What do you get when you turn a children’s novel originally published in early-twentieth-century Sunday School newspapers into a modern “prestige drama” on Netflix? Now that the first season of Anne With an E is out, we all get to find out.
The original Anne of Green Gables series—which I read over and over in constant rotation for years of my adolescence—tell, as you may know, a coming-of-age story about an irrepressibly talkative, optimistic, and imagination-obsessed orphan who brings light and life into the dreary home where she’s accidentally adopted by the strict Marilla Cuthbert and her shy brother Matthew. Growing up, Anne frets over her red hair, becomes “bosom friends” with a placid girl named Diana, and falls in love with her academic rival, Gilbert Blythe. A beloved adaptation, as sentimental and sweet as the book, was made in the eighties with Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie.
This is decidedly not that adaptation.
As a multitude of reviews and articles has pointed out, this Anne is dark. The show picks up and amplifies the books’ deeply buried implications of abuse, neglect, and prejudice. It’s funny—playing up the adults’ bemused reactions to Anne’s quaint ideas expressed in a precocious vocabulary. It’s modern—there’s sex, menstruation, alcoholism, even a feminist parenting group for Marilla. And it’s beautiful—this is no cheapo straight-to-TV production but a gorgeous cinematic experience.
In short, it was a completely befuddling experience for this longtime fan. I can’t decide what I think of it long enough to commit to one piece about it, so instead, I’ve written a guide to all the pieces I might have written about it if I could just figure out how I feel.
1. “That’s What She Said: An Anne of Green Gables Story”
Did you ever notice that a lot of stuff from the original Anne of Green Gables was totally, as Lorelai Gilmore would say, “Dirty!”? Like, at various points, Matthew promises Marilla that if they adopt Anne he won’t “put his oar in.” Gross!
Other phrases that made me yell “That’s what she said” while watching Anne with an E: “The White Way of Delight” (come on, that’s totally how Anne would describe her own vag if she were born a hundred years later), “bosom friends” (enough said), “I thought if I had to do it I might as well do it thoroughly.”
This post would have been sheer listicle clickbait and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But then, about three episodes in, I realized that this show was actually one step ahead of me and was about to get down and dirty with some euphemisms itself. There’s an entire episode revolving around the fact that Anne knows about what she calls “intimate relations,” which apparently involves the lady “petting” the man’s “pet mouse.” Yipes.
2. What Are Matthew and Marilla Really Up To With Jerry?
Jerry Baynard is the French “hired boy” who Matthew and Marilla hire to help with the farm after deciding to adopt Anne. After a few episodes, my friend Rini noticed something very unsettling: the only thing Jerry ever does is scoop hay from one side of the barn to the other with his pitchfork. Like, there’s maybe one time where you see him pushing a wheelbarrow full of hay to some location outside the barn, but it’s a rare exception.
Seriously, this pre-teen kid never gets to go to school, he has to spend all day working away from his family in order to earn a little money for them, and… it’s all just so that this giant pile of hay can move from one side of the barn to the other, and back again, day after day after day?
So basically, I’m pretty sure that Jerry represents Sisyphus and has been put in the show to remind us of the futility of human labor in the face of our inevitable decline and death. This post would have been an erudite exploration of the symbolism of Jerry Baynard’s futile labor, which no one would read all the way through.
3. Shipper Wars: Jerry versus Gilbert
OK, hear me out.
We all know Anne’s supposed to end up with Gilbert Blythe, the man who becomes her husband in book five of the series, Anne’s House of Dreams. She hates him at first, because he calls her “Carrots” in school and sets off an embarrassing temper tantrum from her; slowly, they will grow to respect each other, and then she will finally admit she loves him. This is the story. Everyone knows that.
And I was SO ON BOARD for that story in the original adaptation, where the handsome Jonathan Crombie and his super-Canadian “I’m sawwwry”s captured my teenaged heart as a boy-next-door version of Gilbert.
