Don’t Hold Your Breath Waiting For ‘Anne With an E’ To Become a Classic
Allow Me to Explain . . .
(Spoiler Alert: This article discusses several episodes of “Anne With an E” in detail, so if you want to watch without having any surprises spoiled, stop here)
No one is ever going to be able to adapt L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables for film or television without their work being reflexively compared to the 1985 made-for-TV movie starring Megan Follows as the red-headed, whimsical orphan. No screen adaptation has yet been able to come close to knocking the fan favorite off its pedestal, and the new Netflix version is not about to change that.
Anne With an E falls short not for lack of resources. Amybeth McNulty is a talented actress who looks the part as if she had been born for it — under different circumstances she might have made a perfectly elegant Anne Shirley. Geraldine James as Marilla is also outstanding, and another (if minor) casting gem is Kyla Matthews as Ruby Gillis, a boy-crazy schoolmate of Anne’s. The production is a visual feast, from the dramatic coastal landscapes of Prince Edward Island to the clean, dignified beauty of the Green Gables parlor. But it can’t make up for what’s left out.
The thing that is lacking in Netflix’ version is the thing that made the 1985 version a classic: it was enjoyable, and it was enjoyable in the same way that the books were enjoyable.
The 1985 Anne did not follow the books word for word, and tweaks were made to the story here and there, as will happen when a story is translated from book to movie, but it retained the gentle humor, charm and optimism of the book. There is a reason why L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel is still being read today, and the 1985 movie version correctly identified that reason and successfully recreated it for a screen audience.
By contrast, the Netflix version is, to put it bluntly, no fun.
Jane of Green Gables?
A friend pointed out to me that the titles of the episodes in Anne With an E come straight from a book about another, but a very different, orphan girl: Jane Eyre. Anne also repeatedly quotes a line that appears in Jane Eyre: “If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.” The book itself appears in the show as well, being read by the aunt of Anne’s best friend Diana. It’s clear that L.M. Montgomery’s equal-parts whimsy and humor point of view is being deliberately cast aside and replaced with the darker, more brooding lens of Charlotte’s Brontë’s gothic romance.
Moira Walley-Beckett, the show’s director said of her treatment:
I don’t see the point in doing ‘Anne’ in a way that’s been done, that’s very charming, teacups and doilies and ‘Oh, Anne’s in another scrape’. What’s the most realistic way to show the way a girl like this, from a strange place, with enormous prejudices against her, would move through the world?
This explains the Jane Eyre vibe in Anne With an E.
In the book, Anne is an orphan girl who has lived either in an orphanage or with families who kept her as virtually an unpaid servant her entire life up until Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, two elderly siblings in need of a boy to help around their farm, find her on their hands as a result of a mix-up. Anne’s tragic history is for the most part left behind in the book and does not figure much into the story, which concerns itself more with quiet adventures involving friendship, humorous mishaps, and all the best parts of being a young girl.
In Anne with an E, the viewer is never allowed for more than a few minutes to forget that Anne is an orphan girl who has had a terrible life, and that it’s not all teacups and doilies now that she’s at Green Gables, either (Anne experiences relentless bullying and social ostracizing from the Avonlea community even after her adoption). In the book, the question of whether the Cuthberts will keep Anne, in spite of her not being the boy they had asked for, is short-lived: once Marilla is confronted with the reality of what Anne’s life will be like in her visit to Mrs. Bluett, the woman who wants to take Anne in to work for her, her mind is made up. The show prolongs this tension over the course of several episodes, causing it to overwhelm smaller events that in the book did not have such high stakes — for instance in the show, Marilla losing her amethyst broach and thinking Anne stole it and lied about it becomes the catalyst for sending her back to the orphanage, whereas in the book the stakes were much lower, involving the much less dramatic punishment of not being allowed to attend a Sunday School picnic. For fans of the book, the drama the show hopes to achieve through this becomes laughable at the comparison. The incident also has a negative impact on the viewer’s (and Anne’s) perception of Marilla.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic, as most of L.M. Montgomery’s writing is, meaning it consists of short, nearly stand-alone stories. These stories are usually common-place, low-stakes situations that set off Anne’s thirst for drama and romance in ways that make the contrast humorous— that’s the whole fun of the book. Anne’s history as an orphan and adoption by the Cuthberts is the frame that these episodes hang on, but Anne With an E lets the darkest elements of this frame overwhelm the story, leaving the rest of the book’s low-tension content with no room to breathe.
