The Auteur Series

As I studied film in college, I became fascinated with auteurs and their distinctive—often critically acclaimed—bodies of work. More recently, as I have started to focus more particularly on films for and about children, I’ve been delighted to notice a trend in many auteur’s work. Very many of these directors, at one point or another, make a film for or about children. Quite often, these films are based on beloved children’s books. Some directors, such as Hayao Miyazaki, seem to focus almost exclusively on children’s films. Others don’t necessarily make children’s films or book adaptations, but instead create mature works that feature or center on an especially cognizant, intuitive child.

Perhaps such works are the result of these auteurs, in infusing so much of their identity into their overall oeuvre, realizing that their childhoods hold just as much (if not more) of a place in the formation of their identity as any of the other elements that make them—and their corresponding films—unique. Perhaps they want to pay tribute to a book that shaped them in their childhoods. Perhaps they just want to have a children’s movie under their belt. Perhaps, as they mellow towards the ends of their careers, they want to have something to show to their grandkids.

Perhaps it is because they realize that every person’s childhood, whether they realize it or not, is at the core of who they are, and a good children’s movie can therefore speak to almost anyone on a fundamental level.

In any case, I am going to start an ongoing series of reviews on many of these films, both old and new. A lot of these films round out an auteur’s oeuvre in surprising ways.  Many are films everyone has seen but no one realized who directed. Too many are hidden gems.

So, somewhere between April showers and May flowers, I will commence the list with a movie I grew up watching with my family every spring:

The Secret Garden (1993) – Agnieszka Holland

Of the umpteen adaptations of this book, this one, in my opinion, is the one that is by far the most worth seeing. I remember being filled with wonder every time I saw this growing up. The film, instead of losing its magic as I have grown older, has only become richer with each progressive viewing and after having read the book.

This 1993 film is directed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who is currently receiving acclaim for her most recent film, In Darkness. Although I have not seen many of Holland’s other works, I do know enough about them to know that The Secret Garden fits into her general oeuvre in an interesting way. Many of her films have a theme of children growing up under the weight of a unique crisis of identity (Europa, Europa; Olivier, Olivier; perhaps even In Darkness). The classic story of sour and orphaned Mary Lennox coming alive with the secret garden that she and Dickon nurse back to health, and of her cousin Colin Craven learning to stand and walk on his own two feet (physically and symbolically), provides ample fodder for themes Holland seems to return to.

Although some characters from the book are dropped or condensed, and the beginning rendered much more dramatic, the essence of the book is here, and it is in many ways augmented by Holland’s hauntingly beautiful treatment. I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t seen this film yet, but suffice it to say that Mary is perhaps a more well-developed character in this film than she is in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic.

But Mary is not the only facet of the story that blossoms in the transition from page to screen in this film. The adult characters are not as peripheral or one-dimensional as they so often are in children’s films, but are instead well-rounded, nuanced characters that are every bit as dynamic as the children. (How could you expect less with Maggie Smith playing Mrs. Medlock?) All the most captivating details of the book are rendered perfectly. Misselthwaite Manor is full of secrets and passageways, and the Yorkshire Moors are fiercely beautiful and mysterious, captured with breathtaking cinematography. Nature has as much of a role in this film as any character, often lingered upon by the camera or revealed in time-lapse photography. The film wonderfully shows how the annual miracle of spring and the magic of discovering it play a profound role in the children’s blooming with the garden.

As this is one of my all-time favorite films, I could go on about it for a long time. Instead, let me simply conclude by saying that The Secret Garden is beautiful in every way, both complementing its original source and serving as an exceptional introduction to Holland’s own body of films.

Image found here.


3 thoughts on “The Auteur Series

  1. This blog post provided me with a fair amount of info to take in. Mostly it lead me to the wikipedia articles on Auteur Theory and Schreiber Theory, and their links. I’ve always seen film mostly as being a collaborative process, and I think it would be weird (actually probably off-putting) for someone to refer to themselves as an “auteur”. Is it taught in film school that Auteur Theory is more true that other theories of film criticism (can it even be called criticism, it’s just subjective classification in a way, isn’t it?). Is it true for only some films or directors? I’m surely out of my element here – I just like movies. When is it decided (by critics) that a director is an auteur, and when is a director just a director? Is it just when you can “feel” a director’s “stamp” on a movie?

  2. This is a little too much to answer all right here, but to start with, I have to say that I am definitely using the word “auteur” a bit loosely here, and perhaps should have clarified it a bit more. In the context of this blog, I guess I am using the term to refer to, in your words, “feeling” a directors “stamp” on a movie, and seeing how it fits into their body of work, although there’s a lot more to actual auteur theory than this.

    In my film theory class, we spent a few weeks discussing and debating auteur theory…As there is no real way to measure the substance of the arguments for and against auteur theory empirically, there is therefore no way to say whether some directors really are auteurs or not, except on a subjective, critic-to-critic basis. To my knowledge, auteur theory is something that is still debated in film studies circles. Personally, I’ve always leaned towards agreeing with the theory, at least to an extent, especially when it comes to directors that (like Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers, for example) write, direct, produce, etc. so many of their very distinctive movies. And there are several directors that are almost universally regarded as auteurs.

    Among proponents of auteur theory, it is certainly the case that only a few directors receive this honored title, and even then such directors may be debated among critics. In this way, the selection of auteurs, perhaps to a greater extent even than film criticism is, as you say, a bit of a “subjective classification” by critics, and certainly not something that that a director would call him or herself.

  3. Thanks so much for the clarification. Wes Anderson was certainly the first person I thought of that I might consider an auteur. It’s nice to be reminded that the Coen brothers likely serve as an example of auteurs as well. I certainly don’t mind using language loosely, and with the clarification I think your usage isn’t all that loose (at least not more loose than the concept itself) and is justified. Personally I think I would have a hard time using the term for a director who has not also written to script of his or her film. I wonder if Joss Whedon will be considered an auteur for The Avengers. Will he be able to put his stamp on properties which have existed for 60 plus years and have had multiple writers and directors? Or will he instead allow the individual voices which he inherited and the current push of Marvel Studies to propel the narrative (i.e. will he sacrifice putting his “stamp” on the movie for the sake of allowing the film to be better)? I imagine sometimes an auteur’s stamp ruin a franchise or preexisting property. (I think those are just rhetorical questions.)

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