Full disclosure: I’ve loved Anne of Green Gables since I was a third grader who first read the book. I wanted to be Anne. I toyed with naming my house but calling myself “Fran of Split Level Ranch” or “Fran of White Walls” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. And “Fran” just isn’t a name that can work with an “e”… I saw the 1985 miniseries on video (remember VHS?) and loved it. So for over two decades I’ve pictured Anne as Megan Fellows. I had such a crush on Johnathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe. When I heard that Netflix was adapting LM Montgomery’s novel, I was a bit apprehensive. But I was still hopeful. I waited until I had some time to really settle in with the show before I watched and formed and opinion. Now I’ve done that.
The Netflix series, which has inexplicably renamed Anne of Green Gables “Anne with an ‘E'”, didn’t quite reach the level of the Kevin Sullivan miniseries with their adaptation, but I wouldn’t call this adaptation wholly unsuccessful. That’s largely because the strong performance of Amybeth McNulty in the lead. She’s able to carry the series and bring it all together. We also get strong work from Geraldine James and RH Thomson, as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. That goes a long way toward rescuing the series from its follies.
But there seemed to be an insistence on making the series dark and gritty. This compromises it as an adaptation. In the original novel, and other adaptations we don’t really learn much about Anne Shirley’s life prior to her arrival at Green Gables. We know the broad strokes: she was orphaned as a baby, she worked taking care of the Hammond family, and she lived in an orphanage. If we look at the things that happened to young orphans at the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s likely that Anne would have encountered cruelty or abuse at some point in her early life. And given what we know about the nature of childhood trauma, it makes sense that she’d be affected by it. But Anne, as a character, is by nature cheerful and optimistic. Even when in “the depths of despair” she’s always hopeful that her fortunes will change. This worldview is what endears her to the inhabitants of Avonlea.
While the Anne of this series is more hesitant to trust, she’s still generally what one would call hopeful. But the show itself seems to revel in the bleakness of her past. Before we even meet Anne, we see her being berated and abused via flashback by Mrs. Hammond. We’re treated to several more of these, in just the first episode. We also see the chaotic, harsh orphanage that she came from.
In the book, Anne’s unconventional outlook occasionally causes difficulty in social interactions. However, her lively imagination, and sunny disposition make her generally popular. In this series’ Avonlea, Anne must deal with bullying from her classmates, and sneering from their parents. When Anne suffers, we often see a scene that’s gorgeously shot, with the camera lingering on Anne’s panic. In a way that undermines what makes Anne appealing. Her romantic imagination and optimistic open heart are not only character traits, but survival mechanisms. That interplay can have tension and nuance. But here that’s all drowned out by melodrama.
Anne was always a sort of proto-feminist. She was smart, and (perhaps by necessity) independent. But here she’s a bit too on the nose. She never misses an opportunity to preach gender equality. We see Anne get her first period and argue that there should be no shame associated with menstruation. We see her attempt to decide whether to be a wife or to be her “own woman.” While I agree with Anne’s opinions on these issues, her saying these things makes her seem more at home in the twenty first century than in the beginning of the twentieth.
But my biggest complaint is that character development and nuance are abandoned in favor of manufactured drama. When Anne is bullied at school she refuses to go. A minister talks to her and tells her that she shouldn’t have to go because it’s more important that she stays home and learns to be a good wife. That might not have been intended as reverse psychology, but it works that way. The problem is that it doesn’t serve much dramatic purpose. It puts an obstacle in Anne’s way (the minister’s disapproval) that doesn’t need to be there. Anne’s own stubborn pride already serves as an obstacle.
We are treated to scenes where Anne save a house on fire. Literally. She runs through, closing the doors and windows, thereby depriving it of oxygen. The combination of foolhardy heroics and quick thinking makes Anne come off as more of a superhero than a bright, awkward, thirteen year old, figuring life out as she goes along.
Another mistake is made when Gilbert Blythe’s father is killed off. So Gilbert and Anne bond over both being orphans. This was a big sin. In the book, and other adaptations, Anne matures beyond holding a grudge against Gilbert on the basis of childhood teasing. Instead of trusting the character development to accomplish that, the series invented events to push the relationship.
Anne of Green Gables has endured for over a century because different generations can find things to like about a heroine who is proud, complicated, and good hearted. She’s not just one thing. She’s got different, sometimes contradictory impulses at different points. Seeing these various aspects of her personality play out against the simple life at Green Gables is fun, funny, and poignant. Instead of trusting that complexity and development, this series felt the need to impose a grim tone and sensational events.
I was invested in the show as I watched it. It was enjoyable. Some favorite moments were still there (Anne breaking the slate over Gilbert’s head, the raspberry cordial, Anne saving Minnie May, the dress with puff sleeves). But it wasn’t the Anne of Green Gables that I love.