Anne of the Really Gritty, Grim, Green Gables
Watching Anne With an E, the new Anne of Green Gables adaptation released on Netflix this weekend, I kept thinking of how much I would love what I was seeing if it were anything but an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. It has everything you want from a period drama about a young girl growing up at the end of the 19th century in Canada: complicated back story, compelling characters, taboo topics (there’s a whole subplot about menstruation!), proto-feminism, and a feel that makes you want to keep watching. The problem, though, is that it just doesn’t feel like Anne of Green Gables. It feels, as I said in a hot-headed tweet, as “if Dickens came back to life, got hit [on] the head, and decided to write Anne of Green Gables fanfiction.” It’s dark, it’s gritty, it has orphanages, and it has starving orphans trying to survive on the streets. It has children taunting Anne for being “trash” and boys physically threatening her in the woods. It has financial ruin and an almost-suicide (suicide attempt?). It’s filled with dark undertones that have nothing to do with the essence of L.M. Montgomery’s invented world.
As Sarah Larson points out in a really great New Yorker piece which I’m glad I read before watching the series (because oh my God would there have been an even more unpleasant shock), Moira Walley-Beckett, the showrunner, director and writer, says that she “wanted to ground [the show] in the foundation of some of the story and some of the plot that’s already there but not fully explored. So it’s like [she] sort of open[s] up the spine of the book, reach[es] in between the lines of the pages, and chart[s] some new territory.” She also points out that there is a “seamless interaction between Lucy Montgomery’s words and [hers].”
Except that there isn’t.
The added plots and storylines all work seamlessly within the world the show, but they clash so strongly with Anne’s original world that I’ve been hearing cries of dismay all the way from Australia.
Anne With an E is great, but it isn’t Anne of Green Gables. To so many of us, Anne of Green Gables stands for childhood afternoons spent reading about a fierce young girl who faces the world and charms everyone around her with her positivity and imaginative spirit. The novels (and yes, the 1980s films) are about optimism, faith in humanity, and quite simply, joy. Darkness is there, lurking beneath the surface, yes, but it never defines the action. Anne never lets difficulty dampen her spirit. The emotion of Anne of Green Gables is beautifully hopeful. Young or old, Anne taught us to look at the world in a different, more cheerful way, even when reread by adults in the darkness of the 2016 world. All of that disappears in Anne With an E.
I, for one, think that it’s a pity, and I blame it on this contemporary delusion that only dark things are substantial. It feels as if Walley-Beckett mistakenly looked at Montgomery’s world and said “Ah, but what if this had substance?” There is substance aplenty in Montgomery’s writing. It’s just looked at through a different, less pessimistic lens. As Larson points out in the New Yorker article, the storyline where Marilla blames Anne for the disappearance of her prized broach is handled far more powerfully and “more effectively” in the original version and in the 1985 miniseries than it is in Anne With an E. In the first two, Anne is forbidden to go to a picnic. In the new series, Anne is sent back to the orphanage and ends up trying to survive on the streets until Matthew comes for her. It isn’t until after this that Marilla decides to adopt Anne. How is a mother figure sending her child out into the streets more powerful or emotive?! All it is is more sensational. Darkness may make things more striking, but it certainly – despite popular opinion – does not create automatic depth.
And that’s the case with so many altered and added storylines. Gilbert Blythe, for instance, the boy so many of us fell for as children, enters the scene as a knight in shining armor, saving Anne for imminent assault in the woods. As if this isn’t trite and heavy-handed enough, he then asks if she has a dragon that needs slaying and then runs after her, calling, “What? You can’t tell me your name?” A powerful reference to street harassment? Or the unnecessary bro-ification of that rare thing, a non-douchey male character?
These aren’t even the worst alterations. The worst (spoiler!) comes at the end, with a literal, loaded gun.
Anne With an E wants to be gritty, and it manages. It manages in a way that I never really expected it would. It just fails at feeling like the world it grew out of, and I maintain that adaptations can go as far as they want to so long as they remain faithful to the feeling of the original piece. Anne With an E doesn’t.
So do I recommend watching it anyway? Yes. Because even though it fails as an adaptation, it’s still a really good and really important period drama. It has a mostly-female team behind it, and it breaks new ground. It just isn’t going to leave you feeling as happily renewed as you should after other fictional visits to Prince Edward Island. It won’t make you yearn for more simpler times, it won’t inspire you to find joy in little things (because if you do, people will come and throw you in a fire anyway), it won’t leave you jealous of Anne and Diana’s friendship, and it won’t give you a respite from our sufficiently dark world. It will leave you cheering at Marilla going to a feminist moms’ club and joking about burning corsets… and that’s quite something.
If Anne With an E was anything but Anne of Green Gables, it would be my new favorite show.