Okay, so we’ve had a couple of people ask about this, so here goes! This is long, kind of dry, and sort of odd. We recommend taking this with a little salt.
First a refresher (bear in mind it’s been 30 years since either of us has read the book and 25 years or more since we last saw the musical) so this is gonna be rough.
The Secret Garden is essentially a story where an orphaned kid who is spared by Death (in this case cholera) is sent to their family, specifically an aunt and uncle on their mother’s side, where they run into people who hate them because they have their mother’s eyes.
Then the child discovers a secret place to help heal this land from essentially Death. Along the way, Mary is aided by a know-it-all woman who is considered lesser and a guy who sort of introduces Mary to the wonderful world all around her and the magic in that world.
All right. So let’s break it down.
Let’s start with the easy.
Mary = Harry. Why, there’s barely a difference in name! While Harry isn’t the spoiled brat that Mary is in the book, he is neglected and left to essentially raise himself. He’s also fairly unlikable at various parts of the story, which is true about Mary. Both of them change and grow and improve when they find the garden and start to work on saving it.
The lost Lenore of both the reclusive misanthrope uncle and the uncle’s brother, a doctor, is named Lily. Harry’s mother, who is the lost Lenore of Snape and pretty much everybody else, is named Lily. She’s the driving reason why Mary’s uncle took her in, just like Lily was the driving reason Petunia took Harry in. Lily’s love for her child is ever present in the musical and even leads Archibald back to the garden. While Lily’s love quite literally protects Harry, and Snape’s patronus (which is a representation of her) leads Harry to the Sword of Gryffindor. (it’s a bit of a stretch, go with me here)
Mary/Harry has Lily’s eyes. The eyes are the big thing. They’re brought up over and over again in Harry Potter as well as in the book/musical. (Also, anyone remember the controversy when Daniel Radcliffe couldn’t wear the contacts? When the actress for young Lily didn’t have the same color eyes? It was such a thing… it’s still a thing if you pay attention to the rants.)
In fact, in the musical, there’s a giant song about it. (Trust me, the songfic parodies that showed up back in like…2004…there were a lot starring Remus and Snape after that one line in the Prisoner of Azkaban movie.) Instead of Robert Westerfield imagine Alan Rickman singing the song and you wouldn’t be far off. And Mandy Patinkin, yes that Mandy Patinkin, wouldn’t be a bad person to play Dumbledore.
Those are the immediate obvious. There’s some other less obvious but also striking similarities.
The first is Colin, Mary’s cousin, is a bit of a spoiled brat a la Dudley Dursley, although Dudley never has to go through the “I’m being poisoned so that my uncle can take over” plot line. Colin in the book also has an attitude very reminiscent of Draco Malfoy. So in a way Colin gets split up into Dudley and Draco, but that’s okay. Nothing says that this hasn’t happened before in fanfic. Especially in the “filing the serial numbers off” so that the creator doesn’t get sued part. Colin also self limits, much like Draco Malfoy does. It’s only after a few not so subtle nudges that he starts to take control of his destiny… which mirrors what Colin does.
Two characters are also being combined into one in regards to Mary’s uncle and his brother – Archibald and Dr. Craven (called Neville in the musical). They both become sides of Snape - the misanthrope, the recluse, the obviously EVIL character who has a secret heart of gold. Seriously, Snape is so Archibald Craven it isn’t funny with just enough of Dr. Craven’s drawling sneer thrown in for good measure. Again, we are not the first to notice this.
On to the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock. The character is oddly similar to Minerva McGonagall (and even played by Maggie Smith in the 1993 movie adaptation!). Crisp, stern, efficient, massively loyal to Archibald Craven, who is also a bit of a Dumbledore type of character, let’s be honest. She’s the one who gives Mary the schedule of when things are happening, just like McGonagall is the one who gives Harry his schedule. Also as the housekeeper, she also acts much as McGonagall does as Deputy Headmistress. She’s responsible for the day-to-day running of the house/school.
Then we get to Martha. A maid in the house, but also Mary’s first friend. Martha is definitely a know-it-all as she constantly tells Mary what she needs to do to get her life together. Does that sound like somebody else we know? A bushy-haired Muggleborn named Hermione, perhaps? Hermione’s main goal, especially in many of the books, is to keep Harry from falling into a funk, which is what Martha does for Mary. Martha is also the ones who tends to deliver the bad news regarding anything to Mary, which is also Hermione’s role in the books. A lot of this comes down to attitude. Frankly, we could totally see Emma Watson killing it as Martha in the musical. She’s the big sister to Mary and there’s a very sibling vibe just like there is between Harry and Hermione. Unless you’re a Harmonian, in which case, okay! You do you.
