Was Anne of Green Gables always THIS sad? By the time I finish episode one of Netflix’s adaptation Anne With an E I have cried my way through a whole box of tissues, and episode two takes me through half a box more. It’s like watching the opening scene of Up over and over again.
Don’t let this put you off though, because the crying is definitely a good sign. Anne With an E is a brilliant piece of drama which should be toasted with lashings of raspberry cordial. And once the tears are wiped away there is laughter, because the smart, talkative, imaginative, red-pigtailed and many-freckled Canadian orphan Anne is – and always has been – a hilariously earnest child.
The essential premise of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s endlessly-adapted 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables remains the same: ageing brother and sister duo Matthew Cuthbert (RH Thomson) and Marilla Cuthbert (Geraldine James) find themselves in need of extra labour on their farm at Green Gables, and so they decide to adopt an orphan boy.
But via a colossal mix-up, the orphanage sends Anne Shirley (the very talented Amybeth McNulty). Anne is super excited about finally being adopted and having a home, but will the Cuthberts decide to keep her?
RH Thomson does a brilliant turn as the ultra-shy Matthew. And Geraldine’s version of Marilla is very Minerva McGonnagal, though she hasn’t transfigured into a cat or tried to teach Anne to ride a broomstick – so far, at least. From her stern exterior you might not think she cares for the little orphan in her charge (Harry Potter/Anne – you see where I’m going with this?), but as time goes by, the cracks open up and you get a glimpse of her hidden affection and wry sense of humour.
This adaptation is the brainchild of Emmy-winning Breaking Bad screenwriter and producer Moira Walley-Beckett, so you can see why it might end up a little darker and sadder than the original. But Moira has done the clever thing of preserving the essence of the original Anne – even borrowing chunks of dialogue word-for-word from the novel – while also putting her own spin on the story.
Take this for an example: in the Edwardian novel, the Cuthberts wanted a male orphan on their farm for reasons that are so self-evident they barely need explaining: boy = manual labour, girl = housework, duh.
But showrunner Moira reckons Anne is actually an “accidental feminist”, and so when Marilla says they’d better send her back to the orphanage and swap her for a boy Anne boldly declares: “I don’t mean any disrespect, but couldn’t I do the farm chores even though I’m a girl? I’m as strong as a boy and I prefer to be out of doors instead of cooped up in a kitchen… girls can do anything a boy can do and more.”
That moment is not in the novel. Isn’t this taking liberties with the source material? No – Moira has just grabbed on to what was already there and dialled it up a notch for 21st century viewers.
Take the case of Gilbert Blythe: in the novel Anne’s classmate at the school tries to flirt with by insulting her and calling her “carrots” (the ol’ classic “negging” technique), and she responds by smashing a slate over his head. She believes in the power of female friendship, she is unashamed of her intelligence, and she loves long words. Basically, at the age of nine, she was my hero and I can’t fault Moira for making her even more badass and feminist.
But how does it end up being so much more… sad? In my memory, Anne of Green Gables is a lot more saccharine (a word Anne herself would surely love). There’s Anne, trotting off to school with her best friend Diana and putting her bottled milk in the creek to keep cool for lunchtime. She picks flowers for her hat-band, she is entranced by the beautiful nature on Prince Edward Island, and she is like a little fairy full of optimism and fanciful stories.
Looking back on the novel now, you can see more of the sadness under the surface. Anne’s childhood of foster homes and orphanages only comes up once when Marilla probes her, and even then she tries to look on the bright side (“I know they meant to be just as good and kind as possible. And when people mean to be good to you, you don’t mind very much when they’re not quite – always”).
And then we get the reality, from Marilla’s internal observations: “What a starved, unloved life she had had – a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth. No wonder she had been so delighted at the prospect of a real home. It was a pity she had to be sent back.”
Moira picks this up and runs with it. Flashback scenes take us back to Anne’s childhood of beatings and insults and rejection. No wonder she takes refuge in her imagination! No wonder she is so desperate to please! What really tugs at your heart-strings is her vulnerability, magnified by Amybeth McNulty’s acting skills. Where the book reports that she cried herself to sleep, actually hearing and seeing a little girl’s desperate private sobbing into her pillow is a lot more affecting.
On top of this, Moira has also taken a few liberties with the plot to add the deeper themes of “identity, feminism, bullying and prejudice” promised by Netflix. In the book she has a terrific time at the church picnic and tries ice-cream for the first time in her life; in the series the church picnic is ruined when the locals whisper about her funny appearance and shocking background. And without giving too much away, the scrapes Anne gets into in the book become full-blown crises in the series.
Anne With an E is probably best suited to more grown-up Anne of Green Gables fans who can handle the sadder themes. But I suspect as the series goes on, the tears will disappear as Anne settles in to her new life and charms everyone she meets.
And with plenty more Anne novels handily provided by LM Montgomery (Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Willows…), who’s to say whether this is the last we will see of Anne Shirley-Cuthbert?
Anne With an E launches on Netflix on Friday 12th May