Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reader's Diary #905- Frances Hodson Burnett: The Secret Garden

I decided to read Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden when I discovered that Missoula Children's Theatre would be putting off a production of it here in Yellowknife. (My kids both had roles.) I'd only vaguely been aware of the story beforehand. I could have told you that it had been a movie, but that's it. However, when I mentioned it to people who were familiar with it, none seemed overly enthusiastic. "It's just kind of boring," was the most common response. Now, I've seen a couple or so MCT shows before in the past and knew they didn't do boring. The shows are usually funny, fast-paced and have a positive message. Clearly they were going to take many liberties with the original book. So before I took in the adaptation, I felt it necessary to read how it was intended.

I won't say it was boring, but it's the difference between realism and fantasy. Like comparing Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter. There is a lot of death (especially in the first chapter), illness, and depression, so I'd say more morbid than boring, though even that is turned into a happy ending, for the patient readers. It's long and the language is dated (her favourite word to describe something odd is "queer"), so it certainly wouldn't be for everyone.

What I found interesting was the left turn that the book takes. It's almost as if Burnett set out to write one book but changed her mind halfway through. It begins centered around a girl named Mary Lennox, who is orphaned in India after her parents died of cholera. She returns to England to live with her uncle but is practically neglected in his huge but miserable mansion. She prowls through the house discovering empty rooms. At this point Burnett seems to be dabbling with fantasy. Think of the books that a similar premise (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; Coraline; etc). There are eerie noises, not the least of which is a sobbing sound. A ghost perhaps?

But it turns out to be her uncle's son, who she'd never even knew existed. That's when Burnett seems to scrap the original idea and the book is suddenly focused entirely on this cousin, Colin Craven. And instead of fantasy, Burnett goes all out with new agey philosophy, trading in supernatural magic for natural magic.

The shift in focus aside, I still enjoyed the honesty in Burnett's writing, especially her characters. Adults are given more dimension than I'm used to in a children's novel. They're flawed, but complex, not mere stereotypical villains and heroes. Children and adults alike have their fair share of emotional pain to work through.

Emotional pain? So how did Missoula Children's Theatre deal with such a topic? Really, they focused on the uplifting message rather than the plot. Obvious details are of course kept the same (character names, general plot) but Burnett's psychological insight and metaphysical musings are almost entirely replaced by catchy, silly songs. That's not a condemnation by any means, it works as a children's play. But it's a very different beast than the book.


Kate said...

I have loved this book ever since I was little and my great aunt Nora gave be a gorgeous illustrated hardcover copy for my birthday one year. It has been a few years since I last re-read it - I should go back and give it another read-through.

John Mutford said...

Kate: I was completely unaware of it as a young boy. Not that I would have been opposed to it. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and I'd probably put it in the same vein as that.

Unknown said...

I haven't read this book since my mother read it to me when I was a kid, and then my subsequent immediate re-read by myself since I loved it so much. I'm amazed by how clearly I can still remember parts of it -- like the first time Mary meets Colin, and lots of stuff about the garden. Mary was such an unlikeable character at the beginning, as was Colin, which is a brave choice for a children's book. Mary remains one of my favourite characters of all time, though.

John Mutford said...

Kiirstin: I did grow to like Mary, but I wished she remained the focal point of the book. Nothing against Colin, but Burnett built up my interest in Mary so much, then sort of just shoved her aside.