Does the world need a darker Anne of Green Gables? Netflix answers the question with a resounding yes, this past month having released seven episodes of the new series Anne with an E. The series is the latest project from the highly regarded writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad, a show she apparently still misses. With some notable exceptions, most viewers have not responded well to Walley-Beckett’s take on Anne of Green Gables, finding that this newest adaptation strays too far from its source material, the 1908 book written by the Canadian writer L. M. Montgomery.
The new series also has to contend with the legacy of the classic 1985 CBC adaptation, a version with a dedicated fanbase that seems only to grow with each passing decade. In that version, writer and producer Kevin Sullivan may not follow the exact plot lines of the original book (and its sequels), but he certainly gets the spirit of the enterprise, from the sweeping theme song to the long, lingering shots of Prince Edward Island itself found in every episode of his miniseries.
Anne Shirley — like Romeo or Juliet — is not just anyone, a protagonist up for grabs, ready for repurposing in an image more to our liking, but a character with a specificity that renders her meaningful.The irony of the staying power of Anne of Green Gables, with over 50 million copies sold, particularly in our much more cynical age, is that the book isn’t actually all that great in terms of literature. It is melodramatic, often silly; the plot is essentially a series of set pieces (Anne smashing the slate over Gilbert’s head, Anne getting Diana drunk, Anne saving Minnie May’s life) fleshed out with sight gags (Anne with green hair, Anne as the Lady of Shalott sinking in the river). These moments are interspersed with passages of rapturous praise for the beauty of Prince Edward Island.
Yet the particular allure of the book remains, one hundred years after it was first published. Anne, as a character, inspires nothing short of devotion in her readers. She is squarely a product of her time, floating along as she dreams of wearing clouds of white muslin with a crown of apple blossoms, reciting Tennyson, and imagining herself a muse for pre-Raphaelite painters, an Edward Burne-Jones painting come to life. Anne Shirley is also a product of her time in darker, less idealized ways. Her parents died when she was three months old, in an age when the average lifespan was 50, even in the developed world. Raised in an orphanage in between stints of being farmed out to various harried mothers of multiple children, Anne had nobody to love and nobody who loved her back.
It’s not that the book elides these troubles in a larger sense, glossing over the dreariness of Anne’s pre–Green Gables life to spare the reader the reality of rural misery in the early 20th century. It’s that Anne herself chooses to move on from these troubles. Her ability to call on her inner resources is an integral part of her character. Anne has a very clear-eyed assessment of the rotten hand she’s been dealt, but chooses to see the world as a beautiful place, in spite of her reality: that of being an orphan with no prospects for an education or meaningful future. This aspect of Anne’s character, her willful sense of self-determination no matter the circumstances, emerges again and again. It is there in the beginning of the story, when Anne overwhelms Marilla and Matthew with her verbose, childish aestheticism. And it is there much later, when Anne, as an adult, convinces her fellow teacher — the formidable, unhappy Katherine Brooke — to see the world as she sees it: a place of wild possibility, tremendous beauty, with lots of apple picking and country dancing there for the taking.
The character of Anne Shirley makes L. M. Montgomery’s books greater than the sum of their parts. It is Anne who endures for each successive generation of young readers. It is obvious that Anne Shirley, an unloved orphan, perceived as an object of pity, needs help, but what also becomes apparent is that Anne’s help, in turn, is needed. Matthew and Marilla need someone to love; Rachel Lynde, among others, needs to be told exactly what sort of person she is. In short, the moral complacency of Avonlea’s ordered world needs to encounter the reality of someone like Anne, who may not fit the bill of a well-brought-up regular churchgoer, but one who, nevertheless, has a finely tuned sense of right and wrong, a deeply felt understanding that the “greatest of these is love,” and a desire to attribute all the best parts of creation to God.
Anne’s character powerfully represents what it means to find meaning in a world that seems only to highlight its absence. It’s not that she’s not traumatized by the very incidents that she alludes to in the book: her parents’ death, life at the orphanage, working as a drudge for Mrs. Hammond. Rather, she embodies what is possible in the face of disaster. Her human spirit is irrepressible, as Anne herself might say — italics and all. Whatever trauma Anne experienced has been sublimated and contained, only to reemerge in a sense of self that remains absolutely unassailable, whether the attacks come from Rachel Lynde, Josie Pye, or even her own bouts with self-doubt. This is powerful, heady stuff to a reader. It is something young girls — or anyone — who reads Anne of Green Gables understands and admires. She is never a victim, even when she is being victimized.
Is this healthy, as we might say in current parlance? Does Anne represent an unrealistic response to trauma? Maybe. And maybe this is Moira Walley-Beckett’s aim, to correct the record with her version of Anne of Green Gables. But from our vantage point, who are we, and who is Moira Walley-Beckett, to say? Anne of Green Gables is not a story from our own time; the narrative did not emerge from the 21st century thicket of therapeutic psychology, where everyone ranks somewhere between amateur and expert on the nuances of mental health. Missing the power of Anne of Green Gables as a narrative of its own time may mean missing the power of the story altogether.
At the very least, Anne with an E is an accomplished work of cinematic storytelling. The series is beautifully shot, with a Nordic light that lends a cold, spare, tonal quality to every scene. Green Gables itself is a Pinterest board for farmhouse chic animated on film. The episodes are a visual treat for viewers: with all those ceramic mixing bowls, jars of preserves, and linen napkins on scrubbed wooden tables. But from the spare, almost ascetic quality of the art direction to the bleak, always-on-the-verge-of-a-meltdown portrayal of Anne herself, Anne with an E gets nearly everything wrong about Anne of Green Gables.
