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Comfort Films: The Secret Garden

In the latest in the Comfort Film series, Bella Stock praises the 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's book.

It is fascinating to me that nostalgia, coined in the 17th century, was originally treated as a physical disease. Nostalgia was used to describe the condition of Swiss Mercenaries who, in the plains of lowland France or Italy, were pining for their native mountain landscapes. Military physicians hypothesised that the malady was due to damage to the victims’ brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland. I feel that there is no greater comfort than home and the wave of nostalgia which floods over me whenever I watch my favourite childhood film, Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden, is medicinal, not melancholic. Whenever I hear Zbigniew Preisner’s mellifluous ‘Awakening of Spring’, I am transported back to the warm glow of my grandparents’ sitting room, huddled around the crackling recorded tape: these are my cowbells, my home pastures. 

When I was seven, my mum caught me making a bolt for the front door after lights out, armed with a wheelie bag and sunhat – I’d had enough and was setting off for India apparently. Sadly, I never quite made it over the threshold, but I’m convinced that my grandiose ideas of adventure were inspired by my early viewing (as was my sudden desperation to own a beret). I was utterly mesmerised by that opening scene: the majesty of the Taj Mahal rippling like a mirage in the heat of the amber desert; the festooned elephants and the eddying movement of shimmering dancers. But the film, quite cleverly, provides a glimpse into the dark underbelly which lurks below the opulence of the British Raj: spoilt Mary Lennox waits sourly to be dressed by her Indian ayahs whilst her parents curry favour with the maharaja. What follows is one of Holland’s most shrewd adaptations of Burnett’s novel: a devastating earthquake replaces the original cholera plot. Mary’s childhood home is obliterated in a horrifying cacophony of elephants’ trumpeting and the screams of the entourage. It has an intensity which the 1987 adaptation, in its loyalty to the original plot of the pandemic, just doesn’t quite manage. “Doesn’t sound particularly comforting”, you might muse, and, it’s true, much of the film felt unsettling, dramatising the childhood nightmare of the world crashing around you. In fact, one of my recurring childhood nightmares was a direct imitation of one of Mary’s in which, after her parents’ deaths, she dreams of her mother reaching towards her in the garden before running away. But I think much of the comfort of the film derives from the redemption and recovery plot, that the very discomfort of Mary’s childhood tragedy is healed by the flourishing of the garden and the relationships she cultivates there. 

In spite of her brattish petulance and surly glare, I think there is something universally appealing and comforting to a child about ‘contrary Mary.’ Regardless of how cherished one is, I think that all children nurse a strange but persistent complex of feeling somehow neglected or overlooked and the figure of the forsaken child, even the orphan, speaks to the child psyche. Every time I watched my parents don their glad rags as they managed to get away for a much-deserved childfree evening, I distinctly remember dramatically imagining myself as Mary, watching as her glamorous mother strings her neck in pearls and her father straightens his mess dress. It is, after all, the reason why so many children fall in love with Harry Potter, Annie and Oliver Twist: these are the children who must learn to define their own fate, to fashion their own identity. I remember the agony of watching Mary, submitted to the derision of the other children upon docking in Liverpool, left to watch as the others are greeted with the warm embrace of their relatives whilst Maggie Smith’s Mrs Medlock observes that she has not inherited much of her mother’s beauty. There was something shocking too about Mary’s rages and hostility – I always remember making a concerted effort to be extra agreeable after a viewing. But Mary who ‘doesn’t know how to cry’ finds her icy heart melted by the warmth of Dicken and Martha and by receiving a dose of her own medicine from the sickly Colin, they learn and grow together. By unearthing long buried pains, she rediscovers her roots and heals broken ties, finds hope and vitality where all seemed barren. The final scene where Mary and Colin are reunited with Mr Craven after a game of blind man’s bluff and when Colin walks for the first time in the garden are breathtakingly beautiful. 

Misselthwaite Manor, which Mary rattles around, is eerie and shadowy – entirely comfortless – but the howling winds and dramatic landscape always fill with me with the nostalgic comfort of my own childhood holidays spent in Yorkshire. Whenever I watch The Secret Garden, I feel a deep empathy with the hankering of Swiss Mercenaries as I am washed over with reminisces of rugged moors and lush dales. There is nothing more rejuvenating to me than watching Mary rip open Colin’s bedroom window and allowing it to be flooded with light or unlock the garden, allowing it to bloom as it once did. In my most recent viewing, I felt especially wistful watching the jettisoning of the face masks once worn in the presence of Colin (a prophecy for a corona-free future I hope!). 

A new adaptation of The Secret Garden is set to come out in August this year and, watching the trailer, it has clearly received a radical updating: gone is Preisner’s ethereal soundtrack, the muted realism of the scenes and the simplicity of Holland’s direction. This is blockbuster stuff: fast paced, razor sharp precision, intensely vivid colour – dramatic on an epic scale, and I can’t help but feel wistful for the humble 1993 version. But then again, Marc Munden’s adaptation isn’t my home comfort or my childhood nostalgia – I’ll leave that to someone else. 

Image via Flickr

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