Netflix's Anne with an E is a dark but predictable take on LM Montgomery iconic novel series
By Maya Palit
There’s one point in Anne with an E, a new television adaptation of Canadian author LM Montgomery’s iconic Anne of Green Gables series of novels, where you have to laugh.
It’s where 13-year-old Anne, who usually has a very severe case of verbal diarrhoea, scandalises Marilla, the woman adopting her, by saying she doesn’t pray. Anne then backtracks, kneels quickly, and offers up a to-the-point prayer:
This is as far as the scene goes in the book, but in the TV series, she begins to wax lyrical all over. “As God is my witness, I will do everything in my earthy power to make you want to keep me. God give me strength to succeed in my quest,” she shouts dramatically, until Marilla tells her to shut up and go to bed.
The new series on Netflix exaggerates everything readers have always loved about the titular character (played brilliantly by Irish actor Amybeth McNulty): A quirky and headstrong orphan who arrives at a sleepy, picturesque island in Nova Scotia and wreaks havoc there. It highlights her hyperactive imagination, her ridiculous propensity to talk the ears off subdued people, and her desperation to cultivate friendships.
Montgomery’s eight book series, first published in 1908, became a massive hit with over 50 million copies sold around the world. These books have captivated several generations of women readers and gained a huge readership around the world, from Japan (where Anne-themed weddings became a rage) and Iran to India (a friend even saved up for years to visit Anne’s island and pay darshan to the legendary character’s home, now a tourist hotspot).
The new TV show introduces darker themes that are only mentioned briefly and ultimately glossed over in the books, such as Anne’s previous experiences with abusive employers. And for this emphasis on bleaker aspects and incidents, some critics appear to be at war with this TV show. It is being called a ‘Gothic nightmare’ that has ‘perverted’ the original with all its brooding and melancholia. ‘Anne with PTSD’ just doesn’t cut it for some folk, making them feel it ‘sucks the soul’ out of the much-loved book series.
However, the TV show isn’t ‘relentlessly grim’ at all, since it doesn’t undercut the overriding optimism and sense of hope that make the Anne books what they are.
It’s not like Netflix has made her the subject of a vampire flick either. Nor have they followed author Margaret Atwood’s compelling (but only half-serious) projection of what a ‘dark’ sequel to the Anne story might look like – STDs, prostitution and an untimely death – a strictly A-rated vision.
What seems to be upsetting critics is that this show just more openly addresses subjects like hunger and trauma by inventing plot twists that absent in the original – for example, getting characters to jump to pre-conceived conclusions that Anne is thieving and sending her away, amping up the vicious bullying she faces in school, and providing a sense that her troubled past is always bubbling just under the surface.
A version that doesn’t shy away from these grim details is intriguing. Not because, as some ardent fans have claimed, that it is in some way more representative of ‘our times’ or Montgomery’s own lived experience (she had a broken home, turbulent and unhappy love affairs, and might have committed suicide). No, the darker undercurrents of the Anne story have been something enthusiasts have discussed for years. Just see what Montgomery puts Anne through over the series, including deaths, financial struggle, and losing a son in the Second World War. It’s true that the books always end on a reconciliatory note, but taking the gamble to imagine Anne’s backstory only makes the show more powerful. Imagination is, after all, the strongest suit of the books and Anne’s most celebrated trait.
Even if you forget about Anne for a second (given how verbose she is, this is rather hard to do), the ‘grimmer’ TV version manages a stark and powerful portrayal of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the brother and sister duo who adopt Anne. It delves into their histories, lost loves, lifetimes of repression and loneliness, grueling work and penury, so that rather than being flat side characters, you begin to realise why the introduction of a weird little kid alters their lives so much.
There have also been enough previous adaptations that have stuck more or less faithfully to the original novels. Anne became wildly successful on the big screen and has been immortalized in a Japanese anime called Akage no An in 1979, a silent film in 1919, a Slovak radio drama in 1966, a Sri Lankan TV show in 2007, and yet another anime in 2010.
Given this proliferation of spin-offs, can you really blame the writer Moira Walley-Beckett (who also collaborated on the television drama Breaking Bad) for feeling that television is saturated with Anne adaptations, and for wanting to reinvent it a little?
Anne with an E does stumble from time to time, and its treatment of a ‘dark unberbelly’ misses its mark sometimes. While the show is effective and the acting is powerful, it signals a jarring and forced departure every time it wants to take you on a flashback into Anne’s past.
Anne tends to fall into a trance of sorts when she starts remembering how she was beaten up or mistreated by her former employers, and these sequences frequently have a dim, greyish look that is a stark contrast to the otherwise beautifully lit cinematography of the show (apparently heavily influenced by Terrence Malik and Jane Campion’s style). She sometimes drops a piece of crockery, appears visibly shaken, or sedate and silent when she returns to her ‘normal’ state. This happens so frequently that you begin to feel like the show tries much too hard to sort the ‘dark’ and ‘happy’ aspects of Anne’s character into neat boxes.
“I like imagining better than remembering… Why are the worst memories the most insistent?” Anne asks after one such flashback. But with the show veering between desperately obvious ‘trauma’ scenes and chirpy scenes with Anne jabbering non-stop, it acquires an unconvincing and schizophrenic quality, rather than showing the depths and texture of Anne’s memories and imaginative meanderings.
I’m all for a Gothic revisionist take on Anne of Green Gables, and this one comes so close but finally misses by making its character like a character lost in the labyrinths of a Polanski film, or else like the frenetic enthu cutlet Alec Baldwin plays in one episode of Friends (“You’re like Santa Claus on Prozac in Disney Land getting laid,” someone tells him). Enthusiasm and romanticising are a core part of Anne’s character, but a little less shuttling between the polarities of Anne’s worlds would have made a less predictable show.
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