Anne of Green Gables Begins Again
By: Miranda Sajdak
Comparisons are inevitable. When CBC premiered the new show Anne, based off the L.M. Montgomery series of the same name, it was unavoidable that the show would get compared to a myriad of other adaptations – not to mention the original books. To the show’s credit, it manages to both reference and distance itself from the prior works, which helps it feel like very much its own story.
In the first two episodes, it’s instantly clear that this is going to be a different type of retelling. While many of us are familiar with the opening – Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson), in his buggy, heading to the train station to get an orphan girl from the nearby asylum – here, we open on Marilla (Geraldine James) and Matthew, both suffering bout of nerves and both somewhat in denial about it. Matthew is seen polishing his boots, clearly trying to look the part before heading off on an important errand. Marilla, true to form, scolds him – and we realize this is very much in character for her, someone who doesn’t yet know how to show she cares other than by scolding.
The show evolves from there, with small elements showing a deep sense of understanding of the books’ story while also delving into the darkness of the time. To its credit, the show has a number of scenes that bring Anne’s feminism to the forefront. We wonder, along with her, why she couldn’t do the farm work they meant to hire a boy for and when the Cuthbert’s bring on local boy Jerry Baynard (Aymeric Jett Montaz), Anne demands he stop working so she can prove herself able on the farm – just as well as any boy. This touch of feminism – along with Anne’s early mention of a fondness for Jane Eyre – feels real and almost a ghostly absence from Montgomery’s books. Why wouldn’t the garrulous, bold little girl offer to help out on the farm, rather than just commenting on her looks as a reason to be kept?
This Anne also veers into dark territory and does so partly to bolster Anne’s Amybeth McNulty) desperation to stay at Green Gables. In a small way, this modernizes the story as it seems only realistic that today’s kids (and adults) might wonder at why the young girl would be so desperate to stay with these particular strangers. But wonder no more, as the references to Mr. Hammond’s drunkenness – subtle in L.M. Montgomery’s novels – and Anne’s difficult time at the asylum – glossed over with mentions of her “window friends” – here are clearly moments of both verbal and physical abuse for the young girl. For parents out there, don’t worry. This is done in a PG manner and is mostly implied violence, about as frightening as the average 80s Disney cartoon – but it hits home in a way it hasn’t before. This Anne is suffering from some elements of PTSD and it’s clear that she has good reason to be. In a way somewhat missing from Montgomery’s books, this emphasizes much more profoundly why she needs to stay at Green Gables and why we must want her to, even when the offer of a move to Mrs. Blewett arrives. Anne just can’t go back to an abusive situation so when the cliffhanger ending of episode two hits – with Anne carted off on a train back to the asylum – we fear for her life.
There are a few moments of on-the-nose dialogue in these sequences – such as Anne commenting that she’ll never know what it’s like to be a child. True, some of them work more than others, but the writers have managed to do a decent job of providing purpose where the book sometimes left it absent and giving Anne a real reason to need to stay while providing what’s even more necessary – a real reason for Marilla to want to keep her. Having seen a number of prior adaptations, they tended to make Marilla a little less hardened and here there’s some implied reason for her to be. While browsing Matthew and Marilla’s decorations, Anne desires to remember everything so she’ll have something positive to hold on to down the line – we glimpse a photo on the wall of three children, presumably Matthew, Marilla and one younger (now dead?) sibling. This brief implication of loss rings true to the times, and provides us with more than just “Marilla lost a romance” for why she’s so hardened to love today.
The show absolutely has changes and here we’ll address a few of those. The first is the hiring of Jerry Baynard, the French boy from nearby. This is a good choice, in retrospect, though a little awkward. But it makes sense that the Cuthberts would need instantaneous help and it gives Matthew a reason to push Marilla to keep Anne on the farm. He already has help so why bother getting a new boy? It’s a good plot point and though the actor himself sometimes slips out of the French accent, it’s easy to see him as a conflict point for Anne and he does a charming job of fighting with her.
Other changes include Anne meeting Diana (Dalila Bela) before the picnic; Mr. Barry comes to call and it’s clear he and his wife have some element of aristocratic background, as they are all dressed much more fashionably than the farmer Cuthberts. Barry (Jonathan Holmes) wants Anne to come to tea with Marilla to determine if she’ll be a bad influence on Diana and his other daughter (unnamed here, but presumably Minnie May?). Anne’s first meeting with Diana becomes more personal, as the two get to spend time together without a crowd of people around them. It’s a nice moment between two girls who are clearly from different worlds, but it’s also obvious why someone like Diana – brought up to be prim and proper and focus on needlework instead of reading – would be enraptured by this strange and imaginative new friend, who’s bursting with creative stories.
