Secret Garden, The (1993): Agnieszka Holland’s Version of Classic Children’s Book

Hollywood has always made movies about children, but never in such quantity and with such zeal and commitment as this year. By the end of 1993, an all-time record of 20 movies for and about children will have been released in the U.S.

As is often the case with new trends and cycles, a combination of factors is at work. First the bottom line: Most children movies have been good business at the box-office, based on the demographic reality that the age of American frequent moviegoers has been 12 to 20. This explains at least in part why the most popular films have been tales with children (usually boys) as their heroes. The two landmark movies are, of course, Steven Spielberg’s l982 E.T., and John Hughes’ Home Alone and its sequel (l990 and l992 respectively).

But providing diverting entertainment for the younger generation, while at the same time educating them, is also a good cause, an honorable mission. So, here is a case where politically correct ideology and commercial marketability seem to march hand in hand–which is the best scenario in Hollywood. Its captains can say: we not only serve our young audiences, we serve them well!

Family Entertainment appears to be the new buzz word in the industry this year. Following the lead of Disney, which has always catered to this age group with its animated pictures, almost every studio in town has a division that specializes in children movies. Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden, made by Warners, stands above the rest of the crop as an art film that’s equally satisfying for children and adults. Unlike other kiddie movies, it boasts literary quality, rich characterization, and densely realized settings. The film recalls the magic spell of The Black Stallion, an underestimated gem, produced by Coppola’s Zoetrope in l979.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it concerns Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), a spoiled, bossy girl. When her selfish parents die in India, in an earthquake, she suddenly loses all the advantages that come with upper class upbringing. The experience toughens, but doesn’t damage, her. Unwanted, Mary is then reclaimed by her severe widower uncle (John Lynch), whose house is run by an eccentric housekeeper (Maggie Smith) as if it were a small army. But intelligent and resourceful, Mary soon befriends her invalid cousin, Colin (Heydon Prowse), and nature-boy Dickon (Andrew Knott), and the three establish an intimate bond.

The lives and personalities of the three lonely kids: the truculent, independent Mary, the angry and disabled Colin, and the good-natured but unworldly Dickon, are forever changed when they bring back to life a locked garden–it becomes their home, their physical and spiritual refuge from the oppressive adult world.

Is there a better combination for a fairy tales than a forbidding, restrictive Gothic house, where a family with dark secrets resides, and a beautiful hidden garden, where true friendship can flower and both body and mind troubles can be healed This magical world bears universal appeal to all children, poor and rich, orphaned or with parents. What child hasn’t felt, at one point or another in life, neglected and/or abused by his parents All children experience loss, pain, loneliness, and anger, which make them learn to trust and help their peers. The lasting power of the book as a favorite read is undeniably based on the centrality of these basic emotional needs for children and adults.

Holland’s Secret Garden is not the first screen version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, which has enchanted generations of readers ever since its first publication, in l911. Child-star Margaret O’Brien starred in the l949 MGM film, which is chiefly notable for its great cast: Herbert Marshal and Gladys Cooper.

The Warner version is more lavish in its production values. The wizardry of The Secret Garden was created by an outstanding artistic team, headed by designer Stuart Craig (Gandhi) and photographer Roger Deakins (Barton Fink). And the new movie is just as accomplished in its acting as the old one. Maggie Smith plays the dictatorial housekeeper with great authority, and Kate Maberly does a superlative job as the orphaned girl.

The new film is also richer and more subtle than other kiddie works: Caroline Thompson, who wrote Tim Burton’s l990 masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands, seems to understand children’s unique perspective–she doesn’t pander or talk down to them.

Holland, who has won worldwide attention for her insightful examination of children’s lives in such acclaimed films as Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier, brings a fresh vision to the tale. Spielberg has made a career out of appealing to the childish qualities in all of us. Like Spielberg, Holland’s pictures are about children, but unlike Spielberg, they are not childish or specifically made for children.

I don’t know if it’s just a function of budget or also a case of a director feeling special affinity with her material. But Holland has never made such a beautifully disciplined movie, one that pays attention to every small detail. It’s often tempting to speculate about the psychological and political sources of directors’ worldview, their consistent preoccupation with the same thematic concerns.

This statement reveals my scholarly background and auteurist approach to film. But in 1985, when I interviewed Holland, on the occasion of her illuminating Holocaust film, Angry Harvest, being shown at the New York Film Festival, she told me something fascinating about her background.

I’ve always assumed that she was Jewish. Well, it turns out that she was born in Warsaw, in 1948, to a Jewish father and a Gentile mother. After WWII, her father edited a Communist newspaper, but denounced by the authorities as Zionist he found his death when he “fell” (to use the director’s words) out of a fourth-floor window. Feeling repressed in Poland, Holland moved to Prague, where she attended film school under the sponsorship of Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus). She was fortunate, she said, to experience the “Prague Spring,” though during the crackdown, she was arrested and put in jail.

Holland later returned to Poland and began working in film, theater, and television, collaborating with the great Polish director, Andrzei Wajda, on such films as Danton, A Love in Germany, and Korczak (all are worth renting on video). Inevitably, she became involved with the trade union Solidarity and even made a pro-Solidarity cleric (which I haven’t seen), called To Kill a Priest. Over the last decade, Holland has made a name for herself, probing Europe’s Nazism and Communism. Her most scandalous enterprise was Europa, Europa, a French-German co-production about a Jewish boy masquerading as a Nazi youth. Many of you must have seen this movie, as it ran for almost a year in L.A., breaking all records (If not, put it on your must-see films). Then, for “mysterious” reasons, Germany decided not to submit the film as its entry to the Best Foreign-Language Oscar contest.

I mention this fascinating bio information, because I think it helps explain Holland’s choice of material and her sensibility as one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world today. Like other East European emigres, Holland lives in Paris, but with the success of Secret Garden, her first American film, I have no doubt she will be back in Hollywood soon.

Welcome to America, Agnieszka!