So here is the long-overdue “gritty” version of Anne of Green Gables. It couldn’t have come too soon for me – I’ve never been a fan. When I was a child, Anne was one of my mother’s favorites, and most of the books she passed along I appreciated — not so with L. M. Montgomery. I preferred Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, and Jack London. Montgomery was relegated to the trash heap, along with L. Frank Baum and E. B. White.
I don’t really remember what, specifically, I objected to about these books, but probably I was just bored – the good parts didn’t come quickly enough (although I do remember thinking the Wizard of Oz wasn’t as good as the movie). My objections as an adult, however – now that I’ve read for the first time, for the purpose of this review, the entire first book of the Anne series – are more like the objections of the adults in the book: Anne is too longwinded. Worse, she’s treacly.
“Imagine my surprise to be writing this now: I love Anne of Green Gables.”
“It would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think? You could imagine you were dwelling in marble halls, couldn’t you?” A little of this goes a long way. It’s not hard to believe, as she explains to Mr. Cuthbert at their first meeting, that if she’s been told once, she’s been told a million times: children should be seen and not heard. I side with the adults on this point, and also believe, now, that the author’s decision to begin the book with the adults – specifically, the wonderfully conceived Rachel Lynde – was inspired. No surprise to me that Montgomery wrote the story, originally, for grownups.
So imagine my surprise to be writing this now: I love Anne of Green Gables. I’m now an ardent fan of the story and of the girl, and all because of Netflix’s Anne with an E. This is due only partly to the dark appeal of this adaptation, but wholly to the creative, joyful inspiration of it. There are many original scenes and plot twists in this series, some more seamless and successful than others: Matthew’s and Marilla’s past love affairs, Matthew’s odyssey to Nova Scotia to retrieve the disgraced Anne, Anne’s heroic efforts to save a neighbor’s burning house, Anne’s first period – the astonishing list just goes on and on.
Astonishing because, when you think about all the scenes created from whole cloth by the scriptwriter (Moira Walley-Beckett), you begin to ask yourself how the series could seem faithful at all to the original details and spirit of the novel. Yet it does. The first three chapters of the novel are closely reenacted in the film, except for the brief interlude of Anne on the train, where she recalls scenes of past abuse and ponders the possibility of “tragical” past love affairs of the Cuthberts. It’s true that Anne’s dialogue – or monologues – is also somewhat abridged, but besides these minor changes, the look, the feel, the script are the story itself come to life.
I found the whole experience deeply moving, and the question naturally arises, why? The new parts are, in fact, not always successful (while I can’t think of a more perfectly authentic idea than Matthew’s boarding the ferry to rescue his new daughter, I could do without some awkward others). But Walley-Beckett’s and the seven directors’ (one for each episode) choices are always inspired and interesting. They add just the kind of grit the story needs to bring it into the 21st century and provide a fresh way of looking at the fictional Green-Gables world.
“No one can top the beauty — perfectly suited to the gawky, adolescent Anne — of Amybeth McNulty.”
But I think far more important are simply the look and feel of the film: the luminous landscape, the beautiful score, the perfect faces and talents of all the actors. Corinne Koslo’s wry charm and humor as one of my favorite characters, Rachel Lynde, couldn’t be closer to perfect. Geraldine James as Marilla and R. H. Thomson as Matthew are just superb. No one can top the beauty – those looks perfectly suited to the gawky, adolescent Anne – or the radiant performance of Amybeth McNulty.
More surprising still is the new appreciation I’ve gained for the novel. The series prompted me to read the book again – this time, to the end. I suspect that my new vision of the characters added to my willingness to reevaluate the story. Still, I’m convinced that Montgomery’s style improves as the narrative develops, and I have a new appreciation for the mythic central ideas of the story. Any tale that suggests a heavenly (Avonlea) existence built on dimly remembered suffering is bound to be innately powerful. Any narrative that depicts a hellish past overcome by stubbornness and strength of character is likely to inspire and attract. I simply can’t wait for the next season.