We just can't stop talking about that redheaded snippet of a girl, Anne Shirley. (And I can't help but think that Anne would be pleased as punch about that, considering all the ardent admirers coming to her defence in recent weeks. I mean, how utterly romantic is the enduring devotion we have for this girl?) A new television series based on the Anne of Green Gables books debuted on the CBC in Canada in March and began streaming on Netflix in mid-May. Regardless of when you started watching it, I'm quite sure you have a passionate -- nay, fiery -- opinion about this new Anne girl.
The latest in a long line of film adaptations, this new series has a lot to live up to. Not only does it need to contend with the usual "the book is better" arguments, but it goes up against the iconic 1980s miniseries by Sullivan Entertainment, which stars Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Farnsworth, and, of course, Jonathan Crombie. My own foray into this series -- known as Anne with an E in the U.S. -- was preceded with skepticism: could anyone really step into Gilbert Blythe's shoes the way swoon-worthy Jonathan Crombie did?
I'm not the only one reminiscing about the 1980s miniseries. Vanity Fair recently published a collection of short essays that examines how that miniseries shaped feminism. It shaped feminism, y'all. Contributors to the Vanity Fair piece explain their powerful takeaways from the story:
- Anne is unapologetically smart and ambitious and she realizes her dreams.
- When Anne furiously berates Rachel Lynde for rudeness and then retaliates by calling Rachel "rude, impolite, [and] unfeeling," she shows us that passionately speaking the truth can make others reconsider their perspectives.
- By breaking her slate over Gilbert's head, Anne shows us that it's OK to stand up for yourself and Gilbert shows us that the people you stand up to will respect you for doing so.
- Anne never sets aside her own goals or dreams for love; instead, Gilbert strides behind, trying to keep up with her.
- Gilbert's admiration for Anne is rooted in her intelligence and in her passion -- not in her appearance.
In addition to its powerful feminist messages (which we mostly soaked up by osmosis, not even realizing they were feminist messages), the 1980s miniseries is a fairy tale come to screen. It's a lush and beautiful adaptation, filled with (mostly) happy, well-fed, middle-class characters. That this is a Pollyanna version is never more apparent than when it's compared to the new series.
Anne is proof positive that broken people can find joy if they seek it.
In the 1980s miniseries, Anne arrives from the orphan asylum wearing an outfit that -- while not fashionable -- fits generously and is hemmed to an appropriate length. Indeed, Marilla would probably deem it a waste of fabric, given the abundant gathering on the apron bodice and the Peter Pan collar on the dress. In the 2017 version, Anne arrives wearing a dress that looks uncomfortably tight, with too-short sleeves and a hem that would have been scandalously short for the era. But this dress is closer to what Montgomery envisioned Anne wearing, as she describes the dress as "very short, very tight, [and] very ugly."
Anne's traveling attire sets the tone for the new series. This 2017 version of Anne is darker, more realistic, and, in some ways, more true to 1908. In order to take this grittier tack, liberties had to be taken with the original story. It is perhaps not surprising that these gritty details were developed by the series' writer and executive producer, Moira Walley-Beckett, who wrote some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad. Walley-Beckett creates detail about Anne's life prior to her arrival in Avonlea, and as can be expected, it isn't pretty. Walley-Beckett also delves more deeply into the class differences in Avonlea, and Anne's introduction to the community is marked by bullying that is more overt than Josie Pye's snubs.
Although Walley-Beckett introduces themes that are new to Anne but universal, some aren't handled appropriately to Anne's era. For example, Episode 5, "Tightly Knotted to a Similar String," focusses on Anne's first period. While Anne's mood swings may be rooted in realism, it's doubtful that a child in 1908 -- and especially a newly-arrived orphan unsure of her foothold in her adoptive family -- would have, well, bitched as freely as Anne does in this episode. And, actually, Anne is more bitchy in general in the 2017 series, especially towards Jerry the hired boy. Although she is perhaps a typical representation of today's preteen, it's a bit hard to reconcile this attitude with the social mores of Anne's time.
Haley Stewart argues in a piece for America Magazine that the Anne we know and love -- hopeful, optimistic, kind, empathetic and a believer of fairy tales -- could not have emerged from the realistic world of Walley-Beckett's fashioning. This kind of argument saddens me. Because, let's face it: the little Montgomery tells us about Anne's life prior to Green Gables is grim. We don't need the gory details spelled out to know this. Anne is who she is precisely because of what she has gone through. Anne is proof positive that broken people can find joy if they seek it. Knowing how far she has come makes her even more inspiring than before.
I tend to side more with Sarah Bessey, who blogs that the new series is the grown-up version of Anne of Green Gables, the one where we now understand those things that Montgomery left unsaid. For example, with our adult eyes, we now see that the relationship between Mr. Phillips and Prissy Andrews is inappropriate, perhaps even pedophiliac.
In sum: I loved the new series. It resonated with me. Deeply. I laughed a little and teared up a lot. Although I'm not sold on all the new themes Walley-Beckett introduces, I enjoyed seeing the story in a new way. I feel like I have a better understanding of Anne's desperate hold on imagination and joy. The cinematography, as well as the sets and costumes, are all stunning. And the casting is largely spot on. Except, I would argue, for Gilbert. Because I was right: no one can step into Gilbert Blythe's shoes the way swoon-worthy Jonathan Crombie did.
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