I remember the first time I heard of Jack Thorne. I’m sure it was in connection with the work that brought him to the attention of lots of people as no doubt many were curious as to who this person was that wasn’t J.K. Rowling that had just written this Harry Potter play (she shared story credit). At the time he was chiefly a TV writer who had most notably worked on This Is England and Skins but I assume he had a lot of screenplays and adaptations he’d been working on over the years tucked away because if not he has been remarkably prolific since. In just the last two years he has been the sole writer on three television shows; The Virtues, The Accident and His Dark Materials, created and authored eight episodes of another, The Eddy, and written the screenplays for The Aeronauts, Radioactive, Dirt Music, Enola Holmes and this new version of The Secret Garden.
Of all of them this is the one I think he might have pulled out of the back of the draw, or conversely it could be the one he ran off quickly one rainy afternoon, because it is fairly standard stuff. I mean, did we need a sixth screen version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous children’s novel, especially one that seems to entirely miss the point of the book?
The Secret Garden is about the wonders, and to some extent the mysterious power of nature. If you don’t already know, it is about a young headstrong girl who suffers a tragedy and is sent to live with an uncle, destroyed by the loss of his wife, and her infirmed cousin on a large Yorkshire estate. There she discovers a beautiful hidden plantation that brings them all back to a state of happiness and wellbeing. It is a simple but utterly charming story about human resilience, companionship and the healing capacity of being surrounded by trees, flowers and birds. Key to the narrative is the restorative, enduring power that rests inside all of us. You lose that if you make it about magic plants which this film has done. There is wonder in the book but it’s the wonder and belief of childhood, the garden is secret and that is exciting enough, it is not enchanting but it is not in enchanted. I accept that the book has always had this reading, maybe there is something extra special about this place but that’s also the point; maybe, maybe it’s special, maybe, not definitely. Instantly flowering roses and tree branches that visibly reposition to help you climb up them steal the magic, they don’t bring it.
Still, most of the half term audience aren’t going to be purists for the source material, some but not most. Mary, the central character is played appealing by Dixie Egerickx, who has also good in Summerland and The Little Stranger, and kids will happily go on this little adventure with her. The sets for the insides of the manor are impressive too and the garden itself is played by a number of real UK locations including Bodnant Garden, just outside the Snowdonia National Park, Ilford Manor in Wiltshire, Trebah Gardens in Cornwall, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean. Each of the places is wonderful to visit on screen, especially since seeing them for real is tricky right now. The CGI, while entirely out of place, does make everything look prettier too.
This Secret Garden is not the most inspiring but it is diverting enough. Get out to the cinema to see it if you can because the cinemas need your money (Jack Thorne doesn’t) but it is also available for home viewing on Sky and Now TV.
The Ripley Factor:
Classic children’s literature is full of strong female characters and actually young Mary Lennox is a little more layered than most. Spoilt and rude, she is more typical of the antagonists of the Enid Blyton boarding school books but she moves beyond this and grows as a person. This film doesn’t really play up this aspect of the character but she there is an interesting depiction of her days deserted and alone in India, awaiting rescue. Again, they don’t make much of this later with her not really being left traumatised by this she still has things to overcome. She has a particular moment of fortitude and bravery later though, even if the events around this are another total departure from the book.
There is a curious rewriting of Mary’s mother as well, which may not sit easy with those that love the novel but does show another example of female strength.