The problem with turning Anne into Jane and Green Gables into Thornfield is that nobody reads Anne of Green Gables because they are looking for angst and morbidity. Jane Eyre is a fascinating book that I have read and enjoyed many times, but when I want Jane Eyre, I read Jane Eyre, not Anne of Green Gables.
Anne With an E is So 2017
Anne With an E also loses any sense of timelessness, an absolutely essential ingredient for a classic, by relentlessly and repeatedly dating itself as a product of 2017. We don’t get to see Anne dye her hair green by accident, but we do get an episode on menstruation, one of this year’s trending topics. There’s nothing particularly wrong with how menses is portrayed, or the fact that it would be portrayed in a girl’s coming-of-age story, but the choice to put it in, and to put into late-19th century Anne’s mouth the exact, 2017-approved views on the matter is going to make viewers watching this in 15 years transported not to Avonlea, but to the front lines of 2017 gender politics.
Anne also dutifully challenges gender norms by trying to do the bewildered hired boy’s chores to prove that she can be just as useful around the farm as a boy, and getting into a public shouting match with a schoolmate who tells her and her friends to get back to the kitchen (poor Charlie Sloane, an inoffensive minor character whose greatest sin in the books is having “goggle eyes”, gets sacrificed and his name tacked onto this unpleasant character).
Feminism takes center stage in more than one episode, as when Marilla attends a meeting for Progressive Mothers of Girls and is introduced to the concept, or when Anne’s mentor, Josephine Barry, encourages her not to settle for the narrow confines of motherhood and housewifery (the course advised by the stodgy and over-the-top minister), but to pursue some kind of career. To the show’s credit, these themes are handled with a tolerable level of nuance as Anne feels the pull of self-sufficiency versus romance and family, but again, there is an emphasis on women’s rights issues that you will not find in the books apart from a few minor incidents (as when Anne gets the side-eye in Anne of the Island from a few of the more old-fashioned members of the Avonlea community because she is attending college). I begin to lose hope of ever again getting to watch a story for girls or women that is not a narrow, plodding curriculum on feminism.
Who Is Show This For?
No one should think that just because this is a show about a preteen girl, based on a book written for preteen girls and younger, that Anne With an E is appropriate for the audience that the book was actually written for. It’s hard to figure out exactly what audience Netflix had in mind, but children certainly are not a part of it. Not only is the tone oppressive and the situations and character interactions too complicated for children to appreciate, but unless you are comfortable with your child hearing thinly veiled discussions of marital rape and depictions of attempted suicide, you should probably wait until they’re not around to watch this.
In one episode Anne, who has lived a much less sheltered life than her peers, sees the schoolmaster creeping around with his underage student in the supply room and gives her shocked friends the education their proper Victorian mothers didn’t. This is not just a bunch of adolescents pooling their ignorance about “the birds and the bees”, though. Although a little confused about the details, Anne reveals not only her exposure to sex, but her impression that it has nothing to do with a loving relationship and that it is often something forced upon unwilling women by their husbands. Personally, I would not care to have to explain this scene to my daughter at the age that she will be ready to read Anne of Green Gables, whether she’s asked about where babies come from yet or not.
In a later episode, we watch Matthew make an attempt to shoot himself so that Anne and Marilla will get his life insurance money and be able to keep Green Gables; he is stopped only by the convenient entrance of another character at the last moment.
If the show is not for young girls, like the book was, with its radical changes to story and tone it also doesn’t seem to be trying to cater to the adult women who grew up loving the books, either.
“Anne With an E” Feels Like It Doesn’t Like “Anne of Green Gables”
In the book, Anne asks the no-nonsense Marilla at one point: “Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” When Marilla answers with a short “No”, Anne exclaims, “Oh, Marilla, how much you miss!”
Anne With an E’s stern insistence on a bleak realism that would put Marilla’s to shame results in missing the beauty of the original. The audience is not allowed to suspend disbelief that an orphan girl who has known nothing but abuse and neglect could turn out to be such a hopeful, well-adjusted young person as she is portrayed in the book. We are not allowed to immerse ourselves in the idyllic world of Avonlea, but rather must be reminded at every turn that life isn’t really like Montgomery’s Avonlea. We are not allowed to dream of a simpler world, even in fiction.
The problem with Anne With an E is the problem that so many screen adaptations of books have: it’s not just that there are changes (and there are certainly plenty enough of those), it’s that it feels like it’s almost a rebuke of the original material, like an impatient Marilla telling Anne to stop day-dreaming and face reality.