Because I evidently have not written enough about L.M. Montgomery lately…today I have a review of the recent Netflix special, Anne with an E, a six-hour miniseries. This retelling of Anne of Green Gables was billed as a darker version–and it was. Some aspects of it were wonderful and compelling. Others, not so much, and I do mean the darkness. It all gave me some new insights into the themes of Montgomery’s books though, and I’m always pleased about that!
The miniseries drew me in with a very good first episode (90 minutes–the rest are 45). It followed very closely to the original story, as orphan Anne is mistakenly sent to Prince Edward Island and Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who had wanted a boy. They decide to keep the talkative, impetuous Anne, who wants so much to be good and accepted but just keep running into problems. That much is exactly the same as the original, though this version included occasional, PTSD-like flashbacks to Anne’s earlier life, where she was verbally and physically abused by the people she worked for (more on that later). After the first episode, well, the series diverges farther from the book. Glimmers and elements are drawn from the original, but great swathes of new things arise too.
Aside from having a thing about completion, I think I kept watching because of the characters (and to see how it would all develop). Matthew, Marilla, Diana, Gilbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde–all were wonderfully cast and portrayed, very much the book characters come to life (barring a few actions the plot forced them into). It probably helped that I already knew them, but it also seemed like the series did a very good job giving us insights and understandings into the characters. Even some of the minor characters came through in their essential elements: Josie Pye, nasty and mean; Jane Andrews, nice if forgettable; Ruby Gillis, silly and sweet (and sweet on Gilbert).
And how about Anne (with her E)? Well. The good and the muddled intersect in Anne. She looked the part, probably more than most, as Anne is usually very Hollywood pretty for being a scrawny, freckled orphan. She blooms over the course of the book, suggesting she started without much physical beauty. (Although I have to say, I was bothered throughout to a ridiculous degree by the thinness of Anne’s braids. She hates the redness of her hair, yes, but she has plenty of it!) As to character, she uses all the big words and goes into delighted raptures and has all the starved desire for love that the character should have–great swathes of her dialogue come straight out of the book. But.
This Anne had a darker strain too, compared to Montgomery’s winsome heroine. Anne always had a temper, but this Anne inflicts it more deliberately, can be rude and unfriendly without justification, and doesn’t possess the perpetual optimism the book’s heroine has. Some of her lines take on a more tragic air than originally, even her famous “call me Cordelia–or at least, Anne with an E.” She is, in fact, a more believable result of the background the miniseries suggests she had–but I don’t think it’s the same background Montgomery’s Anne had.
Montgomery is cagey about the details of Anne’s childhood, except that it was hard. She worked caring for other people’s children while a child herself, and they weren’t wealthy people. But I would argue we can extrapolate some from Anne’s qualities. She is desperately hungry to be loved–and throws herself trustingly towards the people who may be able to give that love. That seems to me to suggest an emotionally neglected childhood, but not an actively abusive one. I’ll grant that the miniseries’ version is not beyond the realm of the possible or even the plausible…but the darkening of the past is part of a darkening of the present that I think creates a much greater disconnect with the original novel.
It’s as though the miniseries writers looked at the book, found every dark undertone and strand and crisis incident, emphasized those, exaggerated some and added a few new ones for good measure, then told that story while mostly excluding the funny and hopeful incidents of the book.
A delightful Sunday school picnic of the book becomes a scene of bullying and ostracizing in the miniseries. Miss Josephine Barry appears essentially intact, but minus the funny scene that introduced her in the book. An entire new plot sequence where Anne is sent back to the orphanage (and nearly abducted en route) is thrown in, plus a couple of deaths, a house fire, and an exaggerated (and out of sequence) financial crisis. Anne’s nasty first teacher is here, but her nice second one puts in no appearance. Anne gets into continual scrapes in both versions, but in the book it’s mostly housekeeping disasters born of distraction, while in the miniseries she scandalizes the village by talking about inappropriate topics (I’m pretty sure it would have scandalized Montgomery too).
I was especially bothered by how unfriendly the village was, and by the bullying among the schoolchildren. That’s just not Montgomery’s Avonlea. There’s also something that fundamentally got lost in the concept of a small village–people who attend the same church nevertheless don’t know each other, and that’s just not how Avonlea works. Everyone knows everyone, and while they’re not perfect people, by and large they’re kind ones.
I know it’s a fair argument to say that this was not Montgomery’s Avonlea and wasn’t meant to be, that it’s a reimagining from a new angle. That’s fine, and I did actually enjoy the miniseries for what it was. But it really wasn’t Anne of Green Gables, or a Montgomery story at all, because the new, darker angle completely misses a fundamental point of Montgomery’s writings that it helped me see more clearly.
Montgomery, her stories and her characters chose to look at the light. The darkness was there, in occasional incidents and more often off-page references, sometimes as backstory to give individual characters much greater depth. There’s no virtue in looking at the light if you don’t know the darkness exists. But the focus is always on the light. Anne had a bad childhood, but she is, from the moment we meet her, eagerly looking for a better life. The stories are always about finding friends or love, pursuing dreams, loving one’s home, reveling in nature. That’s the part Montgomery chooses to emphasize.
Or as she said once in her journal (paraphrasing wildly), from her window she could see a privy, but could also see her beautiful garden, a glimpse of distant hills, and a starry sky. Some authors would write only about the privy and call it literature, but that wasn’t what she wrote. She preferred to look at the beauty.
So, Anne with an E. It’s Montgomery’s characters, but they’re not really in Montgomery’s world or living Montgomery’s story. The story is pretty good as it is, and I’m sure some people will prefer the darker edge. I enjoyed watching the miniseries–but I love Montgomery’s world.