ambition of someday reading her full list.) My aunt had had fond memories of her late grandmother reading it (and Little Women) to her and her sister back in the 50s when she was a girl.
I own a lot of books I want to get around to, however, so somehow it took me years to get myself persuaded to start reading it, but once I did, I was surprised at how engrossed I was in it. It was published in 1911, and for a book to still be read 103 years after its first publication, it usually has to be very special. The Secret Garden most certainly qualifies. The writing is beautiful, with passages that are so poetic in describing nature and life itself that they will never stop being relevant no matter how much time passes.
The message itself is timeless, and one that could change a person’s life. A lot of the book is based on sentimentality and a sense of childishness, but this is arguably appropriate since the characters ARE children and what saves it all and makes us get into the silly fairy tale is that it is based on a fundamental idea that many people can agree with: The way our lives are is based largely on the extremes under which we view it. If you live your life with a sense of optimism, of perpetual wonder for finding magic and happiness in the simplest things in life, this is just as powerful as the strongest medicine in the world for helping you live a long life well worth living for.
The characters are amazing. I felt like I got to know all of them well, and one of the pleasures of the book was just getting to be with them. I recommend the book to all, and if I had a Goodreads account (which I’ve been meaning to do one of these days), I would give it 5 stars. It is truly one of the classics in children’s literature, a great novel with which I can find next to no fault at all.
So naturally, it has received quite a few film adaptations. The first was in 1919, and is now lost. So we will be reviewing the 1949 adaptation! It has a very interesting trailer:
I wish trailers were done more like this now. Trailers of the period were basically infomercials where some individual (in this case A RANDOM LITERARY EDITOR!) would just sit around pitching the studio’s product to you.
Mr. Jordan-Smith’s idea that “Great books make great motion pictures” is certainly a clever one to pitch a film adaptation of one’s favorite books to mass audiences, but I don’t think I agree with it and that’s the root for a lot of the problems I have with the film. It is difficult for a film adaptation to get the same effect across that a great novel does, rather than coming across as a hollow retelling of events or worse, a cheap cash-in that misunderstands the book’s themes entirely. Only a few books (“To Kill a Mockingbird” being the primary example) translate very well to motion pictures, and I find it hilarious that all but 2 of Mr. Jordan-Smith’s so-called “Great Books/Pictures” are completely unfamiliar and forgotten to almost anyone 65 years down the line! And of the other 2, let’s face it: no one goes around praising the 1948 Three Musketeers as a great movie!
That said, let’s get to the film itself.
- The movie is filmed in black-and-white with Technicolor sequences in the garden. This is exactly the way the story should be done, and something I feel is a shame for modern cinema is that black-and-white cinematography has been relegated to a thing of the past and an unfortunate technical weakness. It may have literally been so, but people underrate the way it was used in film. The black-and-white imagery creates a superb atmosphere, from the bleak sense of cynicism we get in the aftermath of the typhus epidemic, to the vivid sequence of crossing the moors at night, and so on. It is actually harder to attain this tone so well in color, and the Technicolor scenes are what actually comes off as rather goofy and unevolved when we see how natural color is filmed in movies now. My generation tends to hate and dismiss black-and-white altogether, but to quote the late Gene Siskel (1946-1999), “There is inherent drama in it, there’s no question about it.”
- I don’t love Margaret O’Brien in this as much as a lot of people do, but she is pretty decent in the part. I have little complaints at all with Gladys Cooper. Mrs. Medlock didn’t have a big role in the book, and Cooper plays her basically the way she was presented there: stern and serious.
- Herbert Marshall is GREAT as Mr. Craven. It’s obvious watching him what a great actor he was, and he perfectly captures the sad, bitter character. As well as the script allows him, anyway. There is, of course, one major problem with his character, but that’s not Marshall’s fault and I’ll get to that…..
- The midnight scene with Colin and Mary is done very well. This is actually the scene Jordan-Smith opens to in the trailer, and it is a very important scene. It does come off as suspenseful. And it does intrigue one, listening carefully to every sentence, following the exchanges closely and marveling at the change in story direction just as in the novel.
- It mostly works because of one thing the film did very well at: Mary, Colin, and Dickon are childish, and their exchanges are silly and immature to the point it could be difficult to take the story seriously except that they are children. Furthermore, the scenes with the adults are interesting in their contrast, as the adults view the children’s events in such a bemused way, unable to understand. (In the novel, Ben was let into their world, but even he went along playfully with an ironic detachment.) The scenes between Mr. Craven and his son’s doctor illustrate this difference perfectly, through a marked change of tone that only makes the film stronger as a whole.
- Overall the film moves at a pretty good pace. Slow and easy, sure, but that’s the way it should be.
