Note: No major spoilers in this review of Anne with an E. It discusses only the first two episodes of the seven part series.
Listening as Mom read chapters from Anne of Green Gables at bedtime is a cherished childhood memory. Old enough (8 or 9?) to read L. M. Montgomery’s book myself, I appreciated the portioned delivery. It made it last.
My sister and I loved watching Anne productions, Anne of Avonlea, the sequel to the wildly popular Anne of Green Gables starring Megan Follows as well as the later Avonlea series broadcast on the Disney channel. It may have been why my parents caved for the cable channel. I’m sure we begged. I liked hearing about the spunky orphan Anne Shirley and her adventures around beautiful Avonlea. I related to Anne’s love of school and her frustrations with being bullied for uncontrollable factors like appearance. She didn’t wear glasses and I’m not redheaded, but we both spoke up for ourselves. I related to the feeling of being an outsider at times, wanting to be accepted for my differences.
This month Netflix released a new adaptation, Anne with an E. Before watching it, I listened to some of the Anne of Green Gables audiobook to refresh my literary memory. Things landed differently when I read it with an adult perspective. As a kid, I didn’t grasp how Anne’s “scope for imagination” was a coping mechanism.
I grabbed a few oatmeal craisin cookies and took a seat on the couch with the terriers to screen Anne with an E. Fiddle notes score a flyover of the lush mudflats of Prince Edward Island’s coastline. A drumbeat sounds as a horseman gallops into view. The dramatic soaring music and expansive landscape reminds me of something out of Braveheart without all the hollering and bloodshed. Breathless, I watch the action. The horse splashes through the shallows. Sunlight slices through the trees. A train whistles in the distance. Who is this man on a mission? Why the rush? This is different from the soft opening of the book.
There’s an abrupt cut to a mellow theme. It’s as if you left your stressful life to explore a peculiar tree house, climbing into a cozy space. The credits play like you flopped on a leaf pile and opened an album scrapbooked with Anthropologie-approved drawings depicting imagery from Anne’s story. The alt-rock song, “You Were Ahead by a Century,” nods to Anne’s feminism.
Ah, finally I see serene vista of Green Gables. Its people, the middle-aged siblings Cuthbert, sit before me. The setting’s accurate in details of glass housewares and plain clothing and clean rooms. Chattering Marilla bustles around while Matthew shines then laces his boots. This matches my book-set expectations.
Next I see Anne’s image in a train window then the camera pulls back to show her smiling in awe at the countryside view. Anne values her reflections. A crying baby interrupts her. It triggers a flashback to a darker time both emotionally and visually. As she audibly shutters, her older female companion notices. Anne says to her, “I like imagining better than remembering. Why are the worst memories the most insistent?”
So true, Anne Shirley.
As Matthew retrieves Anne from the train station, her constant dialogue–just how I remembered her–is similar to the fast talkers in Gilmore Girls. This may be a series to excuse Stockton from. And yet, Amybeth McNulty’s version of Anne with earnest eyes and enthusiasm charms me more than annoys me. Meanwhile, Matthew’s (R. H. Thomson) silent head tilts and half grins make me grateful for the audio description I enabled. Cheers for accessibility.
I’m delighted to meet again characters who faded after grade school. Imaginative but unestablished Anne. The nosy, overbearing neighbor Rachel Lynde. The stark and practical, hair-pulled-in-a-severe-knot presented Marilla, who opts to adopt Anne. The character struggles allow room to develop nuanced story arcs. This show catches the details.
Life is not easy, more so one supposes for an orphan like Anne in the 1870s before child welfare laws. It makes me uneasy to imagine how a young lady living with a visual impairment would have fared. Contemporary audiences can expect grim realities from pop culture. Life isn’t fair and to delude yourself by retreating to fantasy won’t yield the growth of facing your demons and carrying on despite them. This take, from writer Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad, promises to offer the shadowy complexities of Anne’s and perhaps even the Cuthbert’s past to fully color their rich futures.
In books, readers may miss depressive hints. Do you remember reading the genesis of Anne’s imaginary friend, Katie Maurice? What does it say about a child who stares at a pane of her foster mother’s bookcase which survived (so far) the rages of her alcoholic foster father and she dreams her lonely reflection can be instead a comforting friend? Contemplate it or quickly turn the page, but L. M. Montgomery folded subtext into the original story a sentence or two at a time. If you dared to linger, her salty hints subtly enhanced the sugar cookie text.
On screen you can’t forget melancholy moments. The show’s writers created brief flashbacks lit in blue tones that animate the fear, sadness, and anger of Anne’s abuse. With more episodes to watch, these harsh scenes could warp her resilient spirit in the face of lost innocence, but then again Anne didn’t ask for what she endured. When unsavory truth bakes in the sun, we can harvest strength.
Ignoring tragedies in anyone’s life doesn’t fix them. Sugar-coating incidents provides a refuge, but like abstinence it’s typically unsustainable. Compared to the pleasant yet dated 1985 miniseries Anne of Green Gables, the edgier Anne with an E tweaks the narrative for modern sensibilities. Even though it was too obvious, I’m forgiving of the bleak added material which brings a complex Anne to viewers.
After two episodes, there’s so much to love already about this adaptation from gorgeous cinematography to believable acting to a fitting theme song and thoughtful design–down to that broken carpetbag–in each set. Just like Anne Shirley, Anne with an E is full of potential. It would be a shame to come so far and be disappointed.
Have you read Anne of Green Gables? Are you watching Anne with an E? Do you watch adaptations or read sequels to your stories? Puffed sleeves, yay or nay? Tell me about it.