If you’ve been waiting your whole life to hear Anne Shirley or Diana Barry get more canonical with their love than promises of eternal bosom friendship, Anne With An E — Netflix’s rework of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s much beloved, much adapted novel — will satisfy that longing for you, as long as you’re okay with the soul of Green Gables being ripped to shreds around it.
There are lots of ways to adapt a beloved book into a film or a TV series. You could go the BBC Pride and Prejudice route, for example: six hours of tender devotion to every word Jane Austen wrote. You could go the Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice route: Two hours to pull on the most essential narrative threads and wrap them around the spirit of the original work.
Or you could go the Anne With An E route: Yank out all the bones of the plot and hammer them back together in the shape of the Game of Thrones. Turn Matthew’s calm conviction that Marilla shouldn’t send Anne away into a horse chase that ends with him smashing his head through a buggy window and saving her from a sinister man. Turn the brief mentions of Anne’s hard, lonely life before Green Gables into flashbacks of full blown dog-barking, scream-crying, alcoholic-dying-while-beating-the-hell-out-of-her abuse. Turn the teasing of Anne’s classmates into actual assault. Replace Anne’s relentless optimism with PTSD. And maybe, while you’re at it, give shy, stoic Matthew a girlfriend and a gun and have him ponder killing himself.
The New Yorker calls Anne With An E “a betrayal,” which I think is true. The series’ producer and writer, Moira Walley-Beckett (most known for her work on Breaking Bad), didn’t trust Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work, which has stood the test of time for over a century, to hold itself up. The costuming is real, the set decoration is authentic, most of the dialogue is rooted in the time period. But every scene is winking at us from the present, reminding us constantly that this is 1900 filtered through the lens of 2017, inviting our judgment and derision aimed at characters who haven’t had the benefit of a century’s worth of progress and education and Tumblr’s social justice lessons at their fingertips.
“Feminism,” Mrs. Andrews breathlessly exclaims at book club, “What a wonderful word!” Marilla isn’t so sure. Marilla Cuthbert, who never married and ran half a farm her whole life and raised a daughter who believed she could accomplish anything a man could do and more. Marilla, a naive dimwit who is freaked out in 1900 by the word feminism. God, you guys, she’s just so backwards.
The reason Anne Shirley has remained a feminist icon for over a hundred years isn’t because she stood up to boys telling her her place was in the kitchen. Or because she kept going to school despite advice from Marilla’s pastor that she should just stay home and learn to become a wife. Or because she ran into a burning building to save the day. (All of which happen in the new series.) The reason Anne Shirley has remained a feminist icon is because she’s smart and uncompromising and every day she learns a little bit more and teaches the people around her a little bit more until she has, in inches, transformed and been transformed by the folks of Avonlea. The real Gilbert Blythe helps her see that truth; he doesn’t rush into the woods to save Anne from a teenage boy calling her a “bad dog” and threatening to “teach her a lesson” while the music menaces and threatens more than just bullying.
Anne With an E’s feminism is so clumsy; every villain fighting against it is a cartoon character.
Well, but Anne does spell it out that she loves Diana in a gay way. Not all this turn of the century subtext about “I’ll never have another bosom friend—I don’t want to have. I couldn’t love anybody as I love you” or “If you love me as I love you, nothing but death can part us two” like Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote and the 1980s mini-series faithfully relayed to its audience. No, this was, per Twitter’s ceaseless request, loud enough for the people in the back. On a walk, Diana explains lesbianism to her friend who, in the book, kissed Diana’s letters and slept with them under her pillow.
Diana: [My aunt] is disinclined to stay at home since her companion died.
Anne: Her companion?
Diana: Her best friend forever and ever. Aunt Josephine never married. Neither of them did. They lived with each other their whole lives.
Anne: I’d live with you forever if I could, but I know you’ll leave me the day you get married to some wealthy and handsome gentleman. I hate him already.
You know curmudgeonly, wealthy Josephine Barry from the Anne of Green Gables books. Anne and Diana visit her and she becomes one of Anne’s kindred spirits. She’s an outspoken queer feminist in Netflix’s adaptation, which is welcome, of course, but would have worked a whole lot better if she hadn’t been written as 2017’s Mary Sue.
Season one ends in the blistering way it begins. No, Matthew’s not racing off on any horses. But two thieves who’ve already stolen the Cuthbert’s money and beaten up a kid in town show up at Green Gables to take Marilla up on her advertisement for boarders. Dun, dun, dun!
Moira Walley-Beckett told The Guardian earlier this year that “There are other versions of Anne out there for five-year-olds,” which is ironic, really, considering that unlike those other versions, Anne With an E doesn’t put faith in its audience to understand anything that isn’t smashed into its consciousness like Anne’s slate to Gilbert’s face. As if making something “gritty” makes it mature.
Anne of Green Gables is a story of profound hope and optimism, a story about the power of story, a story above all about the transformative nature of love. Anne Shirley is so happy to live in a world where there are Octobers. I’m so happy to live in a world where Anne Shirley’s legacy won’t be defined by this ham-handed adaptation.