When the news came out 14 months ago that a new Anne of Green Gables series was cooking from the creative "kitchen" of Moira Walley-Beckett, the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad scribe, many people dismissed it out of hand. “How can you improve upon perfection?" they cried, referring, of course, to the luminous 1985 miniseries starring Megan Follows as Anne and the late Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe. As a huge fan of that series, I wondered myself if anyone could fill those iconic shoes.
But I knew, even then, that a writer this good would deliver a worthy interpretation of the story I had cherished my whole life.
And I was right. Walley-Beckett and company have rendered Anne with an E into something marvelously complex and even gritty, which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. For starters, the series is designed for cable audiences; it’s not “family-friendly.” Some scenes show Anne being beaten and bullied in her past life, and in one controversial extract Anne innocently blurts out something she overheard at her last foster home. It’s a sexual reference she doesn’t understand, but by repeating it, she opens herself up to further prejudice toward the orphan—any orphan—and particularly this peculiar, dreamy girl.
These particular scenes have earned the series a few scathing indictments. Though I don’t love the darkest aspects, they do underscore the trauma Anne endured before coming to Green Gables. To me, the darkness makes her light shine even brighter, for instead of sugarcoating Anne’s whole experience, we know more of what she’s endured.
If viewers are going to buy into Moira Walley-Beckett's vision for Anne, they too must read between the lines of what Lucy Maud Montgomery writes here of her character in the 1908 book: “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.”
They must buy into an Anne who is damaged, traumatized, and not always completely adorable. Call her a more Jane Eyre-ish Anne (the title character quotes Jane Eyre no less than three times during the series.)
Many of the plot choices made in the series underline this darker Anne, but it’s not all grit and gloom by any means. She’s still the beloved Anne Girl, wildly imaginative, funny, sweet, and positive. AmyBeth McNulty’s Anne is a revelation of wide-eyed emotions that communicate without dialogue. And the actors who play Matthew (R.H. Thompson), Marilla (Geraldine James, OBE), and even Gilbert (Lucas Jade Zumann) are exceptionally well cast. As an ensemble, they work together beautifully to infuse new shades of meaning and nuance into their well-known characters.
Some book purists will hate it, despite the powerful acting and characterizations. Hardcore devotees of the 1985, Kevin Sullivan-produced series seem to be split down the middle. Because it doesn’t have to be either/or. You can, as I do, love both. Here’s hoping many will fall deeper in love with a more real, more empowered Anne and turn to the books that started it all 109 years ago. After watching the entire eight hours of Anne with an E, Anne of Green Gables means more to me than ever.
The CBC production debuts on Netflix on Friday, May 12