Like many who adore Anne of Green Gables, I was dubious, bordering on hostile, when rumours of the new screen adaptation first surfaced.
But the first three episodes of the Netflix original series Anne with an E constitute even more captivating viewing – more nuanced, impactful – than Kevin Sullivan’s whimsical 1985 adaptation of the classic novel. I will forever hold the latter’s lead, Megan Follows, close to my heart for her incredible portrayal, at once sharply intelligent and otherworldly, of Anne.
But the new Anne is something else.
Embodied by young Irish actor Amybeth McNulty, who was unearthed for the part, the new Anne is rangy and, at times, childlike in appearance, all freckles and dimples and snaggle teeth. The new Anne carries an authenticity of appearance; less Hollywood perfection and thus closer to the homely protagonist of LM Montgomery’s novels. (Anne’s assertions of her own unliveable ugliness never quite rang true coming from Follows, whose wholesome looks – button nose, almond eyes and high cheekbones – put the undeniable beauty of her face at odds with her despair).
In contrast, from scene to scene, McNulty’s features shift along a continuum of age and beauty, sharpening and softening, gesturing at the great complexity of Anne’s character, rendering her at once intimate and unknowable. Is Anne indeed older than she appears, or frighteningly young? Is she attractive, or as unattractive as she laments? By extension, how worried for her future prospects should the viewer be? Exactly how damaged is she?
McNulty’s features shift along a continuum of age and beauty, sharpening and softening, gesturing at great complexity.
The viewer finds themselves destabilised in the world of this newly at-risk Anne, just as the character is destabilised by the circumstances of her hardship: orphanhood, and the profound gender inequity, poverty and social isolation of her lot. Made an overt function of the series, the unsettling juxtaposition between Anne’s innocence/youth and corruption/trauma complicates the comfortable notion of the ‘tragical’ but ultimately lucky and resourceful little girl that we believe we already know.
The new adaptation is also beautifully shot, designed to look like an ‘eight-hour Jane Campion film’ according to writer Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad fame, who worked with the director of Whale Rider, Niki Caro, to achieve the look. The focus on Anne’s legacy of trauma also brings a degree of gritty realism to the new adaptation, savagely cleaving it from Sullivan’s dreamier, more wistful take.
Less successful to my mind, however, is the overt feminism in the new script. ‘I’m going to be the heroine of my own story,’ Anne declares; befriending with brute force the neighbouring ‘Aunt Josephine’, an aristocratic lesbian who counsels the child against the entrapment of marriage. ‘If you choose a career you can have a white dress made yourself and you can wear it whenever you want,’ Aunt Josephine suggests.
While a necessary and even powerful inclusion (what is the benefit of re-telling old stories if not to galvanise and empower the young, especially young women?), the feminism in Anne With an E nonetheless feels heavy-handed to me, out-of-step with the time and place of the original narrative. In other words, it feels contemporary, and a function of exposition.
But I would always prefer that the feminism of a text be clumsy, if absent is the only other choice. Without present-day magnification, and certainly without theoretical underpinning, LM Montgomery simply details Anne’s ferocious desire to inhabit the world without containment. Exposure to Anne’s thoughts and actions alone, as they were precisely described at the turn of the last century, have ramified powerfully across my entire life.
Anne is unabashedly outspoken and loud and clever, attributes commonly discouraged in girls when the book was published in 1908, and still to an extent in the 1980s when I first encountered it. Now raising a daughter of my own, I’m not convinced that enough has changed for girls and women in terms of how and what we are allowed to become.
Raising a daughter of my own, I’m not convinced that enough has changed in terms of what women are allowed to become.
That Anne was performing a louder, more impassioned and entitled version of girlhood in the last century than is deemed desirable today is groundbreaking, an explanation for her unbridled popularity, and no doubt a keystone of her timelessness and endurance. As an intellect, and as a successful woman writer, she demonstrates unapologetic ambition; in her character, her work and in her very existence, she makes a profound case for the centrality and legitimacy of women’s lives and stories. Reading Anne of Green Gables as a shy girl in love with the world but unsure of my place in it, I learned by Anne’s example how to dream, to voice to desire, to take up space, to be strong, and to persist.
Ultimately, the merits of the new Netflix adaptation do not lie in its impressive production values, in the beauty of the cinematography, or in the quality of the acting. Not in the risky but ultimately successful portrayal of new storylines, nor in the extended character development. For me, the value derives from the series’ capacity to introduce new generations of girls to Anne, as well as in its ability to transport women like me back to a place we can never ordinarily go: our childhoods.
And yet because Anne with an E departs from the original text with such dexterity, and because it retells Anne’s familiar story with such a poignant, hard lens, drawing attention to the child’s psychic wounds, the effect is of scales falling painfully from eyes. The viewer is not taken back for another look at something familiar, as I feared it might, but is closer to the experience of revisiting childhood memories with the shocking benefit of adult insight.
The new adaptation is ‘grittier’ and more harrowing, hardened by the structures of reality – dirtied costumes, actor’s yellowed teeth – and the effect is of returning to a cherished childhood home to discover not the warm and welcoming site of nurture, but something more sinister, run-down, dark. And along with this comes a powerful realisation: This is where I come from; this is who I am.