This is the first installment in my new, semi-regular series, “Page To Screen”. I thought it would be interesting to analyze books that have been made into films–what was changed, cut, expanded, whether or not the adaptation was effective, and so on. I wasn’t planning on starting with Anne of Green Gables, but you know how life is. It was a target of opportunity, suffice it to say. There are a few spoilers, so if you’re planning on watching…well, you know. Anyway, off we go…
If you’ve been hanging around my blog for awhile, you already know my position on remakes, and when I saw this trailer on YouTube, it wasn’t exactly a shock:
What was rather dismaying, though, was when Anne said, “Girls can do anything a boy can, and more.” Anne never made this statement in the books, not even an inference of it. I thought, “Oh no–they’ve made Anne Shirley into Gloria Steinem.” Don’t get me wrong–I’ve nothing against feminism if it’s honest and based on reality, but I can’t bring myself to back the types who treated my mother like dirt for being a homemaker, or who expect me to hate men. Or who make a stink because Wonder Woman doesn’t have armpit hair. Can’t do it. Won’t do it. Nope. Sorry. Not only that, but it’s a sad fact that many filmmakers love making everything political or presentist these days. It’s like a pill in jam, to paraphrase L.M. Montgomery, only more harmful than not. Simple, intelligent entertainment seems to be an endangered species.
But I digress.
Remakes, particularly those of beloved stories, can be like train wrecks–it’s hard to look away. In spite of my weariness of reboots, I wanted to see how this new iteration of Anne Shirley held up to Montgomery’s original novel. After all, they couldn’t change Anne too much, right? Anne Shirley is to Canada what Scarlett O’Hara is to America or Bridget Jones and Elizabeth Darcy are to the United Kingdom. Give Anne too drastic a makeover and people will jump down the filmmakers’ throats. And why not? Anne of Green Gables is full of beauty and fun and humor, and those who love it get protective. Anne is no stranger to remakes, either, with no less than fifty-three adaptations (including the current one) in various mediums, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the novel. The Megan Follows version is probably the best-loved and most familiar to the largest number of people.
Unfortunately, what is in the trailer of Anne With An ‘E’ is the nearest the newest Anne gets to its source material, and even then it’s off. Way off. The principal writer and producer is Moira Walley-Beckett, who is best known for her work on Breaking Bad, and her interpretation of Anne is mediocre at best, and ugly and ignorant at worst. Yes, ugly and ignorant. Just wait. This puppy’s off the charts.
The series starts out strongly enough, with terrific shots of the Island and is about sixty-percent faithful to the novel. Sorta. Interspersed throughout her journey to Green Gables, we see Anne (Amybeth McNulty) having flashbacks of being beaten and bullied when she was a home child and living with the Hammonds. It’s disturbing, but fortunately, these vignettes are very brief. Less than half an hour in, however, is when Anne does the boys-vs-girls schpiel to Marilla (Geraldine James) that we see in the trailer, and it’s all downhill from there. Every episode after the first one owes almost nothing to the source material, and it doesn’t seem that Walley-Beckett even likes her source material that much. She’s bragged to the press that the bridge between Montgomery’s words and hers is seamless, but if that’s the case, then why does she leave Montgomery out of her version of Avonlea? What’s more, Walley-Beckett seems unused to writing anything that doesn’t have edge, even when adapting a children’s novel.
The first major misstep is when Anne is accused of stealing a brooch. In the book, Anne’s punishment was missing a picnic. Walley-Beckett’s Anne gets sent away to the orphanage in Charlottetown, and Matthew (R.H. Thomson) has to go through all this derring-do to find her, which he finally does–he sees Anne reciting poetry for money in a train station. It all seems tacked-on and unnecessary. I wonder if Walley-Beckett is familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan’s immortal song about letting the punishment fit the crime.