The new Gilbert, like the show in which he finds himself, has been updated: he’s a dapper yet emo little fellow, always to be found in berets and skinny scarves and a plaintive expression. I would definitely follow his street style blog on Tumblr. And I do enjoy the push-pull dynamic Anne has with him, where he flirts with her and sometimes fights with her, and she responds with the same sheer unadulterated fury to all of it.
But, even though Jerry might or might not be eternally trapped in the barn shoveling hay for the rest of his life, I can’t help but think he and Anne would be cute together. Both are from underprivileged backgrounds, and face oppression that could—and in Jerry’s case, does—prevent them from receiving a proper education. They make a great team when they venture into town to sell Matthew and Marilla’s heirlooms in an attempt to save the struggling farm. And Jerry has noticed and kept to himself a few of Anne’s secrets, like when he clearly knew she was skipping school and didn’t tell Marilla. He’d be a great partner in crime for Anne’s mischievous side and they totally make a cute little pre-teen couple!
Plus, Gilbert gets super condescending sometimes, like when Anne is too busy freaking out about her period to remember her geography lesson, and he offers to help her. Like, shut up, Gilbert! She is too busy dealing with the patriarchy to do well in school! THAT’S HOW THE MAN KEEPS US DOWN!
This post would be an impassioned debate on whether Anne should really hook up with Gilbert, her eventual husband—or surprise us all by going for spunky, struggling Jerry instead.
4. What the hell have they done to my book?
As other reviews have pointed out ad nauseam, Anne with an E is a Dark, Edgy, Prestige-TV update of its source material, which had hints of the dark (the original Anne was in fact an underfed, lonely orphan who had been farmed out to do unpaid work in foster homes, including ones with “intoxicated” fathers) but never wallowed in it.
And Netflix’s adaptation revels in the drama a little too much sometimes. The pilot ends not with Marilla quietly learning to accept her budding affection for Anne, but with an entirely unnecessary addition of overwrought melodrama: Marilla sends Anne away over a lost brooch that she thinks Anne stole, an episode from the book whose volume has been turned up about seventeen notches. When the brooch is found, Matthew rides off like a hero in search of Anne, who has already been sent back to the orphanage—and even this isn’t enough drama for Netflix; instead, Anne nearly escapes getting sex-trafficked by a sketchy dude at the train station, runs away from the orphanage, and tries to make a living by reciting poetry to people. Meanwhile, Matthew ends up staggering around town with an untreated concussion for reasons that really aren’t worth getting into; and Marilla, like, staves off a nervous breakdown by frantically scrubbing the kitchen while sad music soars in the background.
And it’s all, frankly, a little embarrassing. It resembles nothing, in fact, so much as the tear-jerking, sentimental, bloody and absurd little melodramas that Anne will one day write in her “Story Club” with Diana and Jane, sobbing to herself over all of the catastrophes she sends to her romantically-named heroines. Lucy Maud Montgomery, in her satirical way, was pointing out the difference between passion—which can be found in the small details of a country orphan’s daily life just as much as in a drug dealer’s meth lab or a medieval princess’s castle—and sentiment, which is the inexperienced writer’s attempt to conjure passion out of a thin story. I’m not sure the writers of this show got the memo.
The show is, I think, hampered by what has been a fairly narrow notion of what “prestige drama” is or can be. Even in this age of the ascendancy of TV, shows about teenaged girls are not allowed to be critically acclaimed shows. The established mode is to watch such shows with deep pleasure but maintain a half-ironical posture towards them; straight men are expected to watch them only to placate their partners. Veronica Mars escaped this ghettoization by framing itself as a noir detective show rather than as a show about a teenaged girl; Gilmore Girls, which was in many ways brilliant and groundbreaking, never really escaped it at all, I think partly because it had no violence to bolster its claims to prestige. Anne With An E wants to be prestigious and, as such, it has to make changes that aren’t going to feel comfortable to long-time fans. I would prefer to live in a world where a coming-of-age story alone can be a prestige drama, whether centered around a girl or a boy. But I don’t think we live there yet.
