The Secret Garden – Adapting A Literary Classic For The Modern Age

The story of The Secret Garden clearly has an enduring power which attracts us back to it, again and again, and has been adapted into numerous plays, a Broadway musical, four television series, and four films.

But why another adaptation of The Secret Garden now?

27 years since the last film version, a whole new generation of children are already largely unaware of The Secret Garden, missing out on the pleasures of this mysterious, uncanny and profound story.

“There is, indeed, something so simple yet universal about the conceit of a secret garden — and a lonely child in a wintry house finding that hidden garden, a lost place with the power to restore and heal her life through nature, and friendship. It is one of the great redemptive fables,” says producer Rosie Alison.

It tells the story of Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx – Genius, The Little Stranger), a prickly and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents. When they die suddenly, she is sent back to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth – A Single Man, The King’s Speech, Bridget Jones’s Baby) at Misselthwaite Manor, a remote country estate deep in the Yorkshire moors, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters – Mary Poppins Returns, Harry Potter, Mamma Mia) and with only the household maid, Martha (Isis Davis – Guilt, Electric Dreams) for company.

Mary begins to uncover many family secrets, particularly after chancing upon her sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst – Genius, There She Goes), who has been shut away in a wing of the house, and through her discovery of a wondrous garden, locked away and lost within the grounds of Misselthwaite.

While searching for Hector, a stray dog that led Mary to the garden walls, she befriends local boy Dickon (Amir Wilson – His Dark Materials, The Kid Who Would Be King) who, through the garden’s restorative powers, helps her to fix Hector’s injured leg.

Once brought together, these three damaged, slightly misfit children heal each other as they delve deeper into the mysteries of the garden – a magical place of adventure that will change their lives forever.  

Novelist Alison Lurie put it this way: ‘Frances Hodgson Burnett happened to tell one of those stories that express concealed fantasies and longings; stories which are the externalised dreams of a whole society and pass beyond ordinary commercial success to become part of popular culture.’

The Novel

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was first published in book form in 1911, following its serialization in The American Magazine (November 1910 – August 1911). Set in Yorkshire, it became one of Burnett’s most popular novels and is widely regarded as a classic of English children’s literature. In its original, periodical format, however, it was marketed at adult readers – few children scanned the pages of The American Magazine – and its enduring popularity owes much to its pan-generational appeal.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

In crafting her story, Burnett adopted an unorthodox approach, seizing on the traditional concept of an orphaned child protagonist and transforming her lead character into a moody, spoiled and unkind little girl. The novel’s first sentence describes Mary Lennox as, “The most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” As one literary critic notes, “Mary… is not a good-natured, put-upon creature cut from the cloth of Oliver Twist or Cinderella.” She is no Pip, Jane Eyre or Heidi. By the time she was six, wrote Burnett, Mary was tyrannical and selfish.

And it was from this unlikely starting point that the story’s success took root. Through her interaction with a magical garden, Mary learns to heal herself. There is no rescue through romantic love. This is a story of self-transformation, which goes on to tackle themes of disability and the redemptive power of nature. It is an adventure story for young readers infused with a complexity that transcends most children’s stories.

Producers Rosie Alison and David Heyman from Heyday Films recognised the story’s ability to speak to people of all ages.

Rosie Alison and David Heyman

“The story clearly has an enduring power which attracts us back to it, again and again,” says Alison. “There is something so simple yet universal about the conceit of a secret garden – and a lonely child in a wintry house finding that hidden garden, a lost place with the power to restore and heal her life through nature, and friendship.

“It’s a very intimate story,” she adds. “I think everybody can grasp that central conceit of a lost secret place where you can open the door and suddenly everything is going to be sunlit and radiant and blossoming. Finding your way to your lost inner haven is something everybody can relate to.

“It is one of the great redemptive fables and it is a very adult story in so many ways. And although we think of it as female-oriented, everywhere we went on our recces we were really surprised by how many men said they liked The Secret Garden.”

Heyman, too, believes that their adaptation will, like the Harry Potter films he produced, prove universal in its appeal. “We’ve made a film for audiences as young as seven, going up to even older than me, people in their sixties and seventies and beyond,” he says.

Such is the popularity of The Secret Garden, it has already played on the big screen four times, and it has also inspired a Broadway play and four television adaptations. Alison, however, believes that the story is ripe for a retelling, proving especially pertinent to the 21st century, especially as so few children will have seen the earlier adaptations.

