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Classic to Contemporary: The Secret Garden to The Humming Room

2013 February 15
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Classics — whether they are novels, plays, or epics — offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion … but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting-off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Pryde and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful … or maybe not.

The Classic: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

secret-garden3 “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

When young orphan Mary Lennox arrives at her uncle’s English manor, the spoiled girl, used to a pampered life in India, immediately decides that she will simply not enjoy her new life. Readers soon find their sympathies aroused as the somewhat neglected girl forlornly explores the estate alone day after day. It is not until she locates the secret door to a long-forgotten garden and embarks upon a covert journey to its restoration that Mary finds purpose in her new existence.  Assisted by a young friend, Dickon, a friendly robin, and a gardner who excels at keeping secrets, Mary breathes new life into the garden. When she discovers Colin, a sickly, hidden cousin, it is Mary and the revitalised garden that help him recouperate. It is Mary who finally not only strengthens the secret garden, but also her family’s deepest relationships, finding a new forever home.  

The Contemporary: The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

Humming-Room-200x300When Roo Fanshaw’s parents are murdered, she is sent to a remote island to live with an uncle she never knew existed. Her new home is a cold, dreary place absent of modern technology (signal issues) and, as Roo eventually discovers, is, in fact, an old children’s tuberculosis hospital. Days spent wandering the island and evenings spent wandering the converted hospital’s hidden passages lead Roo to discover a secret tropical garden deep in the center of her new home. With the help of a local legend, her ailing cousin, Phillip, and a curious bird, Roo manages to bring the tropical paradise back to life. The wild magic of her aunt’s garden and the childrens’ hopes bring Roo’s widely traveling uncle back home, reuniting the family and give Roo a new place to belong.

What do I think? 

secret garden movieThough I would not advocate that anyone read The Humming Room in lieu of the original classic, I do believe that it is an interesting twist on the original that will draw its own audience of devotees. With stronger hints of magical realism, ties to modern society threaded into the historical context of the tuberculosis era, and a fairly concise page count, Ellen Potter’s novel is sure to entrance readers — I would have read this one over and over as a middle schooler. Potter’s novel may also entice a new generation to pick up the original, and even, as it did for me, to watch the movie. 

— Jessica Miller, currently reading Scarlet by Marissa Meyer and Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

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