Another change is in the structure of the second episode, wherein Marilla’s brooch gets lost. Here she demands Anne tell her about it in the same moment as it goes missing – rather than waiting for Anne to find an explanation – and Anne’s stumbled confession feels more on-the-spot than lengthy and imagined. It’s clear Anne’s lying here, but it’s okay – her purpose for lying is also deepened, as it’s not “will I go to the picnic,” but “will I stay at Green Gables.” When Marilla learns Anne’s lied, she sends her away the next morning only to find the brooch later stuck down in the side of her chair – where her shawl (brooch and all) had lain the prior day. This was actually the only historical moment that made this viewer question the likelihood of such an event, as the dresses were so plain and the surroundings otherwise rough it was tough to believe they’d have such a soft-looking chair at all. Nonetheless, the purpose of the moment rings true – Anne’s gone off to the asylum and this forces Marilla and Matthew into a more uncomfortable position. Presumably, they’ll have to fight to bring her back, rather than allowing her to remain with a new family. In addition, this gives them a real purpose and makes both characters more active, which is a nice touch in this story.
One great element here is the casting of the character Rachel Lynde. Corinne Koslo brings a new vigor to the character and it’s clear the writers took some time to look over her in the books and find someone who looks and feels more clearly like you’d imagine her to be when reading than perhaps has been cast prior in the role (with great love and admiration for those who have come before). It’s a tough role to play, both gossip/nag and forgiving, but Koslo does a good job and it will be intriguing to see how she develops.
One area that’s of course going to be of note is the language. Montgomery was nothing if not deeply invested in the language of her characters and there are definitely changes. As with any work of art, some work better than others. On occasion, the dialogue pushes the point a little too far. In other areas, some of the more flowery language is muted (benefactor instead of benefactress/ a glossing over of “bosom friend”/“kindred spirit” – though both mentioned, neither to a great extent, as yet; no “gimlet” or “furbelows” to be found). The updates work, to an extent, as it’s clear their audience is a 2017 one, though on occasion it can feel unfortunate when something seems too updated, losing some of the original romance of the classic (“shut your face” being especially noticeable as more likely 2017 parlance). That said, this was not unexpected. As the producers noted themselves many times, this is meant to be a grittier take and the realism presented here is often a delight.
As to the rest of the casting, Amybeth McNulty is holding her own with one of the most difficult and most adapted characters of all time. She, too, is more muted than some other versions, but she manages to play Anne’s pain in a real and difficult way and we learn easily why she would want to escape into a world of imagination. It’s a part that will be fun to see McNulty evolve with. Marilla and Matthew are, perhaps, two of the more dynamic roles in history, but casting here was done well, too. Geraldine James brings a hardness to Marilla that feels well-motivated, but isn’t afraid of showing her softer side with Matthew – and as she warms up to Anne. It’s clear Marilla has a heart underneath her hardened shell and her evolution, too, should be intriguing to watch. And lastly, but certainly not least, R.H. Thomson provides us with a more talkative Matthew and the writing here works in his favor. We’re so familiar with the introverted version that it’s nice to see Matthew have a little more to say – and feels like the right choice, in a show where we need to see character evolution. The only strange beat for him is when he goes up to see Anne and ask her to apologize to Mrs. Lynde – strange as it feels the editing here was a bit off as he goes up once during the day and again a moment later at night. Not a fault of the actor, but perhaps a slip in the edit (or an intended beat that doesn’t fully land).
The last choice to discuss here is the overall production value. Aside from a few extreme wide shots (mostly used during Anne’s flashbacks and a bit when Marilla gets upset about her brooch), the camerawork is strong. It’s occasionally clear when an edit point doesn’t totally land, but these moments are forgivable in the context of an interesting story. The production design team had their work cut out for them, but did a solid job in crafting a new Green Gables with little details like the water-pump sink and the horseshoe fence adding a veracity to the time period. The one odd element here is the music, given a sort of Celtic vibe to the score. It made this viewer question if Anne Shirley was, in fact, of Irish descent. Perhaps that’s some backstory yet to unfold, but it does feel an odd choice and doesn’t always land. In addition, the male vocals in the opening song feel perhaps more meaningful for a Canadian viewer than they will be for an American, while one wonders why they couldn’t get a female cover of the same song, if it was such an important piece (as has been referenced in a few articles).
Overall, Anne is breathing a different life into the classic tale. And while some of the choices don’t always land (as with literally any show ever made), the vast majority of them feel like they’re providing a genuine evolution and honest understanding of the original piece and it’s to the producers’ credit that they’ve brought this to life in a fresh and engaging way.