Grade: B-
Family Drama
Rated PG

There seems to be just one rule for adapting a classic of children’s literature: stay close to the book. It’s a wonder more filmmakers don’t follow that unwritten rule.

The Secret Garden is a case in point. The 1949 release starring Margaret O’Brien earned a 7.5 out of 10 from audiences at the Internet Movie Database, while a 1987 TV version and 1993 big-screen remake were equally popular (7.2 and 7.3, respectively). All three films were faithful to the book. But a 2017 steampunk treatment got the cold shoulder (4.5), and two 2000 faquels (fake sequels)—Back to the Secret Garden and Return to the Secret Garden didn’t fare much better, with scores of 5.7 and 5.3.

Is it any wonder that audiences tagged this 2020 “reimagined” incarnation with a 5.6 rating? The weight of audience expectation was dropped like a piano from a rooftop on an otherwise beautifully filmed version, most likely because it dared to change things a bit.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel followed a sickly 10-year-old girl who lived in India with wealthy parents that both ignored and spoiled her. Cared for by Indian servants, she awakened one day to find her parents dead of cholera and the staff long gone. Eventually she was sent to England to live with a hunchbacked uncle and his servants in an isolated mansion on the moors. As it happened, Archibald Craven had sealed off a private walled garden after his wife had died there. But Mary grew ever curious about the garden and also the cries she heard in the house at night. Eventually she found the key that unlocked the garden, hung out with the maid’s younger brother, and discovered a cousin she never knew she had, shuttered away in a hidden room because of a spinal illness that had kept him bedridden. He quickly became a diversion for Mary, who took him (secretly) to see the secret garden.

Writer Jack Thorne and BAFTA-winning director Marc Munden decided to mix things up a bit. They made the garden magical. Plants are ginormous, and far more tropical than what one would expect in a formal British garden. Mary thinks the garden has magical properties, and so of course she wants to plunk down her crippled cousin in waters she thinks will cure him. That’s not the only change, but it’s one of the biggest ones. So is a tragedy that never happened in the book, and a change in time. Rather than being set in the late Victorian period, the action takes place in 1947 in the years following WWII. When Mary is discovered alone, there had been shots in the background and it was implied (though never stated) that there’s an uprising of some sort and maybe her parents had been victims of violence. The filmmakers also added a dog that accompanies Mary and Dickon (the maid’s brother, who is older than in the book).

So yeah, a lot was changed, and purists will cringe when they watch this version. But it’s beautifully filmed on locations in Conwy, Wales; North Yorkshire, England; Wiltshire, England; Grantham, UK; Gloucestershire, England; and Cornwall, England. Cinematographer Lol Crawley, whose work on Ballast was honored at the Sundance Film Festival, takes full advantage of the locations by relying on long shots and captures the magic using subjective camerawork. More than the garden itself, it’s the cinematography that seems magical. And though their personalities are changed somewhat from the book, the cast does a fine job of making the characters feel three-dimensional. Fifteen-year-old Dixie Egerickx anchors the cast as Mary, while Edan Hayhurst is just as credible as Colin and Amir Wilson engaging enough as Dickon. Fans of Colin Firth will think him wasted in a minor role as the rich uncle, but this is Mary’s story and children get the most screen time in this adaptation of children’s literature. Even Mrs. Weasley—yes, Julie Walters appears as a crotchety version of her Harry Potter character—takes a backseat.

If you aren’t a purist, this 2020 version of The Secret Garden falls in the B- range—the minus mostly because of an added third-act crisis that’s way too sudden and unexplained. I probably enjoyed this adaptation more than my wife, who teaches elementary school and knows the book well. But that’s the risk any filmmaker takes when deciding to make an adaptation that’s not completely faithful to the book. You win a few, you lose a few.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 99 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital code
Amazon link
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril

Language: 1/10—Nothing much here

Sex: 0/10—Nary a thing; this is a children’s story

Violence: 2/10—Nothing graphic here, and only a few moments that could be considered violent or dangerous

Adult situations: 2/10—Some adult elements, including brief smoking

Takeaway: I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to make the garden magical, unless it was a point of view thing, because the cinematography is quite magical enough