- Colin’s character growth starts out fairly well: we get an idea of why he is the way he is and what made him that way. The scene where Colin’s doctor makes his recommendation to Mr. Craven really illustrates the story’s central idea.
- Despite the fact that these are two film adaptations released more than half a century apart, the strategy used for condensing a book’s opening is very similar in both The Secret Garden (1949) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Both of those novels relied heavily on an exposition-dump through the omniscient narrator simply telling you a lot of backstory and information to set up the story to come. This doesn’t work as well in a movie unless you’re willing to use a narrator (and even then, the effect is different). So these film adaptations simply bypass the expository material altogether and start where the story really begins as proper. I love “The Riddle House” and I love “There Is No One Left”. They are great opening chapters, and films suffer due to not being able to employ prose (and thus limiting your range to a smaller variety of story-telling techniques). So just as we didn’t get a full outline of how Voldemort killed his father and grandparents back in 1944 (and Frank Bryce was reduced to just some random old man to be killed), so here we are not given the full story of Mary’s life in India. We know Mary grew up there the daughter of a couple of high social status, and we know she is a brat, but we don’t really get the full reason why. And this is the problem. The film plays up Mary being an unlikable brat, which she was, but that wasn’t the point. Since her parents and most of her servants are already dead, we don’t get to see the upbringing and the environment that made her this way. The environmental changes that drive Mary and Colin’s personalities and way of looking at the world to change so radically was the point. It was definitely an unfortunate sign of racism and the time the book was made, and is certainly a weakness of the original novel, but it did further the message of the story, which is still very strong in 2014.
- Consequently, one of the most upsetting changes for me is that Mary actually throws a fit and complains that no one will take care of her. The most interesting thing about Mary’s reaction to her parents’ death in the book was that she didn’t display an emotional reaction, and Burnett actually spoke through the narration to defend Mary for this: “…as [Mary] knew very little of [her mother] she could scarcely have been expected to love her or to miss her very much when she was gone.” Again, the emphasis is put on why Mary is the way she is. We are not meant to hate her, but to understand her, and the book does this much better: “If she had been older she would no doubt have been very anxious at being left alone in the world, but she was very young, and as she had always been taken care of, she supposed she always would be.“
- One of the greatest problems of a film adaptation of this book is that the characters come across brilliantly in the novel, leaping off the pages, but reading that book and watching this movie has made me realize more than ever before that there is a distinct way of getting attached to characters in books, and watching them in movies somehow is less personal. Martha was largely a background character in the book. She served her purpose and she was fun enough to read about, but she wasn’t really a well-developed character, which is okay because she wasn’t that important to the point that she mostly disappeared in the last half of the book. But here she comes across mostly as a cardboard cut-out: all her traits are exaggerated, so we do not see her as a person and gain few insights into her heart and soul.
- What’s worse, Dickon doesn’t translate that well, either. Dickon was a magical character in the book, but that was mostly because he came across as a larger-than-life figure in the book, a strange unearthly specter. In the movie, it would take a great actor to create the same effect, and Brian Roper simply isn’t up to it. In fact, he’s much too old for the part. He was actually EIGHTEEN-NINETEEN WHILE FILMING! I am not kidding!
- In relation, while the use of Yorkshire language made the characters Dickon, Martha, Ben Weatherstaff, etc. very endearing in the book, and it added to Mary’s character growth by showing her use it as she got more fond of Dickon, this doesn’t really work nearly as well in the film because there’s no marked change: we’re just hearing a regional accent, as opposed to a lovable dialect printed in the pages of a book. If anything, it comes off more as annoying.
- I’m a bit split on Dean Stockwell as Colin. I initally mistook him for Dickon’s actor while watching the trailer, honestly. And I do like that he comes off as a vulnerable kid hiding behind an image of control over the house, he also seems too nice right from the beginning, and it’s hard to imagine anyone on the household staff actually being intimidated by him even as he is throwing fits. I’m also split on Reginald Owen as Ben (yes, we have two “Mary Poppins” alumni in him and Lanchester as Martha). He captures the gruff, but softhearted nature of the man, but Ben also doesn’t play as strong a part here, and we don’t get to know and like him as well as we did in the book, especially when we really should have.
- My favorite scene in the book is the one where Mary stands up to Colin. This worked so well for many reasons: somebody needed to talk to Colin like that, and Colin is stunned that somebody would. It serves to drive both their character changes, as Mary realizes perhaps subconsciously how horrible the way she has acted for most of her life really is. This is perhaps the final nail in securing Mary’s change, and it basically jump-starts Colin’s. However, in the film it doesn’t come off quite like this for many reasons. Mary ignores Colin’s tantrum for a long time, and Mrs. Medlock tries to prevent her from entering his room. In the book, it made her so furious she was having difficulty putting up with it until a servant DIRECTLY TOLD HER to “go and scold him,” at which she ran in eagerly without a second thought. This is more true to her nature, and shows that even the staff realized how bad the situation was and that even if they weren’t allowed to discipline him, someone else could. But the way it comes across here is simply trying to make the scene amusing by having one child end a tantrum by throwing another tantrum. Mary actually, in the film, knocks over things in the room to show that she’s more than telling him off, she’s throwing a tantrum herself. The scene deserves better than to be played at such a simple level.
