By Claire Graman
For this International Day of the Girl, I thought back to the films that inspired me when I was a girl. A plethora exist, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Spirited Away (2001). Heroic girls going on epic journeys is a staple of children’s movies. However, I immediately recalled a much simpler story, one of a girl rehabilitating a garden and herself.
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden (1993) came from a trifecta of a female talent. The film is based on a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess), with a screenplay adapted by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), and directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa). Set in the Victorian era, the film follows an English girl named Mary Lennox. When Mary’s parents die in India, she moves to England to live with her reclusive uncle in a gloomy mansion on the moors. She discovers and rehabilitates a secret garden which heals her and her new family.
From the opening shot, the film critiques gender roles pressed upon girls, as we see Mary Lennox carefully dressed in period attire, like a doll. Later we learn that she doesn’t even know how to dress herself. She promptly ruins her dress in the next scene when playing outside, like any normal child. This scene illustrates the ridiculousness of expecting girls to be pretty and helpless.
Mary’s parents, however, show her complete indifference, which I read as another critique. They clearly had no desire for children, but had Mary to satisfy societal standards. Her parents only interests include leading the life of wealthy imperialists (in India). The film shows them throwing orientalist parties. Although critiqued as colonialist, I think its themes subtly point out the inherent evils of imperialism, though focused on the colonizer’s perspective. In a voiceover, Mary explains that she didn’t know how to cry. Instead, we see her throwing temper tantrums and screaming. Emotionally stunted, she must return to England to fix the problems there.
Mary’s parents die in an earthquake, while she hides under a bed. Offscreen, we see the world shaking and hear people screaming from Mary’s point of view. The next scene shows her arriving in England with other earthquake orphans. The other children taunt her for being cold and callous. The adult in charge of wrangling them refers to her by the number pinned to her clothes, #43. Loving relatives pick up the other children while Mary waits in an empty station. Eventually, her uncle’s housekeeper, Ms. Medlock, arrives (the fabulous Maggie Smith plays her with delightful contempt). She calls Mary a “queer, unresponsive thing” and notes that she isn’t beautiful like her mother. Again, Mary’s age and gender dehumanize her, as her society expects her to be lively, happy, and beautiful.
Mary Discovers the Secret Garden…and more
At Misselthwaite, her uncle’s manor on the beautiful but gloomy moors, Medlock shows Mary her room, with a ginormous bed and a dope unicorn tapestry, and tells her to entertain herself without poking around the mansion, which Mary promptly ignores. Though a deeply flawed character, Mary’s strength of will and determination is admirable and allows her to eventually triumph and grow as a character, as she rejects sexist expectations placed upon her – to be obedient and unobtrusive.
Mary soon discovers two secrets: First, a walled, overgrown garden behind locked door, locked away because it belonged to her aunt, her mother’s identical twin sister. The aunt died in an accident there, sending her uncle into a deep depression that persists, ten years later. With the help of a friendly boy, Dickon, the younger brother of the only servant who has been kind to Mary, she revives the garden.
The second secret she finds is Colin, her sickly cousin, also ten years old, who was born prematurely as a result of her aunt’s accident. Because doctors assumed he would soon die, he has been confined to bed for most of his life and can’t walk. His father avoids him, fearing another heartbreak.
Discovery of the Garden
Colin falsely believes that his father doesn’t love him and that he will die at a young age. Still, with the privilege ascribed to him by class and gender, he is spoiled and demanding, throwing tantrums and yelling at servants. Mary, who has only recently abandoned this type of behavior herself, rejects Colin’s sense of authority and calls him out on his selfish behavior. As they become friends, she tells him about the secret garden and eventually takes him there. Being in sunshine and around children his own age makes him healthy and happy, and he eventually learns to walk, another problematic trope. Still, when Mary’s uncle comes home and sees his son and niece joyfully playing the garden, he is able to cast off his depression and be a good father.
A Positive Message
The ending sounds simple and it really is. Yet, The Secret Garden is beautifully wrought, with striking cinematography and rich character development that children’s films often neglect. This is what stuck with me, twenty years later. Though many amazing girl heroines exist, when I thought about characters I connected with, I immediately came to Mary. In spite of her flaws, Mary betters herself and those around her, through courage, empathy, and sheer stubbornness. The message of The Secret Garden Because we can’t always be perfect, but we can be better.