Hello, everyone! In the midst of all the coronavirus chaos, I’ve found myself with a lot more time on my hands than I’m used to. My university has transitioned to online classes, my job has shifted to teleworking, and suddenly I don’t have to spend 10 hours a week commuting, which means that my relentless fatigue is gone! I can watch TV, read books, and write blog posts. Now I’m not saying that I’m happy that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, but I am happy to have a break. And I think the fact that the only time a sort of respite like this occurs is during a period of government-mandated social distancing says something pretty horrible about our society. But that’s a thought for another blog post.
Today I want to give some overdue praise to one of my favorite Netflix shows, Anne With An “E.” For the unfamiliar, Anne is the newest adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved series Anne of Green Gables. It premiered on Netflix 3 years ago and was cruelly cancelled just this January, only a few months after I started watching it. I was initially hesitant, nay dare I say, wary, of starting this show, as I’d always been a devotee of the Kevin Sullivan film adaptations Anne of Green Gables and its sequel. Sullivan’s adaptations are about as by-the-book as you can get, lovingly retelling Montgomery’s original story with an obsessive eye for detail, painstakingly created sets meant to evoke the rustic charm of Prince Edward Island, and almost perfect casting with Megan Follows as Anne and Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. I always thought that these adaptations were the golden standard for any Anne of Green Gables adaptation, and for those who haven’t read the books (myself included), they’re definitely the best way to encounter the story for the first time.
With that in mind, my first experience with Anne With An “E” was off-putting. If Sullivan’s movies were a reverent reproduction of the books, then the Netflix series was nothing short of blasphemous. To start, the first three episodes or so of the series are incredibly dark and dramatic, verging on Dickensian in the way that they depict Anne’s miserable circumstances as a hired-girl, her joy at moving to Green Gables, and her utter despair when she is sent away for supposedly stealing a brooch. The actress who plays Anne, AmyBeth McNulty, certainly looks the part as a gangly red-headed tween, but the earnest way she portrayed the ever-so-passionate Anne was much more difficult to watch than Megan Follows’s more toned down portrayal. This series’ version of Marilla was puritanical in her Christian sternness, and the gruff Matthew had none of the avuncular charm of his original movie counterpart. I was ready to give up, but somehow I kept watching. And kept watching some more. And suddenly, just like Anne herself, this overly dramatic and earnest television show started to grow into itself, and a few months later I found myself sobbing over the finale in a way I had never sobbed while watching the movies. That’s because while the movie adaptations are beautiful, charming, and nostalgic, they never quite managed to humanize the story’s characters in the same way as this show did.
The reason that Anne excels as an adaptation is because it isn’t satisfied with being a mere recreation of the novels. Instead, the series takes Montgomery’s world and truly lives in it, introducing new characters, new plots, and new themes that nevertheless feel completely authentic to the original novels. We get to see Anne dye her hair green, get Diana drunk on current wine, and smash a slate on Gilbert’s head, but we also get to see her stand up for her right to free speech, befriend an Indigenous family, and decry the unfairness of gendered double standards. For some, this might seem outlandish and just another way of a modern series retconning present-day social values into a past society, but to me, it seems like an adaptation that is actually taking a stab at the truth, the truth of an imperfect society that lies beneath the heart of the idyllic Avonlea. While Montgomery’s series can’t really be described as progressive, Anne was always a forward thinking black-sheep of the community, and I don’t find it inauthentic that Anne, who had been an outcast before coming to Avonlea, would be welcoming to other people deemed lesser-than in her society.
Certainly, the series is liberal with its characters’ good-will towards non-white or non-heterosexual characters. One new character, a Black immigrant from Trinidad, is met with initial opposition, but is eventually embraced by the community. A friend of Anne’s who is revealed to be gay is universally accepted by their friend group, and only partially rejected by the community. And Anne even befriends an Indigenous family at a time when Indigenous children were being shipped away to residential schools to “kill the Indian in the child.”
Some of these plot lines might be unrealistic, but they get at the heart of what many adaptations miss in blindly recreating period pieces, namely that these pieces, most often written by white authors, often glanced over or completely ignored the experiences of the people of color living in their societies. Just because L.M Montgomery doesn’t mention any characters who were Black, Indigenous, or gay doesn’t mean that they weren’t present on Prince Edward Island in the time that Anne was living, only that she didn’t think it important to include them. Including these character’s stories and allowing them to have fully-realized plot arcs might not be faithful to the original books, but it is faithful to history, and I think Anne is a brave series for not only including these characters, but making them an essential part of its story.
In addition to its originality, Anne is just a first-rate show. With its gorgeous cinematography, stunning original score (which I will ofc link below!), detailed set and costumes, and the pitch-perfect casting, it’s truly a work of art. It’s the type of show meant for teen girls that I wish I watched when I was younger, a show that promotes honesty, integrity, open-mindedness, and sincerity, and also is one of the most realistic portrayals I’ve seen of female teen friendships on television. Anne’s core friend group bicker and fight and give each other the cold shoulder, but when times get tough, they are nothing but supportive of one another.
The actress who plays Diana (Dalila Bela) is far better than the original (Schuyler Grant), allowing Diana to be more than just Anne’s sidekick and actually a three-dimensional person with her own hopes and desires. And while I’ve always been especially partial to Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert (may he rest in peace), Lucas Jade Zumann might be my new favorite. Gilbert, too, is allowed to breathe in this adaptation, allowed to be more than just Anne’s competition and later love interest. I love his friendship with Bash (who is also played by phenomenal actor Dalmar Abuzeid) and his growth as a character. Most of all, I loved that the series let these kids be kids. The whole series takes place from when Anne is 13 until a little after she turns 16, and by golly, these actors are actually age-appropriate! They seem to grow right before our eyes! One second Anne is a little girl in pigtails, and the next she’s putting on a corset and going to Queens and you feel a single tear trickle out of your eye. The point is, the age appropriateness helps with authenticity and it made me feel truly immersed in the series.
Overall, while the series dramatically diverges from the plot in some areas, it more than makes up for it in others. It’s more than an adaptation, it’s an extension of the story, a three season glimpse into the truly complex lives of all our favorite characters. The fact that it was cancelled after 3 seasons when it was originally slated to have 5 is incredibly cruel. There was so much storytelling potential and so much beauty awaiting us. But like all special things, maybe it was good that it ended prematurely, so that we won’t ever have to see it soured by production disputes or other studio nonsense. Nevertheless, I can’t help hoping that it will be magically resurrected by another production company (even if it’s my sworn enemy Disney+) just so I can watch Anne’s story unfold to its natural conclusion. Fans have signed petitions and made #renewannewithane trend on Twitter, but there’s been no news as of yet. And if I know anything about the usual fate of practically perfect Canadian television shows with niche audiences, it’s that Season 3 of Anne was almost certainly its last. At least we got a beautiful finale.
So for those who might be on the fence because they love the original films, or those who are Montgomery loyalists, give this series a try. I think you’ll fall in love with it. You might just find your kindred spirits.