- The scene where Colin first walks is amazing in the book. Here, I will admit a lot of the beauty and wonder of the garden is captured in this first moment, but Colin’s reaction is supremely dulled. In the book, he is so overcome with emotion that he screams with joy that he will be able to recover yet. This solidifes the themes of the book and overwhelms us with the emotion on display. In the film, he merely murmurs, “I shall live forever” in a dull, quiet manner. It is equally childish, but without the added passion and it is so muted one could have yawned and fallen asleep in the theater to it. This is hardly possible in the face of “I shall get well! I shall get well! Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever!”
- But by far, the worst, most unforgivable change is the addition of a phony “murder mystery” to the story. This is such a shocking deviation I found myself powerless to explain it at first. One reviewer on IMDb reasoned that “the desire to add additional menace to the Dark Old House theme probably proved irresistible – as well as giving the excellent British actor, Herbert Marshall, more dramatic gristle on which to chew“. All the same, there is no need to speculate that Colin’s father may be a murderer and it is so cheapening and unnecessary to the beautiful story which had endured for nearly 40 years at this point that I find it amazing no one stopped it in the creative process. The worst part is that so much time is spent on the resolution of this idea. The film seems to try at this point to show the children realizing how complicated the adult world really is, but that wasn’t the central point of the story and this only distracts from the point.
- Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where Ben finds the children in the garden. This is a very powerful scene because it shows Colin finally proving himself, as he is driven to show to himself and Ben, Mary, and Dickon that he can walk and that the doctors and Mr. Craven were entirely wrong in their attitudes regarding him. In the film, Colin does not walk until the end, which does make for a dramatic finish, but I don’t know. I personally felt it was very powerful when we saw Colin just run right into his father’s arms, and he was just forced to accept, already knowing there are children using his garden, that his son has learned to walk and has been experienced at it for quite some time. This was especially powerful since we were getting the scene basically through Mr. Craven’s perspective, which I’ll get to in a minute. This scene was also powerful because it showed Ben coming into his own, swearing his allegiance to Colin and actually breaking down in tears when he sees how bad Colin’s life was made by the solely negative worldview presented to him. Ben became a fully fledged character as the story focused on Colin training himself in the art of “magic”, which was an excellent metaphor for the power of positive thinking. The film really rushes through the story to get to the end at this point, and so we have:
- The finale. As has been stated in criticism, “The ending is the conceit”, so to speak, so: how does all this come together in the film’s closing? I found the ending of the book to be amazing. It, again, starts off with prose communicating ideas, beautiful ideas that you just can’t get across in film, not in the same way. So much of the film got its impact, as I said, from abandoning our trio entirely and putting us in the shoes of Mr. Craven, a figure only spoken of for most of the book and only seen once. He emerged as a fully-dimensional human being, in this last chapter, and we got to understand why he had abandoned the manor and let Colin believe he would die: because he sincerely believed it, and maybe he didn’t believe it for his wife, but after that heartbreak he simply couldn’t bear to develop an emotional attachment with his son. It’s a very unexpected turn for the book, but it really solidifies the book’s impact as we get a sense of actual “magic” coming into play in the form of the dream that summons Mr. Craven back to Misselthwaite. So we see even a sad cynic like Mr. Craven being overcome by the genuine magic that seems to be happening, and eventually just becoming happy, and it’s ridiculous, it’s “sentimental claptrap”, but you know what? It’s a great ending. Because I believed in it from everything the book had set up, I was more than prepared to accept it, it furthered the message perfectly, and it was consistent with the tone of the book. The film’s ending is actually more hokey in how suddenly it plays out, with Colin suddenly being able to walk. But hey, it gives us that final dose of happiness and culmination of the character changes to play us out, I’ll give it that.
I watched the film twice, and after the first viewing I was so disappointed and underwhelmed I could think of practically nothing for the “Positives”. It was only in the second viewing I found myself enjoying certain aspects and realizing why so many fans do like this version. It does at least get the tone of the book down well for the most part, but in the end I do not think it is a good adaptation, feel it is poorly written mainly, and don’t recommend it.
I will be watching the 1987 Hallmark adaptation next. I may decide to write about it here, but in any case I hope it will be an improvement.