When Anne goes to school, things take on a Degrassi Jr. High feel. Then it’s all about playing hard to get with the boys, girls being mean to girls because they’re jealous of them, and all that teeny-bopper stuff. One of the best aspects of Montgomery’s novel, the competition between Anne and Gilbert (Lucas Jade Zumann), is glossed over in Anne With an ‘E’. They even flub Anne and Gilbert’s first meeting. In the book, the first words Gilbert says to Anne are “Carrots! Carrots!” right before Anne smashes her slate over his head. In the new Anne, Gilbert defends Anne from Billy Andrews (Christian Martyn) and they basically walk to school together, which is why Gilbert calling Anne Carrots later is a sharp hairpin turn. It makes him go from knight in shining armor to pest. In response, Anne swings her slate across his face like it’s a Lodge frying pan, which is considerably less satisfying than Montgomery’s smash.
Speaking of hairpin turns, in the ‘Anne’ books, Billy Andrews is a tubby, chortle-y fellow who is so painfully socially awkward that he asks his sister, Jane to propose to Anne for him, which Anne finds absurdly humiliating. In Anne With An ‘E’, Billy Andrews is a bully who calls Anne a dog and makes barking noises, not to mention yelling variations of “Woman, make me a sammich.” That’s one of the many things that bugs me about this series. Walley-Beckett apparently decided that Montgomery’s characters weren’t useful enough, so she made them pawns for her agenda and one-track coarseness. Matthew is another victim. In the book, he was so shy he seldom went from home if he could help it, and he was terrified of talking to women. In Anne With An ‘E’, Matthew not only races to Charlottetown to get Anne back, but reunites with an old flame and attempts suicide. Really, Moira? Really?
Our heroine isn’t safe, either. She shows symptoms of PTSD in early episodes and is triggered frequently, which is a problematic angle to work. Childhood trauma does exist, but Montgomery’s Anne is so receptive to love that she heals very quickly. Walley-Beckett’s Anne has much more baggage to shed, and there’s little of Montgomery’s beautiful warmth or humor in the series. Fun scenes like Anne accidentally flavoring a cake with anodyne liniment or making a moonlight trek through the Haunted Wood are nowhere to be found in Anne With an ‘E’. I watched all seven episodes over the course of two days, and I probably only genuinely smiled a handful of times. It’s just downturn after downturn after downturn with no bottom. As I said before, the feminist angle is very strong. Anne picks fights with boys she feels threatened by, and comes across as mean sometimes. She is also only allowed to prove herself via the sorts of exploits that make everyone else look incompetent, such as rushing into a burning building as if she alone knows how to put out a fire. And there is the continual drumbeat about how women can be smart, or they can be wives, but not both, which is yet another idea that Montgomery didn’t hold to.
It’s very disappointing that all the ways that Anne distinguished herself in Montgomery’s Green Gables weren’t good enough for this series. She was at the head of her class in Avonlea. She proudly learned to keep a house and cook to beat the band. She won the Avery scholarship when she went to Queen’s Academy to get her teaching license. Anne became a steady, reliable girl who put going to university on hold so she could stay with Marilla after Matthew’s death. Besides her imagination, energy, and capableness, Anne’s only other attribute from the novel that made the cut was her ability to recite poetry. Except not really. Walley-Beckett’s Anne delivers verse in a hammy, meaningless fashion, with gestures that would have looked more at home in a bad silent movie. What also struck me was that the characters rushed and threw away all the lines that came directly from the novel and saved their acting skills for the other stuff.
Another thing that irked me about Anne was that evidently no one bothered to do any research of the time period, or if they did, they discarded whatever they found. It’s almost laughable. Sure, the characters wear the right clothes and the sets look pretty correct, but Walley-Beckett wrote scenarios that would have never, ever happened in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Everything that’s wrong with the series historically could fill a book, but I’ll focus on the top three biggest anachronisms:
Scientists Predict Greenhouse Effect
This was yelled by a Charlottetown paperboy in Episode Two. Accurate weather data was only just beginning to be compiled in the nineteenth century, and people of that time roundly dismissed the idea of man effecting change in climate. Having a paperboy announce it as if all scientists believed in the greenhouse effect seems like a rather desperate and token attempt by the filmmakers to push their ideas and beliefs.
