Movies

The New Secret Garden Makes Major Changes to the Classic Novel

We break down all the ways Jack Thorne’s movie adaptation overhauls Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story.

The Secret Garden book cover, and Colin Firth and Dixie Egerickx in a scene from the book's film adaptation
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HarperClassics and STX Entertainment.

This article contains spoilers for the new Secret Garden.

Usually it’s Frances Hodgson Burnett’s other book about a rich little orphan girl, A Little Princess, that gets a major plot shake-up when being adapted for the screen. But it’s the author’s 1911 novel, The Secret Garden, in which Mary Lennox discovers a hidden garden after being sent to live with her uncle in England, that gets overhauled in a new movie directed by Marc Munden. Unlike previous, much more faithful adaptations, this Secret Garden has a screenplay by Jack Thorne, the English screenwriter and playwright behind everything from HBO’s His Dark Materials to Broadway’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, that makes significant alterations to the source material, changing the time period and characters, and even inventing a new, dramatic climax. We break down the biggest changes below.

Time Period

The book The Secret Garden was first published serially in 1910, and its inciting incident—a cholera outbreak in India that kills Mary’s parents—suggests that it is set even earlier, around the turn of the century. The new movie explicitly announces its own distinct setting at the very beginning, transporting the action decades later, to 1947, “the eve of Partition between India and Pakistan.” As in the book, Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is the daughter of a British officer stationed in India, but the end of British rule in the region changes the context of newly orphaned Mary leaving the country: It’s not just her but a whole ship full of white British children who are being sent away.

The new time period also comes with some changes to the story’s location. “We are fully electric,” announces housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters) proudly when Mary arrives at her new home in Yorkshire, Misselthwaite Manor, which Mary also learns served as an army base during the war.

Mary Lennox

The Mary Lennox of Burnett’s book is described as being “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.” During her 10 years living in India, she was the very worst combination of neglected and spoiled, ignored by her parents but waited on by a staff of servants she does not see as people and abuses without consequence. She loves no one and is loved by no one. She is indifferent when her ayah, the woman who takes care of her, dies, and when she learns her parents have died too, she isn’t sad or afraid, wondering only whether her new home will have servants to wait on her. Other children call her “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” and adults compare her to an old woman, noting—often to her face—how bitter, plain-looking, and thin she is.

The movie’s Mary is a much more conventional young heroine from the get-go. She’s spoiled, yes, but she’s also an imaginative, curious, playful little girl who puts on puppet shows about Hindu gods for her doll and cries out for her parents when she realizes she’s been left alone on their estate. It’s not until after they die that she turns hard and cold, throwing her doll into the ocean and insisting, as she heard another boy on the ship do, that she’s “not a child.” But this phase is short-lived, and she never really comes off as all that hard or cold. Instead, she’s just frightened about going to live with an uncle she can’t remember, the gloomy Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), and prone to the occasional foot stomp when she doesn’t get her way.

This is a significant revision from the book, since a central part of The Secret Garden involves Mary’s complete transformation after she moves to Misselthwaite, the result of a combination of spending time in nature, the kindness of others, and the power of positive thinking.

The Sowerby Family

Martha, a maid at Misselthwaite and Mary’s first real friend, is played by multiracial actress Isis Davis in a welcome update from the book, in which the same character is so fascinated by the “blacks” of India that she peeks at Mary while she sleeps, excited to see one for the first time and disappointed when Mary turns out to be white (or rather, “yeller,” from her jaundiced skin). Amir Wilson plays Martha’s brother, Dickon, and while Thorne gives him a smidge more backstory—we learn that he had a father, Hector, who died—he loses his coterie of cute animal sidekicks.

Susan Sowerby, Martha and Dickon’s mother, is a force behind the scenes in the book, regularly advising Martha and Mary’s guardians in how best to help the girl and buying a jump rope to send to Mary, even though the Sowerbys are poor. In the movie, her role is reduced to Martha repeating a few of her axioms, probably because she’s too busy looking after her other 10 children to think about Mary all day—and because Mary finds a maternal figure elsewhere.

