The Secret Garden - A Great Movie for Spring

" It's th' springtime an' out o' doors an' sunshine as smells so graidely."  - Mary

The Secret Garden is a perfect family film for spring.

A novel written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and adapted to film many times, The Secret Garden follows an orphan named Mary Lennox who is sent to live with her mysterious uncle. Mary discovers many secrets at the vast estate, including an untended and locked garden.

The Secret Garden is to me one of those great delights of storytelling. It has three child protagonists - one girl, two boys- who run about mostly unsupervised, solving mysteries. In my childhood it was sort of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys transported to the 19th century.

The garden they tend is symbolic of the growth of Mary and her cousin Colin as they lay aside anger and bitterness stemming from being unwanted and alone, while becoming more mature and joyous people. Dickon, a servant's brother who loves nature and teaches the other two to loosen up a bit, is my favorite character in the story.

There is more than one film adaptation. Secret Garden (1949) - The MGM version is black and white which is great to give you those chills up and down your spine as Mary (Margaret O'Brien) searches dark and forbidding passageways.  Of course, having the Bride of Frankenstein herself -Elsa Lanchester- as dreaded housekeeper Mrs. Medlock lends a hand to the mystery.

Great dramatic actor Herbert Marshall as the enigmatic uncle lends gravitas to the film.

The Secret Garden (1975) - The BBC production has pluck. Sarah Hollis Andrews as Mary is a very natural child actress, lacking that precocious quality that can be wearing when watching a little one perform.

The Secret Garden (1987) - Hallmark Hall of Fame puts on a high quality television performance of the story, making sure to incorporate obvious outdoor shots and shooting on location at a real manor.

My favorite shots in this version, in terms of pure aesthetic quality, are the brief dream sequences when the uncle thinks of his late wife. There is a gauze effect during the dreams. The late wife is smartly dressed and shares a winning smile directly at the camera which contrasts with her husband's quiet grief. Great dramatic stuff. Derek Jacobi does not overplay his scenes, which makes his my favorite version of the uncle.

The Secret Garden (1993) - Another one that both delights and freaks me out is the Warner Brothers version. When it's good, it's very, very good -this is the version which makes the garden seem to grow magically, even instantly, with time-lapse photography.

We would fast forward the suspenseful scenes when I was  kid - the violins, the mysterious wailing, the wind blowing, the sombre color palette inside the cold house, were all a bit frightening for me.

Dame Maggie Smith's expert acting makes the cruel housekeeper character unaware of the humor in her bracing efficiency. Mrs. Medlock is rarely played for laughs, so I appreciate the different take on a familiar role.

What is your favorite film version of The Secret Garden?


  1. I've only seen the 1949 version—as a matter of fact I just watched it last week with my youngest sister. The book is a beloved childhood favorite for both of us. (One small correction: Elsa Lanchester plays the maid, Martha, not Mrs. Medlock—she's Gladys Cooper.) I thought the adaptation was quite good, if a bit rushed in places (always to be expected when adapting a novel!), and you're right about the atmosphere of the black-and-white photography.


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