Like most works of fiction with strong central characters, Anne of Green Gables could certainly benefit from a retelling, even a reinterpretation. And Anne with an E might have been just that — an inventive reimagining of a classic. While Sullivan’s beloved CBC series may be deemed by fans as practically perfect in every way, multiple versions of works by authors like the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen prove that, when it comes to the novels we love, there is always room for another movie. But Anne with an E doesn’t really offer a fresh take on Anne, so much as it departs from Anne altogether. Walley-Beckett takes the central character so far afield from the Anne Shirley of the books that she is more or less unrecognizable (not to mention what happens with the characters of Matthew and poor Billy Andrews, who is somehow weirdly criminalized).
Even Baz Luhrmann doesn’t go that far in wildly reimagined 1996 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which he has the audacity to cut and paste the original play. Luhrmann still manages to faithfully render the characters of Romeo and Juliet themselves. His version of a classic actually serves the purpose of illuminating a text we thought we already knew, one we thought incapable of surprising us. No matter how weird things got in Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, it was still Shakespeare, and this actually matters — if Shakespeare is to matter at all. In this sense, Anne with an E is a lost opportunity.
A character’s transcendence and ability to travel across decades and cultures has to do with the specific qualities that character brings to a story. Anne Shirley — like Romeo or Juliet — is not just anyone, a protagonist up for grabs, ready for repurposing in an image more to our liking, but a character with a specificity that renders her meaningful. If characters can be remolded and refashioned at whim, then what is the point of distinguishing between them? A sense of who Anne is and a certain integrity about her portrayal is necessary if she is to matter at all.
Rather than render Anne unrecognizable, Moira Walley-Beckett should have written a story about some other Canadian girl who was orphaned and traumatized by her experiences, likes to quote poetry and rant at strangers, and mistakes a penis for a pet mouse. Then Netflix can release a series about this girl, and viewers can watch it in good faith and judge that story on its own merits, secretly marveling that a supposedly worldly 13-year-old could be so dense. Instead, Walley-Beckett attempted a series about Anne of Green Gables, a very specific character with an internal motivation so forceful the books themselves can hardly contain her. It follows then that Anne with an E should actually be about Anne. With an E.
Instead, Netflix offers a show (based on a children’s book while simultaneously managing to be unsuitable for children) about an Anne operating under the pseudonym of Anne of Green Gables. In Anne with a E, viewers wait patiently for the protagonist, this traumatized young girl, to heal by being loved, an arc that often feels pathetic at best and exploitative at worst. When Anne is in the train station, for instance, after being kicked out of Green Gables, she exchanges recitations of poetry for change in an effort to collect enough money for train fare. This moment moves from one of ingenuity and resourcefulness to a demonstration of wild-eyed desperation, in which Anne is shrieking in front of a shocked public as she hysterically fends off Matthew. It is an uncomfortable prospect, watching this sad little girl have a public breakdown — one with predatory undertones no less.
Even Anne’s slate-busting encounter with Gilbert, a moment of literary female empowerment if there ever was one, is all wrong, coming as it does after he rescues her from the sinister Billy deep in the scary woods of Avonlea. Later, when Gilbert tries to be friendly, Anne only repudiates him because of social pressure she feels from the other girls (as opposed to her own, internal sense of violation), a very un-Anne motivation. The whole point of Anne is that she is beyond the reach of social pressure, both intuitively and by years of hardened experience, except when it comes to her deep desire for puffed sleeves. In this alone, she expresses a longing for convention.
The miraculous quality of characters such as those found in Anne of Green Gables is that reading (or watching) their stories here in the 21st century, we don’t need to relate to the specifics of place and time. We don’t need to read the present back into the past in order to find the characters meaningful and to believe, in a very real way, that they have something to offer us. Seeing the Anne of Anne with an E as literally traumatized, shivering through episodes of PTSD, or panicking her way through one social encounter after another does not make us empathize; it just makes us feel sad and slightly embarrassed. It also makes us feel superior, as we know that what Anne really needs is a round of antidepressants and a good therapist.
As an added bonus, we also feel superior to all those rubes populating Prince Edward Island. In spite of the the grumbling about the books being saccharine, L. M. Montgomery does a much better job at portraying rural Canadians in the early 20th century as the complex, nuanced human beings they no doubt were. In contrast, according to Anne with an E, the citizens of Avonlea were insufferable bunch of heartless, self-righteous snobs. This one-note depiction of the people who inhabit the world of Anne with an E misses the whole point of literature. The best stories always remind us of a shared humanity, with all its problems, with all its possibilities. Just like the people who lived in 1908 — and long before — we are messed up, here in the 21st century. And just like the people in stories throughout the ages, we need help. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne points Marilla toward the beauty of the created world, while Marilla points Anne toward the Creator. They need each other.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but what is missing from Anne with an E is the quality of transcendence. In short, the series leaves no scope for the imagination, and an entire generation of viewers are the worse for it. Maybe these viewers will make their way from the Netflix series to the original books. If so, all is not lost, because the real Anne Shirley is there, waxing rhapsodic over a farm pond she calls the Lake of Shining Waters or breaking a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s handsome head — but this time, for all the right reasons.