Mary’s Mother and Aunt

One of the movie’s biggest departures from its source material is the development of Mary’s relationship with her mother. In the book, Mary’s mother is described as “a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people,” so determined to go to a fancy dinner that she ignores the warning signs of cholera in the area. She takes no interest at all in sickly looking Mary, who in turns thinks of her not as a mother but as “Mem Sahib,” just like the servants do. After her mother’s death, Mary “did not miss her at all.”

The film makes Mary’s mother misunderstood, rather than shallow or negligent, and it rearranges the branches of the family tree so that Mary’s aunt, Grace Craven, is her mother’s twin sister. In the book, Grace Craven is named Lilias Craven, and she is related to Mary’s father, not her mother. The movie also significantly alters the manner of Mrs. Craven’s death, changing it from a sudden accident in which she falls from a tree branch—leading her husband to seal up her garden with the offending tree for 10 years—to a long illness.

In the movie, Grace’s death affects Mary’s mother deeply. Though Mary just assumed her mother was ignoring her and didn’t care about her, we learn from Mary’s father that “her sadness … made her unwell,” something that was “not her fault,” a description adult audiences will recognize as depression, even if Mary doesn’t. The movie also shows Mary finding a letter written by her mother that proves she loved Mary and was paying attention to her after all, another total invention of Thorne’s.

The Secret Garden

Whereas in the book it’s a robin who leads Mary to discover Mrs. Craven’s beloved garden, in the movie it’s both a robin and a very cute, shaggy stray dog. Ben Weatherstaff, one of Misselthwaite’s gardeners, who stealthily tended to the closed-up garden over the years, has been cut entirely—and there’s really no need for him, because the garden in the movie is more of a jungle. Rather than the prim English roses, daffodils, and snowdrops of the book, the movie’s garden is wild and tropical, with bamboo, ivy-covered stone ruins, and even a small lake. The kids then don’t spend their time restoring the garden to its former glory but reveling in its wildness. This is consistent with the movie’s overall attitude: It also makes Mrs. Medlock, a believer in order and civility, into something of a villain, and being sent to school to wear a uniform is the worst fate Mary can imagine.

As in the book, Mary discovers that she has a cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who stays hidden in his room because his father is terrified he will become a “hunchback” like him. Mary persuades Colin that his illness is psychosomatic, and Colin becomes stronger after spending time outside in the garden. In the book, the children are convinced that this is what they call “Magic” and decide that positive thoughts are the key to making good things happen—a philosophy of healing consistent with Burnett’s interest in Christian Science. In the movie, “Magic” seems to be, well, magic. The leaves in the garden change colors from one moment to the next, branches move, and plants spring up as Dickon and Mary run by. The movie still implies that Colin’s illness was never real and he was merely weak from staying in bed all the time, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t honest-to-goodness witchcraft afoot when the embroidered butterflies on Mary’s shirt start flapping their wings.

The Fire

If you were watching The Secret Garden movie and thinking, “Wow, I do not remember this scene where Archibald Craven gets drunk and accidentally sets the whole manor on fire and Mary must rescue him and also the ghosts of her mother and aunt are there, maybe,” that is because it did not happen in the book even a little bit. For Craven, the fire is a turning point—when he’s ready to give up on life, an apparition of his dead wife takes his hand and inspires him to keep going. (Is she a ghost? A memory? More magic? The result of a delirium induced by smoke inhalation? Unclear!) After the fire, Craven goes to the garden to at last embrace his son, who is now walking shakily.

In the book, Craven’s turning point also has an element of the supernatural: When he has left England and gone to mainland Europe to brood in some new, more scenic locales, he dreams that his wife is sending him a message that she is “In the garden!,” prompting him to end his vacation of sadness and go home. Less supernatural: Susan Sowerby also tells him in a letter to get his butt back to England, where Colin has secretly been growing stronger, and reconciles with his father at last.