There’s no equivalent to Anne Shirley in literature for boys. Harry Potter has not yet stood the test of time, and anyway, there are as many girls as boys who love Harry. Maybe Call of the Wild? Treasure Island? Kim? But do boys even read those books anymore? And do men remember the legendary characters of their childhood with the same ferocity and protection that women remember Anne?
Anne Shirley is a force unto herself, a literary heroine who is an icon of children’s literature. She is the ur-orphan, the red-headed parentless child who redeems her adoptive parents, as orphans in literature have done since — well, Moses? Anyway, Anne is beloved not only in Western literature but all over the world. Japanese fans make pilgrimages to Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. Her sunny personality and gentle adventures have charmed for generations.
But there has always been a darker side to Anne. It’s there in her sad backstory — orphaned as an infant, farmed out as an indentured servant at a very young age. Anne in real life would have died young, or grown up hardened, bitter, un-lettered, and certainly broken. It’s that backstory that Moira Walley-Beckett mines for her new retelling of Anne of Green Gables, “Anne with an E.” This is not your mother’s Anne, or your daughter’s. It’s certainly not the well-loved 1985 miniseries starring Megan Follows, a series with a fanbase so deeply invested in the show that it may even have toppled the book as the “true” version of L.M. Montgomery’s classic.
In a way, Walley-Beckett’s retelling is a homage to the original story, by taking the backstory and bringing it to the forefront. It is as if she is saying, “here is what made your jolly heroine what she has become. This is the fire in which the sword was forged.” I admire her purpose, even as I was disappointed in her execution.
For example, here are, from memory, the many adventures of Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables:
- She insults Mrs. Rachel Linde after that lady tweaks her about her looks, then makes the best apology she can think of, and wins Rachel over to her side
- She doesn’t lose Marilla’s amethyst brooch, but says she does anyway (it’s a long story), and then the brooch is found, and Anne gets to go to the church picnic and eat ice cream.
- She gets Diana drunk on currant wine
- She makes an inedible cake for Mrs. Stacy, the reverend’s wife
- She is teased by Gilbert Blythe, cracks a slate across his head, which scandalizes the schoolroom, and never speaks to him again until they are teenagers.
- She dyes her hair green. (Oh, Anne)
- She walks a ridgepole, falls and breaks her ankle, and faints, which achieves another one of her life goals (fainting is romantic)
- She saves Minnie May’s life because she knows what to do for croup
- She jumps on Aunt Barry’s bed and Aunt Barry is in it
- She gets a dress with puffed sleeves
Here are some of the mishaps in “Anne with an E:”
- Marilla accuses Anne of stealing the brooch and losing it, and then SENDS HER BACK TO THE ORPHANAGE
- Anne, while alone at the train station, is almost abducted by a pedophile
- Matthew gallops off to get her back after the brooch is found, and hits his head and finally takes her home — in time for the picnic, which we don’t even get to see.
- Anne saves the day when Ruby Gillis’s house almost burns down
- Anne is mercilessly teased by the children at school; Moody Spurgeon or somebody keeps calling her a dog
- Anne gets her period (this a brilliant scene, and kudos to Walley-Beckett for that one)
- Matthew doesn’t lose all the money when the bank fails but instead when a ferry sinks with their crops and there is no insurance (That, by the way, is the plot of Reversal of Fortune)
- Matthew Cuthbert ATTEMPS SUICIDE
- Anne and Jerry go to pawn all of their belongings in Carmody, Jerry gets mugged by two drifters, the drifters decide their next move is to go to Green Gables, which Marilla has advertised to take in boarders, and we are left at the end of the season on a cliff-hanger, in which one can only guess the two drifters go full-on In Cold Blood on the family. There will probably be an attempted rape.
