The Misselthwaite Archives (Pencil Ink Productions, 2015)
Please Note: There are some spoilers for the series below. However, I’ve indicated the section of the review in which these occur, so do skip over that paragraph if you do not want to be spoiled for an early plot point for the series.
A while ago, I made a list of Literary-Inspired Web Series I would recommend and mentioned that I hoped to post reviews of some of these series. I started with a review of Betwixt Productions’ The Writing Majors, but then debated with myself as to which series I should review next. After some deliberation, I decided that, since it is unlikely I will write about all the series I recommended, I might as well begin with those which I consider to be the strongest examples within the genre. And where better to go next than the series which I would probably say is my favourite Literary-Inspired Web Series at this moment: The Misselthwaite Archives.
The Misselthwaite Archives is a web series adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, using a combination of video letters and traditional cinematic techniques. It follows the story of Mary Lennox after the death of her parents, as she is forced to move to live with her Uncle. With both her Uncle and Cousin absent from the house, and her relationship with her Uncle’s sister, Medlock, in a state of perpetual antagonism, it is not an easy adjustment for the teenager to make. However, as Mary gets to know the town and people of Misselthwaite, as well as the mysterious Glade, she discovers that this might be somewhere she could consider a home.
The series breaks out from the traditional vlog format of other popular Literary-Inspired Web Series: whilst there are still some vlog elements (Mary filming videos for her therapist, Dr. Burnett; Phoebe filming Mary’s tutoring sessions) the series as a whole has a cinematic feel, largely due to the more traditional nature of the film techniques used in the majority of episodes. The freedom of switching between a vlog format and traditional film allows the creators to find a balance between the characters keeping the viewers up-to-date with what is happening in their lives and the viewers being given an insight into the parts of the characters’ lives which they would not share on video. Additionally, it also gives the creators the freedom to push and challenge themselves with their filming styles. I cannot overstate how beautifully shot the whole series is: Mary’s first entrance to the Glade is definitely one of my favourite web series episodes ever, and well worth a watch.
One of the difficulties of a modern adaptation of a classic literary text comes in the adaptation choices for the characters. In my opinion, the characters in The Misselthwaite Archives are well-adapted from their The Secret Garden counterparts. Mary, initially somewhat unlikeable in the book, has a natural cynicism and defensiveness which rings true of someone in her situation. Yet, whilst she has a long road to growth and maturity in her relationships with those around her, she is still a character the viewer is wholly invested in and actively rooting for. (SPOILERS AHEAD) The two characters who are least like their book counterparts are Declan and Callie. Declan has the same love for nature that Dixon does, but he is more mild and less outspoken. However, he actually became one of my favourite characters, with his mild nature a perfect balance for Mary. The choices made in the adaptation of Callie’s character are perhaps more controversial, particularly for those viewers who are looking for more representation of physical disability in media. However, representation of mental health issues is also important, and I can see why the creators made this particular adaptation decision.
The series comes to life when these three main characters interact with each other, in any combination. The actors do a fantastic job of showcasing the complexities and tensions in Mary’s relationships with both Declan and her cousin, never losing sight of the overarching truth that these characters truly care about each other; the episodes involving these three together always seem incredibly natural, fun, and heartfelt. My favourite episodes to rewatch are the ones that involve the main trio in the Glade together: they never cease to put a smile on my face.
The Secret Garden is a book I loved growing up, and seeing it adapted in such a smart, loving, and atmospheric way by creators around my age has been so exciting. From the cinematography, to the writing, to the characterisations, The Misselthwaite Archives is a beautiful adaptation which invests the viewer emotionally and remains engaging in every re-watch. If there is one web series I would recommend without needing to think twice, it would be this one.