Frances Hodgson Burnett published The Secret Garden as a serial in 1910, and it was an unwise decision. Though this has become one of her most-adapted and popular works, in the beginning Garden was not a hit with audiences. But it's always been one of my favorite books. When it comes to film...well, somehow this story has never translated well to the screen.
But on the page, it's divine. Mary Lennox is not a likeable heroine. She's a spoiled little brat, actually, skinny and mean-faced and even nasty, on occassion. But in truth she's a lonely little girl, and her backstory shows a lot of neglect. It's heart-wrenching to get to know Mary at the beginning of the book, a girl who is "quite contrary."
Mary is 10, and has spent her life in India with British parents. However, they've died after succuming to a fever. Now she is being taken to soggy Yorkshire, England to live on the moor - whatever that is. She's going to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at Misselthrwaite Manor. He's crabby, cold...and (gulp) a hunchback.
Mary is still alone. The Uncle leaves her in the care of servants right away. Mary interacts with the housekeeper and the maid initially, but neither like her much. It's the maid Martha who tells Mary some of the secrets of the home, dishing about what Mrs. Craven was like before she died. Mrs. Craven was a woman who loved flowers, and used to spend hours tending her roses.
She must keep herself amused all day, so Mary goes outside to look around the grounds of the large estate. This is where she meets grumpy Ben Weatherstaff (the gardener) and makes friends with a robin. She begins to skip rope every day outside, and soon her appetite improves. Mary even meets Martha's brother Dickon, who knows everything about the moor and the creatures who live upon it. They become friends.
Then, Mary discovers a secret. The robin helps her find the door to the secret garden, where Mrs. Craven once tended to her roses. Mary makes the hidden area her own. She begins to enjoy being outdoors, something she never liked before, but there are still mysteries inside the house. Mary can hear crying at night.
And one night, she goes to find its source. This is how she discovers Colin, the sickly son of her uncle. He's about the same age as Mary and every bit as mean and spoiled as she used to be. Colin is too sick to get out of bed, yet still orders everyone around -- even Mary. That Mary resists his orders is why Colin likes her so much.
We learn that the garden is a powerful, magical place...maybe even powerful enough to heal Colin, and change Mary for the better. You must read it because I won't reveal the end!
The Secret Garden was not published in novel form at first. It was serialized in "The American Magazine," which was marketed to adults. This could be why it received a lukewarm reception despite Burnett's popularity as a children's author. During her lifetime, Garden was often ignored altogether in favor of her other books. Today, it has become one of her best-loved novels.
But no matter how good the book, it doesn't necessarily make for a good movie...as history has proved here.
The Secret Garden has been adapted many ways, but there are a few notable highlights. In 1949 it was a film with iconic child star Margaret O'Brien in what would become her last MGM movie. She plays Mary, of course, with Dean Stockwell as Colin and Brian Roper as Dickon. With O'Brien in the lead you'd expect the film to soar, but ultimately it lost the studio a great deal of money.
The story appeared as a movie again in 1987, this time a TV film starring Gennie James. The movie begins with a new intro where adult Mary arrives to Misselthwaite after WWI and goes to find the Secret Garden. This version of the story is incredibly faithful to the book until the end. We see adult Mary again and catch up on the histories of the three. Dickon has died in the war, and Colin shows up to propose to Mary. I hate this ending.
A British version of the movie was made in 1993, this time with Kate Maberly in the lead. This time Mary is sent to live in Liverpool. The highlight of the film is Maggie Smith, who plays housekeeper Mrs. Medlock. There is some extra plot in the novel, including an episode where Mrs. Medlock forces Mary to stay in her room and an even more emotional ending than the one the book has already.
What Got Adapted?
Mary's parents die of a cholera outbreak in India. Mary is not affected, and does not even know they are sick, because she has so little interaction with them. Some of the movies have changed this. Mary's spoiled, sour personality is often softened on film as well. In the beginning, she's an abominable little girl. Through the book, however, she becomes spunky and ambitious and friendly.