FILMQUEST 2017: The Secret Garden (2017) FILM REVIEW


THE SECRET GARDEN (2017)

Director: Owen Smith

Screenplay by Owen Smith based upon the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Starring: Glennellen Anderson, Amanda Waters, Erin Leigh Bushko, Max River, Sacha A. Dzuba, Mark Ashworth

Unrated

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

***1/2 out of *****

Photo: Dogwood Motion Picture Company

The beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett receives a steampunk makeover in THE SECRET GARDEN (2017).

Adapting a novel for another medium, especially a visual one, has its challenges. Can the material be adapted without losing the essence of its story? Can the material retains its aesthetic if something is changed to allow it to be more readily adaptable? Would the novel be more interesting or less interesting as a graphic novel or film? We've all seen our fair share of film adaptations that were either faithful to the source or had taken vast liberties with the story. For every bad adaptation there are at least three good ones. Once in a blue moon comes along a film adaptation that seemingly renders any other adaptation of the material rather pointless. After all, if they nailed it with that one why bother. Director Agnieszka Holland's version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is considered by many as the best adaptation of the book. Writer-director Owen Smith acknowledges that Holland's film is the pinnacle and decided to think out of the box when it came to his visually arresting adaptation of the beloved novel.

Smith's adaptation takes the story of Mary Lennox and drops it into a steampunk universe and all that entails. The novel takes place in a 19th century Victorian setting and the subsequent film and television adaptations have stayed true to that aesthetic. Steampunk, by definition, is set in a historical setting, typically Victorian, where technology and fashion are often anachronistic in nature but suitably plausible for the time period. In essence, Burnett's story receives a futuristic makeover. Right off the bat Smith is faced with a number of challenges. Will this new take satisfy viewers who are familiar with the material? Will viewers unfamiliar with the novel or previous films be engaged by the story and not distracted by the new setting? The answer would be yes on both counts.

Smith has taken liberties with the story but those liberties are in service of it as opposed to something thrown in there to be cool or flashy. Fans of the material will likely appreciate how the new setting has changed characters yet still remains faithful to them. There is one significant change that would be considered a spoiler not just for the book but the movie as well and Smith pulls it off quite well. It's been decades since the last time I watched Holland's film and I only had vague memories of the story. Smith was able to keep the film engaging both visually and thematically and the new setting is both cool to look at but never distracts or detracts from the story.

For production purposes it was necessary for Smith to change the age of the children and it may take a moment to adjust to but once your warm up to the fact it becomes a non-issue. Glennellen Anderson stars as Mary Lennox and brings a certain spunk, no pun intended, to the character. Instead of a spoiled little brat you get a teen with all the attitude one would expect from someone who had been a silver spoon all their life. Amanda Waters plays Martha Sowerby and she does a very good job of playing Mary's maid but certainly not the sort that the young Miss Lennox is accustomed to. The film also stars Erin Leigh Bushko as Mrs. Medlock, Max River as Dickon Sowerby and Sacha Dzuba as the villainous Doctor Craven. They all do an effective job of breathing life into this strange world that seems anachronistic to its source material.

This alternative take on the classic tale will be of interest to steampunk fans and more of a curiosity for film fans in general. It for the most part faithfully delivers the story, changes were necessary to bring the narrative into its new setting, and fans of the novel are sure to find it interesting at best. Of course it really boils down to how you'd like the story to be presented to you. Traditionally or non-traditionally? In essence Owen Smith's film is a bit of both as he blends eye-catching production and costume design, elements of science fiction and a futuristic sensibility with a period piece and despite it's budgetary limitations it actually works.

Rating Scale:

***** = Outstanding ****1/2 = Excellent **** = Very Good ***1/2 = Above Average

*** = Good **1/2 = Mediocre ** = Fair *1/2 = Poor * = Bad 1/2* = Abysmal

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