About a week ago, I was writing an author interview and was thinking of my answer to the inevitable question: what is your favorite book? I don’t have a favorite book. I have many books that I love. Many books that I return to, many that remain with me after many years, strong, fierce books whose characters have etched themselves into my mind. When I was thinking about this, the book Anne of Green Gables came to me. I had been watching the new Netflix series “Anne with an E,” and it made me remember how powerful of a character is Anne Shirley. She is certainly one of literature’s most vivid characters, alive, imaginative, proud, and supremely decent.
That is why I wanted to take this time to forget about my own book and concentrate a little on a review of “Anne with an E,” the latest iteration of one of literature’s great creations, Anne Shirley. I want to start with the things I love about the show, and then talk about what I believe must change if this show is to be as good as it can be.
First of all, Amybeth McNulty as Anne Shirley is perfectly cast. Her portrayal of Anne Shirley is simply wonderful—full of imagination, dreaming, hysteria, and much melodrama. Her job is much more difficult than it was for Megan Follows, who played Anne in Kevin Sullivan’s classic mini series. Miss McNulty must also deal with the unpleasant sides of Anne’s history, the difficulties of being an abused orphan and growing up different in a closed society, all of which I find a refreshing angle on the story of Anne Shirley. Amybeth McNulty’s portrait of Anne is one of the reasons to keep watching this show. Geraldine James does a good job at Marilla, and Dalila Bela is a smart and loyal Diana Barry.
Comparisons with Kevin Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables is inevitable, and Anne with an E seems to go to exorbitant lengths to distance itself from Sullivan’s technicolor romance of the Montgomery novel. Where Sullivan created an idyllic, nearly utopian society for Anne Shirley, the new production complicates 19th century society, adding a much-needed dose of reality into the story. I have no problem with a new interpretation of the story of a teenage orphan girl growing up in rural Canada in the late 19th century.
The problem is that the series often fails when it swerves from the original. In a particular scene, Matthew must race to get Anne after she is falsely accused of stealing a brooch. He ends up struck down and bloodied by carriages in the street. It isn’t the fact that it deviates from the book that upsets me. In fact, other diversions aren’t nearly as offensive. But this one is highly melodramatic. Matthew’s pursuit of Anne across the island is not the problem, it’s the added drama of the accident that makes it highly unbelievable, which is a big problem for a production so concerned with reality. In nearly the same scene, a newspaper boy calls out the headline that scientists predict a warming Earth, an annoying little problem because global warming is a late 20th century theory, born in part from discoveries made about the planet Venus. Its inclusion here is bothersome.
This production’s preoccupation with reality, or, in their perception, the claustrophobic, choking reality of 19th century society, is one of the biggest problems of the show. I have no difficulties at all with Anne Shirley confronting ideas of feminism and classism, but Anne with an E doesn’t seem to understand how to do what it wants to do. Often when it tries to create a more realistic society, it falls to its feet. At one point, a cruel boy taunts Anne in front of the entire town, and she yells back at him. No one else says anything to defend the girl who is supposed to be something of a hero at this point while the boy tells her derisively to go back to the kitchen and make cookies. It’s not the ideas that bothers me, it’s the clumsiness. In a society where decorum and respect are so highly valued, no one would permit the boy to be so rude to a girl. It’s clumsily handled.
But for me the greatest sin of this production is a tool used constantly by the series. The colors are all muted. In this production, Prince Edward Island becomes a cloudy, dreary, gray landscape. I understand that the production wants to distance itself from the utopic vision of Sullivan, but it is hard to watch. Even the flowers are seen as through a muddy lens. It makes the show boring and depressing to the eye. It is a sign of a heavy-handed production that won’t allow a beautiful landscape scope for the imagination. Here is where we see most powerfully this series melodrama. Just as Sullivan’s production was far too idyllic, this production seems to suggest in its gray tones that life in the 19th century was dull, uninteresting, cruel, and suffocating. It is the one sin that sits with me most strongly, turning Anne of Green Gables to shades of gray.
Having said that, I sincerely hope that the production learns from its first season and continues onward to portray sunny days in Anne’s life as well as cloudy ones. I will watch just for Amybeth McNulty. But please. Bring back the green in Green Gables.