Marilla asked no more questions. Anne gave herself up to a silent rapture over the shore road and Marilla guided the sorrel abstractedly while she pondered deeply. Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had—a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth. No wonder she had been so delighted at the prospect of a real home.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908)
Reading between the lines, and seeing the suffering behind Anne’s reveries, is how Marilla Cuthbert first begins to accept the orphan into her life. It is also, in a new adaptation of the novel to television, how filmmakers have approached the beloved story, and put forward a much different vision of the heroine than the one who has captured the hearts of millions.
Anne of Green Gables is not simply a classic, but an iconic Canadian product. The Anne books, known around the world, have become canonical to the literary upbringing of English-speaking girls everywhere. At the same time, Anne Shirley’s empire is more than simply imaginative. The history and setting of the book inspire pilgrimages to Prince Edward Island, so much so that Anne is to the Canadian province’s tourism industry what Vikings are to Iceland’s.
Filmmakers don’t always tread lightly on hallowed ground, but the novel found a champion in Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 CBC adaptation. The film won a Primetime Emmy, and has become a classic in its own right. Thirty-two years later, the taxpayer-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has teamed up with Netflix to retell Anne’s story—and by some estimations to fix something that ain’t broke. Anne, as the eight-episode mini-series is titled, premiered on March 19, and will debut on Netflix on May 12. This time around, the screenplay has been adapted by Moira Walley-Beckett, best known for writing some of the most talked-about episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad. The latter’s fifth season “Ozymandias” won a Primetime Emmy of its own, and has been hailed as a showpiece of modern television.
It seems a bizarre résumé for Montgomery’s successor, however, and while Walley-Beckett has expressed solidarity with what she has called the accidental feminism of the original text, she is quick to weaponize her sympathies. This is a darker, edgier Anne. She defies; she manipulates; she recedes into post-traumatic stress (her prior foster parent, Mr. Hammond, died from a heart attack while whipping her). While one is able to see what Wally-Beckett is doing with the text, and to appreciate it as an attempt to make Anne more realistic as a turn-of-the-century orphan, it is a grittiness that infects one’s patience.
The new Anne only works as an interpretation of the original text, a revisionist and speculative one at that. It squanders the century of goodwill earned by its predecessors. Even during the first episode, which begins with foster-father Matthew Cuthbert racing on horseback to chase down Anne’s train, and sees Anne confront a farmboy about gender equality, it becomes clear that its departures from the story will swing wide. By the second episode, with Anne having returned to Halifax during the missing-brooch incident (which never happened in the book), they have become too indulgent to be offensive. When she tears a strip off Matthew in the train station where she is reciting poetry for money, it is already too outlandish even to roll one’s eyes. By some measures, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies took more honest liberties.
I hesitate, if only for civility’s sake, to call Anne a work of vandalism. When, however, in the third episode, Anne repulses her new schoolmates by describing the sounds of her former foster parents having sex—or as she puts it, Mr. Hammond making his wife “touch his mouse”—the deviation becomes tantamount to desecration. “There were times I heard laughing, and it sounded like fun,” she titters, “but there were other times I’m sure he was murdering her!”
Here and elsewhere, the digression from the text is booby-trapped by compassion for the orphan victim: audiences who react with disgust to the scene can be accused of doing so out of the same ignorance, cruelty, and prudishness as Anne’s own conservative society. It’s the catch-22 of the series’ historical realism, as well as its crippling misconception of literature. However unrefined one might assume a “real” orphan to have been in Anne’s position, and whatever the writer’s loyalties to that straw figure, the wholesomeness of Montgomery’s novel does not constitute some priggish conspiracy to ignore reality. The reality she was concerned with was the awakening of love in her main characters, not sex.
Such departures from original texts call into question the writers’ respect for the material they handle, and how wide a creative license adaptation allows for. Filmmakers need not revere or necessarily understand the books they adapt. The Lord of the Rings screenwriter and co-producer, Philippa Boyens, expressed her belief that the films improved on the books. For example, she called the portrayal of Boromir’s death in The Two Towers “a failing of Professor Tolkien’s”; she wanted more emotional content, so that’s what they added—Aragorn’s blubbering and all.
In the new Anne series’ favor, the casting of Irish–Canadian actress Amybeth McNulty as Anne Shirley is great. While she does not deliver Montgomery’s lines as confidently as Megan Follows did in 1985, she looks much more like Anne as the book describes her. The setting is gorgeous, but its hues seem a little anemic, as gritty historical drama tends to shoot them. One yearns for the sundrenched pastels of the original production, which reflect Montgomery’s own heartening prose, and Anne’s wildly romantic imagination. The sets and costumes are superb as well, but one expects them to be; Canadian filmmakers have had a lot of practice with this era. Would that their efforts could compensate for the production’s failings.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com