If They’re Touching, They’re Making A Baby
Here’s the thing: In L.M. Montgomery’s day, people did not discuss bodily functions or their bodies in general, especially with people outside of their family or close circle. It was considered indelicate and rude. If someone didn’t feel well, they were “indisposed.” Anne’s parents die of “a fever,” which is obviously non-specific. This discretion was such a hard and fast point of etiquette that even table legs were called “limbs” and tables were often covered with tablecloths or skirts to hide the legs and suggest modesty. Yet in Episode Three of Walley-Beckett’s Anne, Anne and Diana see Prissy Andrews in the school supply closet with Mr. Phillips and Anne remarks that men have “a mouse in their pants.” Mr. Phillips is touching Prissy’s hand, and Anne says it means the two of them are “making a baby.” It basically leads to Anne talking in detail to the girls at lunch about Prissy and Mr. Phillips having “intimate relations,” and how often she heard Mrs. Hammond touching Mr. Hammond’s “mouse”. Excuse me?! This is a children’s story, folks–even veiled sex talk is inappropriate, especially when it happens in a Victorian classroom.
My Name Is Marilla, And I’m A Progressive Mother
Also in Episode Three, Marilla attends a support group for progressive mothers. I so, so wish I were kidding, but I’m not. First off, support groups as we know them didn’t exist in the nineteenth century. Meetings were generally service-oriented–women would have joined Ladies’ Aid societies, or the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or gone to quilting bees, or sewing circles, or teas. Not support groups. What’s also annoying is the women who invite Marilla to this group call themselves the Progressive Mothers Sewing Circle, except that they don’t sew–they just sit around talking about books and education. Marilla goes to the meeting, and it turns out to be Feminism 101. Very devious, isn’t it? Lure people in with something that appears to be innocent, then trap them into listening to your agenda. Secondly, a town like Avonlea wouldn’t have had enough people (or time) to form any kind of support group. You either fit in or you didn’t. That’s just how society was, and still is. In fact, the first dedicated support group was Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in 1935, and the concept of peer-to-peer support didn’t really reach critical mass until the nineteen-eighties. To Anne With An ‘E’‘s credit, however, some of the characters admit that progressivism isn’t compassionate and adds unnecessary mindsets to life. Too bad Walley-Beckett didn’t take her own advice.
So, yeah. If Anne‘s filmmakers didn’t want to stick to their source material, fine. The least they could have done was have the tiniest semblance of historic credibility. Disavowing any connection to Anne would have been nice, too. But we know that’s not what they’re about, don’t we? Yep. They. Must. Present. Their. Agenda. Or. Die. Trying. Grrrrrrr.
One of the things I have always appreciated about L.M. Montgomery’s writing was that it handled controversial topics subtly, such as Anne being neglected and unloved before coming to Green Gables. We never saw Anne beaten or abused in the novel, even though the narrative alludes to her previous existence. Anne was never given flak for being an orphan or a girl, either. Gender isn’t even an issue in the books. In fact, the story arc of Green Gables is Anne’s learning to live and succeed in the real world, with her imagination in its proper place. Montgomery allowed her characters to model how society should be, as opposed to preaching to her readers or being ugly. This is a method that is completely lost on too many of today’s writers and filmmakers.
There were some good points to Anne With An ‘E’. Anne and Diana (Dalila Bela)’s friendship is very sweet, and Matthew and Marilla set out to create a loving environment for Anne after her ordeal as a home child. On the whole, though, pills in jam are the order of the day, and Walley-Beckett’s piling-on of current-day issues and sensibilities drags everything down. I’m not the only one who feels this way, either. Anne has met with mixed responses from Canadian viewers, and Americans have been even less kind, such as these critics from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker (They loathed the brooch bit, too). The most common complaint is that there were too many liberties taken with Montgomery’s novel. Imagine that. If I’m going to watch Anne on film I’ll stick with the Megan Follows version, thanks.
Alrighty, hope everyone has a good Mother’s Day! Thanks for reading (congrats if you made it this far), and see you Tuesday for National Classic Film Day…