“It has been 27 years since the last film version,” she says, “and a whole new generation of children are largely unaware of The Secret Garden and are thereby missing out on the pleasures of this mysterious, uncanny and profound story. Also, we are today ever further away from nature,” she continues, “and we are ever more in need of its benefits. Hence, the idea that you can go through a little gate into something that will open you up remains as potent as ever.

“And I hope that with our adaptation we have made something more psychologically searching than what’s been seen before, building on a deeper sense of what our relationship with nature can be.”

In order to bring this vision to life, Alison and Heyman turned to writer Jack Thorne who, among his many celebrated works, has regularly explored the travails of childhood, while also touching on the isolation of youth and on disability, these themes appearing in pieces as diverse as Wonder, Skins, Cast Off, The Scouting Book for Boys, Let the Right One In and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

“The hesitation you have when taking on The Secret Garden is, ‘Is it just going to be a Sunday teatime, old-fashioned classic?’” explains Alison. “But we wanted it to have some modernity and relevance and resonance to today. Jack has a fresh, contemporary voice. He’s so good at capturing the way that children and young people speak to each other.

“And he’s very interested in misfit children. He’d done an adaptation of Let The Right One In at the Royal Court Theatre, and he has a great interest in exploring disability as well.

“So these elements made us think he might engage. Jack has a very pure heart and soul. He’s got a lovely warmth and the ability to be lyrical and spontaneous, so I hoped that The Secret Garden would appeal to him.”

Jack Thorne

Jack Thorne is an internationally acclaimed playwright and Bafta award-winning screenwriter. His screenwriting career began on Shameless and Skins and his first feature, The Scouting Book For Boys, (d. Tom Harper) earned him the Best British Newcomer Award at the 2009 BFI London Film Festival. Jack enjoyed critical and box office success on his return to features in 2017 with Wonder. Jack’s adaptation of the graphic novel Radioactive premiered at Toronto last year whilst his latest film The Aeronauts premiered at the London Film Festival and is available to stream on Amazon.Jack’s latest television project to air was the first season of his adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for Bad Wolf / BBC / HBO which premiered in winter 2019. His wrote the feature script for Legendary, Enola Holmes. As a playwright, Jack’s credits include the Tony and Olivier award-winning West End and Broadway hit Harry Potter And The Cursed Child and A Christmas Carol for the Old Vic (d. Matthew Warchus).

Thorne had loved the book as a child and when re-reading it after Heyday’s approach, realised that he adored it even more as an adult. “It’s such a bold book,” he says, “such a beautifully twisted book that celebrates a very destructive girl who finds herself again. When I re-read it I was surprised by how dark it was, and I love it for that.”

He was especially attracted to the idea of exploring how Mary had become such a vexatious girl. “The main thing that I wanted to do was to show that she was a child who had been destroyed by adults, and then re-made by kids. The thing she and Colin have in common is that they have both suffered extreme neglect and it felt really important to explore that.”

In both the book and Thorne’s adaptation, Mary is shaped by her early childhood in India. “We don’t spend long in India, it’s only little flashes of it,” Thorne continues, “but it’s enough to tell you the story that she was not someone who was loved in the way that she should have been loved, for a lot of complicated reasons. Her mother had reasons to have darkness overtake her. But adults let Mary down and it is children who build her back up.”

The fact that she learns to heal herself, through her interaction with other children and with the garden, adds Thorne, is one of the reasons why The Secret Garden is such a powerful story.

“There is something really important about the fact that this is a restorative arc for a child,” he says. “In modern fiction it’s very hard for children to be as obnoxious as Mary is and yet I think there is something really special about that. It’s not about a child being saved from something; it’s about a child being saved from herself.

“Looking inside yourself, which Mary has to do through the garden, and re-planting yourself and growing in a new way, feels so important. And there is something to be said about what nature can do for you. If this film encourages a few more kids to go out and build a den in the garden or in a park or wherever they’ve got, that’s fantastic.”

With Thorne writing the script, Alison and Heyman then began searching for their director, and they were delighted to secure the services of Marc Munden, the three-time BAFTA-winning English director who counts the likes of Utopia, The Crimson Petal And The White, National Treasure (on which he had worked with Thorne) and The Mark of Cain among his many successes.

“Marc was a very, very early thought,” says Alison, “and although The Secret Garden is completely different from anything he’s done before, his work has such an authored voice and a visionary visual eye.

