Do you remember your first “ship”? Mine was Anne and Gilbert from the 1985 television adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel, Anne of Green Gables, directed by Kevin Sullivan, and starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie as my beloved Anne and Gilbert. My love affair with that film, and the sequels that followed, continues. I have read and re-read the book, I watch that TV adaptation annually, and I still remember my well worn VHS copy fondly. (Yes, VHS!) Megan Follows’ Anne was inspiring, and, as Vanity Fair recently pointed out, she shaped a generation of women such as myself who looked up to the smart, independent heroine. So it was with excitement, if not a bit of trepidation, that I approached watching this new adaptation, Anne with an E.
At the heart of the Anne of Green Gables story, is Anne Shirley, a young orphan who is sent to live with aging and never married brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthburt. The Cuthburts had intended to adopt a boy who could help on their farm, but, due to an error at the orphanage, they are sent Anne instead. They initially plan to send her back (and in this adaptation they actually do send her away before Matthew races after her and returns her to Green Gables) but change their minds after Anne wins them over and eventually becomes a part of their family.
While Anne with an E is a wholly new adaptation, it was impossible for me to be impartial. The 1985 version has my heart. So how does this new adaptation for a new generation hold up? First, what they get right: Amybeth McNulty was a delight as Anne Shirley. The character of Anne is dramatic, imaginative, and loquacious and this Anne is no different. McNulty was charming. Her mastery of Anne’s complex and fanciful dialogue was on par with Megan Follows and the producers couldn’t have chosen a more perfect actress to step into Anne’s shoes. In addition, the production was stylish and beautiful to watch. The show was filmed on location in Prince Edward Island (the book’s setting) as well as Toronto and Millbrook, Ontario.
Unfortunately, the quality acting and appealing productions values could not redeem this adaptation for me. This version is overwhelmed by the liberties producers have taken with L.M. Montgomery’s story. This version is a dark, emotive take on Anne’s story – not surprising, considering the fact that show-runner Moira Walley-Beckett spent several years on the set of Breaking Bad. This Anne is suffering from PTSD after years of abuse in orphanages and foster homes. Anne’s back story is revealed through dark flashbacks which might make sense if they weren’t so at odds with Montgomery’s story. For example, in one unsettling sequence we watch as Anne’s foster-dad suffers a heart attack while savagely beating her. Not only is this completely new material, but it’s unsettling. Yes, we know Anne has suffered trauma, that was always clear in the source material, but it was delivered with nuance. This new adaptation takes Anne’s trauma-filled childhood and aims to hit us over the head with it!
There are other liberties that the show takes with the source material that change not only the story, but Montgomery’s beloved characters themselves. In this adaptation Matthew and Gilbert are given completely new backgrounds. Gilbert, for example, is now an orphan. This is seemingly an effort to give Gilbert and Anne more in common, but is an unnecessary change to Gilbert’s motivations. I found the changes to Matthew’s character particularly troubling. This Matthew is not the forever bachelor who finds joy in his love for his adopted daughter, but a depressed man who considers suicide in a dramatic and TRAUMATIC change to Montgomery’s story.
While I understand that the producers wanted to create a new, darker Anne of Green Gables for 2017, I struggle to understand why that was necessary. Anne’s story is, at its heart, a hopeful, comforting journey. This adaptation brings unnecessary darkness and grit to a story that is meant to be bright and colorful.