But it’s not just the added melodrama that dismays me. It’s the little changes. Anne Shirley takes the Cuthbert name and becomes Anne Shirley Cuthbert, which isn’t her name and is HIGHLY upsetting. And OK, this is a small point, but Anne’s sleeves, when she finally gets the puffed sleeves she so famously and memorably longs for, AREN’T EVEN REALLY ALL THAT PUFFED. They’re just leg-o-mutton sleeves, which Anne would never have settled for! And what’s up with Billy Andrews being all mean, anyway? And Matthew not dying when he has his heart attack? WHAT IS GOING ON?!
Basically, the original books were perfect and I could easily have written this post as a twenty-page screed about every single change that immediately made both me and Rini yell, That’s not how it went! like Harry Potter fans staging a riot at the movie theater or something.
5. Actually, Anne With An E is a pretty cool update of Anne of Green Gables.
This post would be the exact opposite of its predecessor. It would point out that Anne is a more real, more interesting character when she’s reimagined with the dark knowledge that a child of her experience would have. She’s been prematurely exposed to sex; she knows about drinking, about death, about neglect, about loneliness; she knows that happiness doesn’t last forever. This Anne lives in the real world–she gets her period and everything! And as the many reviews have pointed out, her imaginative flights make so much sense as a coping mechanism, keeping her dissociated from the constant trauma and instability of her difficult life.
And yes, Matthew gets a stupid concussion, but once the show returns to finding the dark threads that weave subtly through its everyday domestic drama—the little moments of abuse, bereavement, prejudice—it is much stronger. What shows us most touchingly that Marilla’s begun to love Anne is not her overwrought performance of distress when Anne has been sent away, but a quiet moment alone: she hangs up Anne’s dresses on the line after her return, and smiles to herself, not knowing that Anne is witnessing her joy.
The show makes use of its beautiful setting on Prince Edward Island, filled with glorious shots of the Canadian landscape, and shot in a muted and lovely palette of natural colors. It has a fabulous cast, with a lead actress (Amybeth McNulty) whose gawky bright energy may be even more Anne-ish than the quieter but luminous Megan Follows’ original wonderful performance; a funny and warm Geraldine James as Marilla; and an absolutely delightful Corrine Koslo as a slightly saucier Rachel Lynde. It’s slyly funny, and the immortal scene where Anne and Diana get drunk on raspberry cordial is even more hilarious than in the book because it shows the fun side of drunkenness, the part where you’re clinking glasses with your best friends and inexplicably howling at a nonsense joke about bosoms, not just the awkward part where you throw up in front of your snobby mom.
And there is more interesting social commentary going on. For better or worse, Lucy Maud Montgomery, writing for children in a less open time, confined herself to writing strong female characters without ever outright criticizing their second-place position in society. Now there’s class conflict—Diana’s wealthy family versus Anne’s upstart lack of pedigree. There’s feminism—Marilla joins a crazy progressive parenting group, which is amusing. There’s a closeted lesbian, who, like all great lesbian-coded figures in literature seem to be, is named Josephine. And even Anne has to check her own privilege once in awhile, as when Jerry points out how silly she is to complain about school when he doesn’t even get to go (you know, because Matthew and Marilla have cursed him with the eternal need to shovel hay back and forth in a barn).
So this post would have been twenty pages about the pleasures and revelations to be found in this modernized version of what was once a very Victorian coming-of-age.
In conclusion, it’s nearly impossible to write coherently about an adaptation of a book that you’ve loved since you were six years old. I grew up with Anne, reading the books so often I nearly have them memorized, traveling the same road with her over and over again as she goes to Green Gables, teaches a schoolhouse at Avonlea, moves into her house-of-dreams with Gilbert, and raises six children through a World War; her words and history are my words and history, too. No review of art is ever truly objective, but reviewing this show is, for me, more an emotional exercise than a critical one.
The point, I suppose, is this: the show is not perfect (and sometimes is flat-out bizarre), but it does a lot of interesting things with its source material. If I couldn’t decide how I felt about it, it was not only because of my intense ambivalence about seeing the books of my childhood changed so deeply, but also because its strengths—its humor, beauty, and insight—shone at least as brightly as the glare of its flaws.