“He can get into a subjective eye and he also digs deeply into psychology and authentic emotion. He does dark, broody, edgy television work yet he’s a very thoughtful, gentle person with a very soulful, reflective side. You also know you’re not going to get something twee and cloying with him.”

Munden responded to the idea immediately. “When I read Jack’s script it was classic in the sense of being true to the book,” he says, “but there were two things about it which I particularly liked. One was that it was about unloved children who find love in their friendship with each other, and who then learn to become children for the first time.

“The other thing about the writing was that even though it felt true to the ideas in the book there was an emotional intelligence about the children, an emotional articulacy, which felt very adult. The adults are written as adults but they do not have that emotional intelligence in how they’re dealing with grief. So the children are working it out in quite an adult way and that felt very 21st Century to me. It felt very modern.”

Adapting A Literary Classic For The Modern Age

David Heyman has vast experience of adapting books for the big screen — not least with his work on the Harry Potter films.

 “I think it’s most important to be true to the spirit of the book,” he says, “more than being literally faithful. The Secret Garden is a classic, so, of course, there are touchstones that we adhere to, but we’ve also made some changes. We’ve changed the period, for example, which we felt might help make the film more visually accessible but in no way undermines the essence of Hodgson Burnett’s story.”

Though Burnett published the first part of her serialisation in 1910, the producers decided that they would not set the story in the Edwardian age. Even before approaching their writer and director, they elected to move their story forward in time.

David Heyman

“We felt it might become less remote to today’s children if we brought this story away from Edwardian bonnets, while still keeping it firmly within the past,” explains Alison. “We have reset it just after the Second World War, in 1947. That way, Mary’s initial tragic loss of her parents in India is within a cholera epidemic during Partition.”

This decision also allowed the filmmakers to provide an historical context to the malaise at Misselthwaite Manor, which in the film is recovering from its use during the war as a hospital for injured soldiers.

“That way, the atmosphere of grief which Mary has to cope with is more than personal,” continues Alison. “Now, all the characters are emerging from the aftermath of war. The house is a retreat, and at a remove from the wider world, which gives the story more scale and resonance.”

In addition, though Mary still begins the story as the fierce, blindly entitled, emotionally neglected child of the novel, the filmmakers have pared away some of the secondary characters in a bid to focus the narrative more intensely on the core relationships, particularly the complicated knot of a bond between Colin and his grieving father, Archibald.

Archibald’s brother and Mary’s wicked Uncle, Dr Craven, has been excised, as has the character of the gardener. Jack Thorne introduced a new character, too, in the form of a dog, with whom Mary develops a bond during her early isolation at Misselthwaite. This dog, in turn, guides her into the garden.

The filmmakers’ desire to dig deeper into the mystery of the family grief that is blighting Misselthwaite also inspired the addition of two ghosts – who are both metaphorical and literal. Their presence highlights and clarifies the emotional distress that scars all those at Misselthwaite. Both Mary’s mother and Archibald’s wife (and, therefore, Colin’s mother) become corporeal elements. They were sisters in life and they appear together in death.

“We have the ghosts of both the dead mothers’ presence,” says Alison. “Colin and his father, Archibald, have a powerful reunion at the end but in our version Mary has her own moment of reunion too — with the ghost of her own mother.”

The ghosts of both mothers are perfectly benign. “But it is a story about family ghosts,” the producer adds, “a story about a family chain of emotional neglect which needs to be broken. Mary needs to heal the wounds of the broken family, and her own wounds.”

In the Burnett original, Alison notes, Mary’s parents are somewhat feckless, going to parties and largely ignoring her. “Then they die and then she is this entitled child. Burnett then doesn’t really get back to her mother; she focuses on the bond between Colin and his father.

“But in our version Mary remains haunted by her mother’s emotional absence. It has hurt her deeply. And we gradually piece together little fragments where you sense that behind the emotionally neglected child there was a grieving, depressed mother.”

When Mary arrives at Misselthwaite she hears cries in the night and she thinks that it is the ghosts of the injured soldiers who have died there. She uncovers a secret room and begins to hear echoes of her dead mother and dead aunt. She gradually comes to realise that the garden belongs to Colin’s dead mother. “So our story is underpinned by a sense of living with the ghosts of your family’s past,” Alison says.

Munden was especially taken with idea of the ghosts. “I wanted to create a sense of a dream state in some way, a sort of fevered dream,” says the director. “Our story is about a little girl who undergoes this incredible trauma in India by being abandoned and left to fend for herself. So she’s in a post-traumatic state when she comes to England, this totally alien environment, and all she has is her imagination.”

