“I reckon every idea was modern once, until it wasn’t,” Matthew Cuthbert says in Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, and as Anne would say, this line would lead Matthew and me to be kindred spirits. Most of the time, “new” only means “change” and humans often struggle with change.
Fans of beloved books or original movies greet modern adaptations and re-tellings with a remarkable unpredictability. Re-make Dirty Dancing? ONLY AN IDIOT WOULD DO THAT. New Beauty and the Beast? OMG YES MORE MORE MORE. (I’m just going to go on record here and say I disagree with both fan statements given here. It’s the internet, after all, and I MUST log my opinion.)
Me, I’m usually really curious when it comes to something I have loved. When Go Set a Watchman released, most around me said they couldn’t bear to read it because they didn’t want to ruin their experience with To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve come ‘round to letting go of that kind of thing because I have discovered that so many other books come along that enrich my life in similar ways that can replace old favorites. I like to think that we can manage to hold both a memory and a the “modern” thing together. And so I read Go Set a Watchman. You can find my “pre” reading thoughts here and later my review, here.
Thus, with CBC/Netflix’s release of Anne with an E, I couldn’t help but be curious. I love and have loved dearly the Anne series. I’ve read Anne of Green Gables an unknown number of times and the entire series almost as often. I watched the 1985 CBC/PBS adaptations (the first two films, anyway) and to be honest, I didn’t love them. I know most of my friends and family did, and maybe I would like them better now, but in 1985, I was young and fresh from reading the books and the actors for both Anne and Gilbert didn’t *quite* match how I saw them in my head and when you’re 14, that’s a big deal. Also, if I remember correctly, plotlines were kind of blended too much – and again, that was my 14-year old perspective, one that hadn’t seen many book-to-movie adaptations and I wasn’t in love with that.
But. Those 2 movies captured the books in many other ways. Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Megan Follows, I think she did a good job of grabbing Anne’s spirit and imagination. Marilla’s and Matthew’s characters were spot on.
The set design was beautiful and blended scenes or no, the films did truly capture the story – the essence of the books.
And then the reviews trickled in for the Netflix Original version, Anne with an E. This one Sarah Larson in The New Yorker was the first one I read with post title of “How Not to Adapt ‘Anne of Green Gables’”. It came across as very disappointing, but then, guess what? I got curious. Because, was it really just someone who only loved that 1985 adaptation and couldn’t get past that, or was it really that disconcertingly different? And really, is it only nostalgia that is getting in the way? (Let’s be honest: Yes, yes it is.) Vowing not to judge it before viewing it, I determined to at minimum watch the first episode.
I enjoyed the first 90-minute opener. It was pretty true to the book with one exception – which I’ll come back to in a second. Cast is good. AmyBeth McNulty looks closer to my own vision of Anne than Follows. Matthew, Marilla, Mrs. Rachel Lynde – all good. Aside from Anne being 13-years old already in this version vs. 11, I liked how it all played out and, still being CBC, the panoramic views were almost as wonderful as the 1985.
But really, I wasn’t comparing it to that early version – rather I was comparing the interpretation of the book itself. And by episode two, you can really see the change up. Showrunner Moira Wally-Beckett is quoted in The New Yorker: “I wanted to ground it in the foundation of some of the story and some of the plot that’s already there but not fully explored,” she said. “So it’s like I sort of open up the spine of the book, reach in between the lines of the pages, and chart some new territory.” And this she definitely does. During the ride back to Green Gables, we get almost PTSD-like flashbacks to Anne’s earlier placements which correlate to the book, but of course in the book, Anne speaks more matter-of-factly about them. Certainly in the book we see Marilla and Matthew read between the lines of Anne’s words, but in Anne with an E, it’s much darker in its representation.
In the next couple of episodes we see typical added Hollywood-style drama, and that was kind of annoying – Anne is sent away (after a re-arrangement of events) and we have a lot of one episode of Matthew going through some heroics to get Anne back. And then… this is where true Anne fans might falter… Anne is the center of much ridicule everywhere she goes, including her first days of school. She expresses a “beyond her years” inappropriateness when sharing what she knows of sex and parents all shun her. Then a fire happens at Ruby Gillis’ house and Anne saves their home because of worldly knowledge, which is what brings everyone ‘round again to decide to like her. Additionally, we meet Gilbert in very different circumstances (he steps in as White Knight in the forest as Anne is intimidated by some other boy – can’t remember who) and the conflict between the two of them arises from other issues, too. “Carrots” comes into play, but when it does, it actually feels very out of place.
There are a lot of other things like this throughout, and no one needs me to point them all out, but I will sum up some feelings about the show as such:
- I was emotionally invested. Three episodes in and I felt heartsick for both Anne and Marilla at various times. I cried with Anne when she cried.
- Anne is spirited!
- I liked the casting for Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Mrs. Rachel Lynde, and Diana.
- A lot of the dialogue was taken word-for-word from the book.
- If you never read the books, this interpretation definitely fits in with what dramatic shows look like right now. It’s a good blend of period storytelling with a modern, realistic slant for our more uncertain times that we currently live in. Biedenhorn says this in her EW review:
“And it’s worth noting that Anne’s gritty realism is, of course, much closer to what life actually would have been like for a turn-of-the-century orphan. Given the heaviness of shows dominating the conversation these days — from Game of Thrones to 13 Reasons Why to This Is Us — inventing a dark side might help Anne With an E fit into today’s TV landscape.”
- It made me remember just how often I read the books in years past because I knew exactly where things strayed. Ha! In this same vein, watching that first episode made me want to re-read the series so badly, I promptly cracked open the first book the next day.
- At the time of posting this, I am mid-way through Anne of Avonlea and really want to write Gilbert’s story. This might also be a “Con” because What, How, When.
- Anne is too old. It took away too much of her innocence, which to me is key to her adaptability.
- I was not keen on Gilbert – although, I will say he looks and acts more the age he is supposed to be in relation to Anne. I think it’s easy to forget that Gilbert is, in fact, 2 years older than Anne, and if in this version she is 13, then he definitely seems more like 15 in this version.
- While Anne’s dialogue was taken exactly from the book (mostly) as were some scenes, the effort to give it a more austere feel seemed to generate far more work in rearranging and re-writing scenes to still match the dialogue. It seems to me that the darker nature of some bits could easily have been magnified with what was already there. Or, ditch the exact dialogue altogether if it’s going to come to the much broader strokes of interpretation anyway.
- After 3 episodes, I was done being curious and preferred the Anne and Company inside LM Montgomery’s pages instead of Walley-Beckett’s. As mentioned in the “Pros”, I can see the appeal for an un-christened Anne Shirley viewer, but for the rest of us, nah.
I have more “pros” than “cons”, but of course, if I’m not going to keep watching it, then list content vs length obviously holds more weight. I do not feel, as Biedenhorn and Larson do that this version is a “betrayal”, rather that it is a different, more modern take on it. And, taken directly from Montomery’s world, Matthew is okay with modern, so maybe we can be, too…but then, Marilla is in charge, so I guess she’s not wrong, either. 😀
(On a side note… remember when an awful new cover came out for the book a few years ago? I stand by that outrage.)
Here’s a little clip to give you a taste – for more, or for validation in skipping it altogether: