I should note before I go any further that my opinion was probably doomed from the outset by high expectations, and it was pretty much impossible for me to be fair. Because, you see, while I never read this book as a child, I watched the 1995 movie adaptation obsessively and also enjoyed the 1939 version, PLUS have a special place in my heart for Burnett's The Secret Garden - both the book and movie versions. So, like I said, my expectations were pretty damn high - and it was hard for me not to compare this book to all those other things.
While it told the story I was expecting - of a kind little girl named Sara being sent to a boarding school by her loving father, who then finds herself suddenly friendless and penniless, having to use her inner strength and imagination to overcome her lot - I was surprised at how different it was from the movies. There was one glaring plot point that I'd assumed was an intrinsic part of the story, because it appears in both film versions (despite them being very different in other ways), and I was shocked and disappointed that it was actually absent from the book. But I tried to be fair and get over that (after all, it's not the book's fault the movie versions changed its story) and instead focus on the magical and whimsical aspects of the plot that I love. Occasionally I succeeded, but unfortunately more often than not my attention was dragged back to things that really annoyed me.
For instance, the way the book dealt with race and servants. I know I shouldn't judge it by modern standards, but it was hard not to get irritated at the way poor Becky was treated - even by those who were supposedly kind to her. Similarly, it was difficult not to be disgusted by the descriptions of India and its inhabitants, and Sara's reflection that they were once her slaves - this, coming from a supposedly noble girl!
Which brings me to Sara herself. The little princess drove me nuts. Which in itself annoyed me - I wanted to like her SO badly (She reads! She loves stories and imagining things! She's smart! She's brave!) - but the more time I spent with her, the more I disliked her. She was just so perfect that she didn't seem real; on the rare occasions she showed "wickedness" (the few times I started to like her again), she quickly reined herself in. I know she's supposed to be an admirable character, with traits to aspire to, and I did like the message that positive thinking and kindness can be their own rewards, but it was just rammed down my throat so hard that I almost sympathised with the awful Miss Minchin. Who could blame her for wanting to bring Little Miss Perfect down a peg or two?!
I feel terrible saying all this because, like I said, I loved the story growing up and I'm surprised at how little I loved it after finally reading it. Of course, it wasn't awful - there's still the magic and whimsy there, and the story itself is enchanting. But with such an archetypal heroine, what should have been just my cup of tea was way too sweet for my tastes.
Spoilery Talking Points
- I've already touched on this, but I felt so bad for Becky. I hated the way that, even when she was receiving kindness, it was only as a result of being in Sara's orbit, and then all she got was basically Sara's crappy castoffs. Literally - Sara gets a fluffy new mattress because her old, hard one is looked at as too cruel for her - and yet this is the mattress that Becky gets as a gift?! Likewise, when Sara gets new clothes from her mysterious benefactor, and the package is specifically addressed to "The little girl in the attic on the right", I couldn't help thinking, "what about the little girl in the attic on the left?!"
- I was gutted by what happened to Captain Crewe. I'd much rather focus on the happily-ever-after presented by the movies.
- I thought it was interesting to note the differences between Sara and Mary from The Secret Garden. They both have similar backgrounds - raised in India, spoiled rotten and waited on hand and foot before being thrust into cold, harsh England - and yet were such different characters. I wondered if this was down to the one significant difference in their upbringings - Sara was extremely loved, while Mary was basically ignored. It's interesting that Sara is thus a kind, imaginative, too-perfect girl from the beginning, while Mary is pretty darn horrid to start with, and it's only once she starts to feel love (both given and received) that her kindness, gentleness and imagination come to life.
With the movie cast scorched into my mind from repeated viewings growing up, I basically couldn't picture anyone else. I did, however, manage to slip James McAvoy in as Captain Crewe and Michael Fassbender in as the Indian gentleman. (Can you tell I watched X-Men: First Class recently? I loved their bromantic chemistry).
Books to Movies (Movie reviews to come!)