When revisiting a childhood favourite after a decade or more’s distance, it’s often the case that what you fell in love with as an impressionable, young thing now seems shallow and shoddy; something where no amount of nostalgia-fuelled reasoning can justify the keeping of a burning candle for it. (On that note: prepare yourselves, the 20th anniversary of Space Jam pieces are coming.)
Additionally, it’s not too uncommon to find that many a childhood favourite will actually hold up as a good film in its own right now. But what’s a little rarer is to go back to one of these and find that it not only holds up remarkably well, but that it now seems like a unique outlier in the context of how family-aimed entertainment has gone since. Case in point: the 1993 adaptation of The Secret Garden, which I was fortunate enough to see on a 35mm print as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London.
It’s part of the festival because it was the English-language debut of one of Poland’s more famous directing exports of the period, Agnieszka Holland, who’d dabbled in productions across Europe before venturing to Hollywood. Of late, she’s perhaps been better known for TV work like Treme and The Wire, but her international clout at the time was through hard-hitting historical dramas like Europa Europa, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Many of the other major credits behind the film have considerably impressive pedigrees. Francis Ford Coppola was executive producer, Roger Deakins the cinematographer, and Zbigniew Preisner, best known for his collaborations with Krzysztof Kieslowski, composed the beautiful score.
Indeed, that this particular group of people all worked together on what’s ostensibly just a kids movie (released by a major studio) is kind of astounding now. Not to get all “in my day” about it (especially for someone who’s only in their mid-20s), but the modestly budgeted family film free of special effects, animation, corporate synergy and sly cynicism seems but a thing of the past in the wake of the two decades since The Secret Garden was released. If a youth-aimed novel gets adapted in the current cinematic landscape, it’s practically a requirement that it be skewed older for blockbuster breakout potential, and good luck to you if you want to adapt anything that doesn’t explicitly fit an action, sci-fi, fantasy or romance mould.
But then, maybe it’s not worth complaining that there aren’t more films like The Secret Garden when the way it quietly excels is partially dependent on how modest its pleasures are in comparison to its louder peers; it wouldn’t endure if it was but another generic model on an assembly line. And while the likes of it are especially rare now, perhaps it was an anomaly in 1993, too. Roger Ebert’s 4-star review at the time ends with the following: “The summer of 1993 will be remembered as the time when every child in the world wanted to see Jurassic Park. The lucky ones will see this, too.”
The lucky ones did, and lucky ones still manage to, despite the film’s lack of availability on Blu-ray. We’ve just had a fourth, gargantuan hit Jurassic Park movie, itself filled to the brim with deliberate nostalgia fuel for the first film that opened in the summer of 1993. The Secret Garden, meanwhile, requires just a little more push on the part of prospective viewers, but then maybe that’s thematically appropriate. The film and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s source text are both about bringing life back to that which has faded; Holland’s adaptation is itself a rewarding pleasure for those who make the effort to unearth it.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.