To create her new series, Walley-Beckett not only plunged into Anne’s backstory, she created a new character, and new secondary characters, with the same names as the originals but completely different. And she had to layer modern-day ills on top of the culture and mores of 100 years previous, and in so doing, she created a shoddy mechanism of a plot, so baldly laid out in dialog and action that one could almost see the story notes on the page. She misrepresented Anne, Avonlea, Green Gables, all of the denizens of the story, in order to do — what? By episode three, she left behind the books and drove the plot at a wild, uncontrolled careering gallop, off the road and over the cliffs into the sea. It’s telling that the characters of Reverend and Mrs Stacy, who are really nice people, are absent from this version. It’s as if Walley-Beckett knew that they couldn’t be in her series — they would have to have been twisted beyond recognition, and if she had left them in as is, they would have been a laughable juxtaposition against the jury-rigged mess she had built. She throws in a different reverend, some mean guy. Whatever.
Let’s take the pedophile in the train station. Yes, there has been child abuse in all eras, and children have always been abducted. But Anne has been through so much that the appearance of the guy at the station who tries to lure her into his buckboard, only to have street-smart Anne run him off, was a plot point with no point. It told us nothing, except that the creators thought the biggest problem Anne would face on her own was a boogyman from the 21st century.
And then there are all the mean girls who make fun of Anne. In the book, Josie Pye is the meanest of of mean girls. The other girls mostly like Anne, and especially in the later years, she’s a ringleader because she’s fun and has the best ideas (Anne as Fair Elaine, anyone?). In “Anne with an E,” all the girls gang up on Anne. One of the saddest things about this version is what Walley-Beckett has done to Ruby Gillis.
And then there’s Gilbert Blythe. He’s a noble, saintly boy, wise beyond his years, who has to grow up too fast — and he’s completely cardboard. Instead of showing us their rivalry in school (granted, this series compresses the events of much of the book in the first year), we see Gilbert only at a few points in the series, to either stick up for Anne or to mope about his dying father. This is where I will refer to the 1985 miniseries. Jonathan Crombie played Gilbert in that version, and for many fans he embodied the role so thoroughly, that on his untimely death in 2015, there were fans for whom Gilbert Blythe himself passed away. He was a hard act to follow. That series did him the honor of recognizing a full-fledged character, one who was a foil for and ultimate kindred spirit for Anne Shirley.
There are some good and brilliant bits in this retelling. The first episode goes the deepest into Anne’s past, and we see her dreadful life with Mrs. Hammond. This is indeed harrowing, and does justice to what we know from the book. Lucy Maud Montgomery had a rough life herself, and when she wrote of Anne’s travails, she wrote from intimate familiarity. This first episode is indeed very good, albeit hard to watch.
Another well-done departure is Anne getting her first period. I am a woman of a certain age. We had “the talk” in school, but even I, waking up in the middle of the night, soaked in blood, thought I was dying. Anne’s reaction is pitch-perfect. She gets up, stokes the fire, boils the water, and washes her own sheets, sobbing as she does so, and when Marilla gets up to find out what’s going on, Anne says, “You bet on the wrong horse, Marilla.” She further asks Marilla to plant roses on her grave.
It’s affecting and sad, and if I flashed back to Kotex and gave a shudder, well, you can’t blame me. Girls don’t know how easy they have it these days. And I am happy for that to be the case. As far as I’m concerned, we should evolve right the hell out of having periods as soon as possible.
I’m not sure what is going to happen with the next season. As I said, it ended on a cliffhanger, and at this point, there’s very little “Anne of Green Gables” left in “Anne with an E.” I think it has become more of an exercise in how much plot you can stuff in an old book than an exploration of one of literature’s best-beloved characters. I wish that Walley-Beckett had taken a different turn with the material and used it to explore some of the interesting ideas she messed around with. They were all there — she just used a sledgehammer when she should have taken a scalpel.
One result of watching “Anne with an E:” it’s been far too long since I visited Avonlea and Green Gables. Time for another reread. I am sure I will forget about “Anne with an E” fairly quickly. After all, it wasn’t really about Anne Shirley anyway, just a loose interpretation of the original.