As adaptations, remakes and reimaginings continue to rule our screens, it is perhaps worth taking a pause and asking, who exactly are they for?
The question is particularly relevant to Netflix’s recent adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s much-loved 1908 book Anne Of Green Gables, retitled here as Anne With An E.
Montgomery’s book centres on the lovable and wildly imaginative Anne Shirley, an orphan who ends up living in the rural town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, Canada, thanks to a fortuitous mistake. She is adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthert, a pair of ageing siblings who initially want a boy to help around their farm but are accidentally sent Anne instead.
The rest of the story is a warm and delightful coming-of-age story, as Anne gets into scrapes, meets “kindred spirits”, navigates the ups and downs of growing up, and learns what it means to belong.
Through it all, Montgomery imbues Anne with not just an irresistible vivaciousness, but a strong core of positivity. The story does not shy away from the painful realities of life, but neither does it allow them to define Anne.
The book has had numerous screen and stage adaptations, most notably, the 1985 TV miniseries starring Megan Follows. Netflix’s show, though, has been touted as a “darker” take on the novel.
Written by Moira Walley-Beckett, who previously worked on Breaking Bad, it aims to be an exploration of what it meant to be an orphan at that time, as well as the difficulties of someone like Anne fitting into small-town Avonlea. In many ways, it is also an examination of the story through today’s lens. But in the process of doing this, Anne With An E feels like it has completely missed what Montgomery’s story was about.
In Walley-Beckett’s hands, Anne’s life before she moves to Avonlea is fleshed out, and it is not pleasant.
Grey, desaturated flashbacks of abuse and bullying pop in between idyllic scenes of Anne (Amybeth McNulty) in her present-day life. Her most distinctive trait, her flights of imagination, is reduced to being a coping mechanism that provides an escape from an otherwise dismal life.
Ironically, the fact that the show manages to get so much about the story right makes these changes particularly jarring. Anne With An E has a lot going for it, from its lovely realisation of Avonlea onscreen to a strong cast. McNulty is a good Anne, both in terms of physical appearance and her ability to convey a sense of endearing melodrama.
Geraldine James and R.H. Thomson, too, are well-cast as Marilla and Matthew respectively. James, in particular, excels at portraying a woman whose no-nonsense exterior conceals a tender heart.
These aspects do enough to keep one interested through the first season’s early episodes. Initially, deviations from the book feel unnecessary but minor. But over the course of its seven episodes, these changes pile up until the show collapses under their weight.
Depicting Anne as constantly switching from wide-eyed wonder to being lost in her past trauma belies the joy she shows in her present; she begins to seem more manic than imaginative. Anne in the book, for all her high-strung emotions, was confident and well-settled. In Anne With An E, McNulty’s Anne is shot through with anxiety and fear.
The show plays on this by re-imagining the Avonlea community largely as a bunch of close-minded parochials. In Montgomery’s vision, Anne was a curiosity in Avonlea, but also soon welcomed into the fold. In this show, Anne is looked down on by many of the adults in the town, and children in her school go so far as to call her names like “trash”.
Other characters are not spared this treatment either. Matthew, for instance. A gentle man whose shyness and general decency made him one of the book’s most beloved, he is not only given a contrived romance subplot, but is also made to struggle with his inner demons.
And Gilbert Blythe (Lucas Jade Zumann), the boy with whom, in the book, Anne has years of a love/hate relationship, is immediately positioned as a potential love interest – and even has his father killed off, presumably so that Anne and he can connect over their shared tragedy.
This preoccupation with finding darkness where there isn’t any does the show a disservice, because it leaves large parts of the story undeveloped. Anne’s relationship with her best friend Diana Barry (Dalila Bela) is reduced to a few superficial scenes, while most of the residents of Avonlea are two-dimensional at best. And so even when taken on its own merits, Anne With An E ends up falling short.
Many of these issues come down to one mistaken presumption: that Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables was somehow not enough. Anne With An E treats its source material as something that needs to be tinkered with and improved upon, when in truth, it was much more insightful than the show attempts to be.
Readers of the book will know that Montgomery’s book was never about glossing over the darker aspects – there is enough pain and loss in Anne Of Green Gables to attest to this. But Montgomery’s is, ultimately, a tale of optimism and joy tempered by reality. Anne With An E, however, seems to want to tell a different story altogether.
For fans of the original, this is more than likely a betrayal. Newcomers to the story, meanwhile, won’t have the nostalgic pull that will draw them to the show. Which brings us back to the initial question: who is this show for?