Anne of Green Gables purists may be alarmed as the storylines in Netflix’s Anne with an E veer further and further away from LM Montgomery’s 1908 novel – but Geraldine James has made a powerful case for why the drama must take its own direction.
“I think it’s brave,” James tells RadioTimes.com. “There are people who just go, ‘These books are precious,’ and put them in a glass case and keep them like that.
“But if the material is good enough, then you can re-examine it. And I think what Moira [Walley-Beckett, the screenwriter] has done brilliantly with both seasons is to look at the material and be inspired by the material, so everything she’s done is totally honest to the world we’re dealing with.”
Season two of Anne with an E returns to the rural community of Avonlea in Canada, where an enthusiastic red-headed orphan named Anne (Amybeth McNulty) lives with the Cuthberts: elderly brother and sister duo Matthew (RH Thomson) and Marilla (Geraldine James).
But while the characters are straight out of the original Anne of Green Gables, their plot lines are not. Diverging from that first novel, Matthew has survived his season one heart attack and is almost back to full health, while Gilbert is newly-orphaned and has left Avonlea entirely – working in the engine room of a ship. What a shake-up of the story!
Perhaps most significantly for season two, the Cuthberts have welcomed two new lodgers to the house to help pay the bills, unaware that these men are thieves and liars with a plan.
But while you might not read about the lodgers nor Gilbert’s naval adventures in the Montgomery novels, Anne with an E is true to the “essences of the book” and the author’s characters and stories, James says.
“She [Walley-Beckett] goes out in new directions, but they’re always based absolutely on the truth of the time, and the period and the place, so that makes it very exciting,” she explains. “She just develops it and reimagines it in that time, looking at it from this time.”
Still, the English actress admits she wasn’t immediately keen to play Marilla, the woman with the “walnut shell” who initially wanted to send Anne back to the orphanage because she wasn’t a boy. After all: wasn’t this just a children’s book about a little girl? Did she really want to spend years filming in Canada?
The script changed all that. “I read it and thought ‘oh, it’s not that at all’,” James says. “This was as a person who’d read Marilla about and gone, ‘I don’t want to play that person,’ but then you suddenly see round the back of her and what’s she actually like and you get a glimpse of what’s inside her and that is so much more interesting to act.”
James has also had some fun with Marilla in season two as the older lady has been bowled over by her attractive young male lodger Nate (Tara Lavren). With a few carefully-deployed compliments and the strategic removal of his shirt to reveal a muscled chest, Nate has charmed and flustered Marilla in a way we’ve never seen before.
“Poor deluded Marilla,” James laughs. “I thought, ‘For heavens sake, Marilla do pull yourselves together!'”
But Anne’s adoptive mother hasn’t had an easy time of it with love. Her early romance with John Blythe (Gilbert’s father) ended sadly, and after that “everything to do with feeling and love has been chipped away at,” James says.
“Then this young bloke comes in and starts to sit rather too close to her and telling her she looks rather nice and all this stuff…”
It’s been a surprising journey for Marilla from the moment little Anne arrived on her doorstep, full of curiosity and enthusiasm and calamity. But the “walnut shell” has begun to crack.
“The way this character has developed all the way through the first season and through this second one, that’s heaven to act because it allows me to explore all of those different aspects and present them,” James says.
And how about a season three?
“I think we haven’t got to the bottom of the story yet,” she tells us. “I think there’s more to discover about all the characters…”
Anne with an E season two is available to watch on Netflix from Friday 6th July
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news