There’s Martha’s brother Dickon. Who is the quirky misfit who essentially acts as the character who explains how the world works to Mary. Which is, let’s be honest, Ron’s role in the books. In fact, one of the very first things we see Ron and Harry do when we get to Ron’s house is they go out and de-gnome the garden. A lot of the stuff we see happen with Ron takes place in a very pastoral setting – gardens, Herbology, the Forbidden Forest. Hm, Forbidden Forest; Secret Garden. It’s almost like there’s a link somehow.
Dickon is also a character who gets split up. Not only is he Ron, but he’s also Hagrid. His clothing choices in the musical could be right out of Hagrid’s closet. While he’s not a giant, he has the same sort of folksy attitude and even accent that Hagrid has. Now, we admit we’re not experts on British accents and dialect, but Robbie Coltrane sure sounds a heck of a lot like the actors who played Dickon on Broadway and in the movies. He’s also got the same sort of gentle nurturing attitude that Hagrid has. And he’s somebody that Mary/Harry goes to in times of trouble.
Now let’s get to some of the deeper stretches and where you have to start thinking not quite literally but figuratively. Where in Harry Potter, Death is represented by Voldemort, in The Secret Garden Death has a role, but it’s represented by illness. Mary is orphaned by Death, aka cholera. There’s a really trippy sequence in the musical about this featuring red scarves and passing death along.
When she comes to England to be put into her uncle’s care, she’s mostly neglected and ignored much like how Harry was neglected and ignored. What little interaction she does have with her relatives leads to people screaming at her and calling her names. Her only escape is the Secret Garden. Now, in the book/musical, the Secret Garden is a magical place that, from the outside looks like a ruin, but underneath is someplace special. For those people who remember their Hogwarts: A History, Hogwarts from the outside (to the Muggles) looks like an ancient dilapidated ruin, while on the inside it’s a magical place filled with wonder and excitement… but also death and terror.
Death is very present in The Secret Garden, just like it is in Harry Potter with the ghosts and also Voldemort. The garden, while a refuge, isn’t completely safe. At one point the garden is threatened to be taken away from her, much like how Hogwarts was taken away from Harry (and threatened to be taken away) on multiple occasions. Starting with the expulsion that’s brought up multiple times (Book 2, Book 5) and finally realized in Book 7. There’s also ghosts in the Secret Garden, much like there are at Hogwarts. For the most part the ghost is Lily, Mary’s dead aunt, but there are also other ghosts including Mary’s parents. In Harry Potter, the ghosts of Harry’s parents do show up on regular occasions to guide him to where he needs to go – much like the ghosts do in The Secret Garden.
In the end of the book/musical, Mary is able to save Colin from death/his illness (at this point the Draco Malfoy character) and help reunite him with his father. Sort of coincidentally, Harry does save Draco from death, earning a life debt in the process, and helps reunite him with his family at the end. (Those of you shipping Harry/Draco will be pleased to note that in some versions of the movie Mary and Colin do end up together. Specifically the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame version… it’s not the most faithful adaptation of the book.)
Additionally, at the end, through Mary’s efforts and Mary’s sacrifices, it leads to essentially a rebirth of the estates and a rebirth of the world around her. Which is essentially what happens in Harry Potter. Harry defeats Death (Voldemort) and the Wizarding World is a happy puppy place with Harry making questionable naming choices.
Now! We want to make it clear, absolutely and above all other things, that we don’t think JK Rowling meant to write a Secret Garden fanfic. But considering how huge The Secret Garden is in grade school literature and how many young girls (particularly of JK Rowling’s age) grew up reading that and being exposed to that story, it’s possible she was influenced by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel. One of us has quite literally seen five different adaptations and also read the novel.
There are enough similarities that the possibility is there. Rowling has also shown herself totally willing to be inspired by things around her (as most authors are). There’s also a distinct possibility that she read the story to her daughter while coming up with the ideas central to Harry Potter. Both of us had our mothers read us this while growing up. Probably because it’s one of the few children’s classics that features a female lead that isn’t shunted to the sidelines in favor of the boy’s storylines… I’m looking at you C.S. Lewis. So that ups the probability of her encountering the story.
We didn’t get into the fact that a lot of headcanons have Harry being Desi and Mary was born in India (albeit to British Parents) and was raised by Indian servants. But it’s something we did think of and found amusing while writing this.
So there you have it! The weirdass similarities between The Secret Garden and Harry Potter which makes it, at least in our minds, a stealth Secret Garden Fanfic.