Books vs. Movies: The Secret Garden & The Black Stallion

Here's a little something you might not know about me: when in doubt about what to read, I turn to children's books. Even if I've never read them before, I find them somehow comforting, a return to a simpler time, a safe haven from novels determined to be shocking.

So when I was recently having trouble with the books on my original Lit Flicks list (due to fading interest and/or the failure of my usually good inter-library loan system) I turned to children's classics instead. Here are my thoughts on two books I read as well as their movie adaptations.

The Secret Garden

I think I read this when I was younger as it was all vaguely familiar... little Mary Lennox is orphaned, goes to live with her uncle, discovers a mystery in the house and the power of a secret garden.

For the most part I found the story delightful. It was great to see the change in Mary. Positive, unselfish thinking is good, being out amidst natural beauty is good. The only thing I didn't like was the mumbo-jumbo at the end about "Magic" to explain things. (Also, i
s it just me or do the three kids in the book seem to be a love-triangle in the making?) (Yes, I know one is Mary's cousin.)

The first adaptation I tried to watch was the 1993 movie, thinking that the subject would have to be better in an updated version instead of an older, black and white version. But I really (and perhaps slightly irrationally) didn't like it. I didn't like right away that they changed how Mary was orphaned. The whole movie seemed rather dark for such a sweet story. Yes, I know that the book deals with some heavy subjects, but it didn't feel weighed down like the movie did. I watched it half-heartedly and distractedly and got even more mad at it at the end when they took the magic bit I didn't like in the book and made a bigger deal about it with a chanting scene. Blech.

It almost made me not give The Secret Garden from 1949 a try, but I'm so happy I did! While this version also takes a few liberties, (like the robin becoming a raven) overall I was so much happier with it. Margaret O'Brien stars as Mary. Although I thought her a bit too old (and too pretty) for the role, she played it with her usual intensity and charm and won me over. Little Dean Stockwell is also in this version, and man, what a cute kid he was. (At one point he talks about how he will live forever, and I couldn't help but think, of course you will, you Cylon, you!)

What I think the 1949 version really gets right is the tone of the story. For example, Mary is still contrary, but somehow her seriousness is shown as being rather ridiculous, making her more endearing. The touches of humor in the story really work against the heavier themes, and that bit of light and dark feels very true to the book. And, appropriately enough in a story called The Secret Garden, there are a few secrets to the movie that had me ready to cheer! (I don't want to reveal anything here because I'd like everyone to have the same joyful surprise that I had.)

So, book or movie? Both, as long as you watch the 1949 version. (It doesn't seem to be available on DVD yet, but you may be able to find the video or catch it on TCM.)

The Black Stallion

Here's a case where I had seen the movie before reading the book. While the basic story is the same (boy and horse get shipwrecked, become friends on an island, get rescued and enter a major race) I was surprised by how many things were changed for the movie. (What! There was never a mini horse statue? Or talk about the horse with fire in his eyes and smoke coming out of his nose?)

Some bigger changes: in the book, Alec is alone on the ship as opposed to traveling with his father as in the movie. This makes for some more emotional moments in the film. Also, Alec is significantly older in the book. While I think a younger Alec works better for his helplessness in the island scenes, I did like an older Alec for being more in control over what to do about racing his horse when he got back home.

While the book is fine as a classic children's adventure novel, The Black Stallion is a great example of a story that translates really well into a movie. Seeing as opposed to imagining is much more powerful when it comes to the frightening scenes of the ship sinking, or the beautiful moments between the boy and his horse on the island, or the exciting moments of the race at the end. Re-watching the story after reading the book, I loved even more the visuals of the horse, particularly during the dialogue-free scenes on the island. The little exotic musical cues as reminders of the horse's origin were neat, and the main actors (Kelly Reno, Teri Garr, and Mickey Rooney) were all great, too.

If you only get into one version of this story, make it the movie.

Now, I have one more book and movie adaptation to go before the end of the month to complete the Lit Flicks challenge. Can I do it? I'm sure gonna try!


Kate Gabrielle said...

I haven't seen the 1933 Secret Garden yet, but I adore the 40's version! It captures the enchantment of the story, I think.

Jessica said...

The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books from childhood. I don't think I've read it in at least 12 years. You've inspired me to go back and reread it. I believe that I've seen a movie version of it, but I'm not sure which version it was. I'm thinking it was the older one. I'll have to refresh on that too. Congrats on finishing a Lit Flicks Challenge selection!

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