Watching the third season of Anne with an E, I had a ton of mixed feelings. The first season felt like a betrayal, and I made that clear in my blog post here. The second season, I felt like I got what the creators were doing – creating literature for queer children, literature that told them they were more than okay, they were going to be okay, that there was kindness and a place in the world for them too. Oh, Aunt Josephine, I adore thee. I fell in love. (And there were scenes where I cackled with joy, such as when our intrepid heroes line up to jump on a train, and Anne says with delight, “It’s a caper.”)
This third season is a bit of a mess, but I think I get it. That moralizing? The grown-up speeches in the mouths of children, espousing 21st century concepts and kindness and affirmation? Anne with an E is new moral literature, much like the original Anne of Green Gables was, or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or Five Little Peppers, or Little Women. It’s famously said that the Victorians invented childhood, and North American children’s literature was a genre in which imparting religion and morals and politics (the Little House books) was job one.
Whether Anne would be an ally of today’s children or not, is not the point. Anne with an E has a moral viewpoint and states it loud and clear: children have rights, they have bodily autonomy, they have the right to sexual education, they have the right to follow their hearts and dreams and to know their true selves.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women turns the original on its head in much the same way. Sure, we get the same set pieces – giving away their breakfast, burning the hair with the curling iron, limes, falling through the ice. But even as we go through the book’s usual paces, what we see is the truth behind the jolly story. We see ambition that is not punished, we see talent that is not squandered, and we see women who do not apologize for financial independence.
If anything, the 2020 Little Women makes me wish that Louisa May Alcott had written that book and not the one that she did. Because where the movie fails is where it runs along the well-worn paths, and shows how threadbare they really are. When Beth dies, it falls flat – even Joey would not have needed to put the book in the freezer.
By revising the story and telling it out of order, Gerwig has gotten at something deeper, something that the original book kept hidden. Her story honors Louisa May Alcott and honors the story both.
Anne With An E goes deeper and farther, upending the original and going far beyond where it meant to tread. L.M. Montgomery wrote several books about Anne, and as is famously noted, she gets quieter and more placid the older she gets. I read the books, even the ones where Anne gives up her dreams and becomes a housewife, but only ever loved the first one. I didn’t know it as a kid, but L.M. Montgomery had a pretty sad life, and maybe she wanted peace and comfort and love for Anne because she didn’t have it for herself.
As of this writing I haven’t finished Anne With An E. The most recent episode I watched ended with Anne at the schoolhouse running the press for her broadsheet, much as Yvienne Mederos does in The Sisters Mederos. Yes, there is a reason I write about plucky young women, and those reasons include L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott.
I’m very glad both productions went in the direction they did. Because we need new stories for children that impart some very necessary morals – kindness, inclusiveness, and caring are never old-fashioned.