Flashback Movies: Looking Back at The Secret Garden (1987)
We all have questionable taste when we're in high school. It's part of being a teenager; we don't dress great, and we're still in the process of figuring out exactly who we are. It's part of growing up, but that also means that our taste changes and evolves as we get older. For this writer, it also meant that I went from watching movies solely for fun to looking at them with a critical eye. Now that I'm an adult and have been reviewing films professionally for almost eight years, I thought about what it would be like to go back and rewatch my favorite movies from when I was a teenager and see how my opinion of them has changed. That is the concept of Flashback Movies; I take one of my favorite movies from roughly ages fifteen to eighteen and rewatch them, sometimes for the first time in over a decade, and see if I view them any differently. This week we're going further back from my teenage years to when I was very young because this movie was on my mind. I'm going to talk about the Hallmark movie adaptation of The Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden was a formative book for me. My mother sat me down and would read a chapter to me a night as a very small child, and I adored it. I was utterly obsessed with it. It was the first chapter book I read on my own, I had as much merch as I could get my hands on, and we had a VHS copy of the 1987 Hallmark adaptation of the book. While it did change some huge plot points, making Mary and Collin not related being the big one, I didn't mind. This was the movie that I watched again and again and again. I wore that tape out and then when I got older, I bought myself the DVD. I've been thinking about this movie and has been many years since I've watched it and never with a critical eye. As I sat and watched my DVD copy today, I couldn't help but notice that the castle looked familiar and did a quick google; even my little Downton Abbey knowledge, I recognized that location. For a movie about British citizens, there was a lack of accents for almost everyone involved, including two characters that were supposed to be related.
We're talking about a TV movie by the Hallmark channel, and very little me did not notice how over the top the acting could be at times, but the adult version of me did. The music is effective, and this was a movie that I watched so many times that the musical cues seemed to stay with me. I could line up specific lines with specific musical cues, even now rewatching the movie for the first time in ten years or more. However, the film also leans into some rather strange things that are a little weird. They make Dickon into a bigger presence in the sense that they hint he might be magic. His way of talking to animals no longer seems like a skill gained from a kid that spends a lot of time outside but more like a druid. Dickon is an important character, he's one of the first friends that Mary makes and helps start to heal her, but they did something weird here that seems to be pushing the supernatural angle with a single character instead of focusing on the magic of the garden itself.
Something that this adaptation does not shy away from is making sure that Mary is incredibly unlikable in the beginning. The line when she is complaining that her servant is dead so there isn't anyone to dress her or make her breakfast is great because it makes the change we see in her throughout the movie all the more impressive. The same with Collin, he is completely insufferable, but his arc is believable by the end of the film. However, the framing device of starting with adult Mary and making it a flashback instead of an unfolding childhood adventure is one that isn't surprising for an adaptation but does hurt the theme of the movie. The garden is supposed to be there to help Mary find herself, but the adult version of her that we see still seems somewhat lost. The framing device combined with the tweaking of the details to keep Mary and Collin unrelated so we can have a romance at the end feels like the movie thinking the story wouldn't appeal to adults without it when that isn't true. This story is a family movie, and there was no need to change the story so Mary and Collin aren't cousins anymore so that they could be paired off at the end.
Kid me was very upset that they killed off Dickon in the war, and adult me still thinks it's a dumb plot point that didn't need to be there.
The Secret Garden was a movie and story that meant a lot of me as a kid, and while the TV movie is a little cheesy, it was still a lot of fun to watch and even brought a decent amount of joy to me as an adult. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it was an adaptation that I swore by so much I ultimately rejected the 1993 version and refused to watch it and makes me concerned for how I'll react when I watch the new adaptation from STX due out later this year.
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