It’s a very long time since I read the children’s classic (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) that this adaptation is based on. Slightly more recently, but not much, I watched the famous 1970s BBC version. But I’d still forgotten most of the finer detail, beyond a vague recollection of little Mary Lennox, orphaned in India and brought to live with a crusty old uncle in England, where she discovers a mysterious locked garden. So it was interesting to watch this latest Sky Original one-off and see how it compared with my memories.
Early on, it matched pretty well and was really enjoyable. It seemed to have moved forward in time about 50 years to a point just after the Second World War, but the basic details of a cholera outbreak, Mary left alone without even her faithful Ayah, and the arrival at Misselthwaite Manor to be greeted by rules, regulations and loneliness. After a while she starts wandering in the Manor’s extensive grounds and discovers the garden, which she finds her way into thanks to a friendly robin. But there the similarities began to end.
For starters the garden itself didn’t match my memories of the book, being much larger (really, half of Yorkshire seemed to exist within those high stone walls) and rather less unkempt. Mary’s discovery of the various sections was still involving, although I could quite easily have done without the souped-up Wizard of Oz style CGI, and her gradually developing friendships with Dickon and the invalid Colin were nicely done.
But the story felt less and less familiar, and more and more melodramatic. Characters I didn’t remember, situations that felt bolted on and even bizarre: a sentimentalised death, a terrible fire… Were those really in Burnett’s book? Well, I’ve checked since watching, and the answer seems to be ‛no’. Her original tale was much more restrained, and much more invested in the garden itself and its power to heal.
I watched to the end and enjoyed it, mostly. But the aspect that annoyed me more than anything was that odd journey forward in time. It didn’t make the story any more ‛relevant’ because it was still too long ago for most of today’s children to understand. It wasn’t necessary for any of the action. Most of all, in practical terms it just didn’t work. The attitudes in the book were very much of their time, which was Edwardian England. By 1947, when this film was set, things had moved forward, and the behaviour exhibited by many of the characters would have been unusual. And the idea that Mary’s mother would have travelled all the way from India, on her own, to be with her sister is hard to swallow. According to ‛film Mary’,this happened when she was three; according to the book she’s ten when the action takes place. Ten minus three is seven; seven years before 1947 is 1940… which was slap bang in the middle of World War Two.
How many stars would I give this? Probably 3 out of 5. Nice filming, nice gardens, some really good performances from the kids, but on the downside, too many unnecessary changes which got in the way of the book’s central message and added very little of their own.