At points in the film, the camera slips seamlessly between Mary’s dream-state and the cold, mist-shrouded reality. “And sometimes you’re not quite sure where those things begin and end,” adds Munden. “I think trauma is like that, and that felt like a true reflection of what Mary must have felt.

“And that’s probably true for adults as well,” he continues. “Colin Firth’s character, Archibald Craven, has also been through a similar sort of trauma, to the point where he has a total block about his son, how he’s incarcerated him and how he’s punishing him.” Hence, he too finally confronts the ghost of his lost wife.

One final and crucial change comes at the film’s conclusion. Some critics have decried the lack of drama at the end of Burnett’s original, prompting the filmmakers to introduce a fire, to enhance the sense of urgency and danger amid the story’s climax. It is here that both ghosts become fully manifested.

“The film builds to a climax with the fire,” says Alison. “There are echoes there of Jane Eyre, clearly such an influence on the original book. But we came to realise when we were visiting all these stately homes during our location scouting that almost all of them had a fire at some point. The stately homes of England are forever having fires.”

The fire allows for a cleansing and the house’s rebirth at the end of the film, alongside the renewal of the family.

A Note from British television documentary director, film producer and novelist Rosie Alison

Our new adaptation brings its own stamp: it’s a more subjective, immersive account of the story, seen through Mary’s eyes. The boundaries between her imagination and the world around her are more fluid than in past adaptations.

Our garden also has a more reciprocal, symbiotic relationship with the children. We wanted to suggest ways in which the natural world echoes or reflects their moods, and responds to them, as if imagination plays a greater part in their relationship to nature. The ‘magic’ of the garden is more akin to magical realism.

We have also chosen to make our film in a different way. Instead of picking one or two locations near the M25, and creating a garden in a backlot, we wanted to evoke a wilder, more extensive garden as boundless as Mary’s imagination. And for that we wanted to film in some of the most glorious gardens all over the UK, to try and capture nature itself.

We explored far and wide, and our filming took us on an odyssey from the North Yorkshire moors with its ruined abbeys to the amazing Laburnum Arch and meadow stream of Bodnant in North Wales and on to the towering gunnera and tree ferns of the subtropical Trebah Gardens in Cornwall.

Producer Rosie Alison

We also went to the mysterious, moss-laden primeval Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean and the wondrous hidden terraced gardens of Iford Manor in Somerset, to name a few. We hope what emerges is a proper celebration of nature’s glory, reflected through the eyes of the children. Existing gardens were always our primary inspiration, rather than ‘reinventing’ nature through visual effects.

One of the key changes we made was to bring the story’s setting forward in time. Originally published in book form in 1911, we felt The Secret Garden might become less remote to today’s children if we brought this story away from Edwardian bonnets while still keeping it firmly within ‘the past’. We have reset it just after the Second World War, in 1947. That way, Mary’s initial tragic loss of her parents in India is within a cholera epidemic during Partition. And Misselthwaite Manor is just recovering from the shadow of war having being used as a wartime hospital for soldiers. So the atmosphere of grief with which Mary has to cope is more than personal; they are all emerging from the aftermath of war.

Mary still begins the story as the fierce, blindly entitled, emotionally neglected child of the novel. But we have pared away some of the secondary characters to intensify the core relationships in the story. Our focus is more on the psychodrama between grieving Archibald and his own projection of his depression onto his sick son Colin — the curious Munchausen by Proxy case which is at the heart of the original story. We’ve tried to dig deeper into the mystery of the family grief blighting Misselthwaite; the characters’ emotional hauntings through bereavement have become a ghost story in our film.

With our screenwriter Jack Thorne and director Marc Munden, and our superb cast and production team, we have all worked towards what we hope is a very pure, lovingly handcrafted film with imaginative connective tissue between design, costumes, cinematography and music.

The Secret Garden is not just a children’s story, it’s also a story about childhood. We hope adults will enjoy the return to their lost youth, but also that a new generation of children will fall under the spell of its mysterious story, and be surprised by its power to unlock secrets and release new possibilities of hope.

“The depth of understanding of what it means to grow up, reach adulthood, and just be human is a clear winner when it comes to approaching any adaptation of The Secret Garden. The passion and dedication to this film ooze from its very core and prove they have taken the heart of the story to create a “more psychological and emotive” adaptation of the well-loved book.”