“Anne with an E” and the Mistake of Trying Too Hard

Ever since I was a little girl, Anne Shirley has been a kindred spirit. The redheaded orphan, with her vivid imagination, awkwardness, romantic ideals and love for the dramatic, was someone I felt I could relate to when I was just a little girl whose favourite hobbies were reading and making up stories in my head. She was my friend and my hero. I wanted to be a writer because Anne was a writer. I wanted to go to university because Anne went to university. To this day, Anne of Green Gables is a big deal in my life. A big, big deal.

Like many Anne fans, I grew up loving the 1985 and 1987 adaptations with Megan Follows. (Let’s forget that there was ever a third one.) However, with the newest iteration of Anne – Anne with an E on Netflix – I’m finding myself feeling very conflicted about whether the show is good, just okay or downright terrible. This is the first Anne adaptation I’ve ever seen that veers so drastically from L.M. Montgomery’s original text. Sure, all the highlights – such as the green hair, the slate incident, the red current wine – are there, but the show takes what I call the Little House on the Prairie route, which is, basically, invent an entirely new show around the original characters.

Anne with an E’s tone is bleak, sometimes moody and even a little gritty. The show goes out of its way to give everyone a tragic past: even shy and sweet-natured Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson) has anxiety attacks, there is an episode where Marilla (Geraldine James) is literally haunted by the death of her mother, and Anne herself frequently flashbacks to the bullying and abused she’s endured before she came to Green Gables. It’s like the Oprah Winfrey show up in here: “YOU get a childhood trauma! And YOU get a childhood trauma!” Also there are con artists in Avonlea now, Gilbert Blythe (Lucas Jade Zumann) is now an orphan left alone in the world, and Billy Andrews is a misogynistic and homophobic antagonist. Drama is inserted into the narrative with plot lines that keep hitting us over the head with the sentiment that life is hard back then, goddamnit! as though we’re somehow unaware of this fact and are in need of constant reminder.

Anne herself can be downright unlikeable in this second season. The show, whether intentionally or not, makes her appear careless to the point of being selfish: she writes to Vera, Matthew’s love interest, on Matthew’s behalf without him knowing; she picks a fight with Gilbert about his decision to fast-track his studies and become a doctor; she tries to make Miss Stacy like her by divulging personal information about her friend Cole; she brushes off Diana’s discomfort about Miss Josephine instead of having a genuine conversation. And when she realises that she has done wrong, her repentance does not come across as authentic as the show might like it to. Her guilt and her apologies are somehow more about her than about the people she’s hurt. The show makes it seem as though she’s sorry only because she’s afraid that these people won’t love her anymore: “Have you ever hurt someone so badly that they couldn’t love you anymore?”

As a character, Anne Shirley is not perfect. She can be vain. She can be obsessed with impossible ideals and get lost in her own head. But she is never selfish or self-centred or carelessly unkind. Perhaps the show is trying to make her more multi-faceted, but by misinterpreting her shortcomings, the Anne we are left with is an Anne who represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Anne Shirley and what she means to generations of book readers. Yes, every woman is complex and flawed, but it is frustrating when a female character is made to be so just because without consideration for the spirit of the original story.

Somehow everything is A Statement in this show. Gilbert is now #Woke, while Anne herself is now the town’s ultimate feminist champion. The show seems to have forgotten that what makes Anne a feminist character is not that she riles at boys who go around lifting up girls’ skirts or because she fervently declares at the top of her voice that, “Girls can do anything!” Anne doesn’t stand out because other people in the town are narrow-minded and incompetent in comparison. Anne is a feminist character because she just is. Her very existence – her individuality, her ambition, her intelligence – is feminist. She, along with the show’s gay and black characters, doesn’t need clumsy exposition or obvious winks at the camera to be affecting.

What makes Anne’s story in the novels compelling is the drama of everyday life – of discovering kindred spirits and believing in the life-changing power of simple acts of kindness. It is about the refusal to dwell on the grimness of life but forging ahead, armed with imagination, hope and fortitude. There are plenty of people who love this new adaptation of Anne, and I don’t ever want to be the person who scoffs at their enjoyment, but I personally think that there is no need for such heavy-handed storytelling in order to make Anne’s journey – and the journeys of her friends and families – relatable and relevant to a modern audience. Darkness does not have to lurk around every corner for a story to have meaning. Sometimes, less really is more.

Stray Thoughts

  • Ruby Gillis is perfect
  • Dalmar Abuzeid brings such charm and heart to the character of Bash, I can only hope he’s going to be given something good to do in the next season. The sight of Mary’s grown son loitering by the door of the church at their wedding is presented as an ominous sight, though, and again, I am questioning why this added drama is necessary?
  • God, the fox storyline. Enough with the fox storyline! Just kill the damn thing, Billy! I couldn’t care less!
  • An entire episode dedicated to Diana’s parents’ martial problems? Really?
  • Matthew has a romantic love interest. MATTHEW.
  • Prissy Andrews leaves closeted Mr. Philips at the altar and then twirls around joyously with her group of girlfriends in a moment of feminist liberation is hilarious. Guys, come on. Subtlety can be your friend, you know.
  • Miss Stacy, with her trousers, her bike and her unconventional lessons, is impossible not to love.
  • What makes Anne and Gilbert’s relationship so iconic and groundbreaking in the books is that it is truly a meeting of equals; their rivalry in school forms the cornerstone of their relationship. Their pairing is a classic enemies-to-friends-to-lovers trope. I’d even watch the hell out of a Transformers film if there’s a version of Anne and Gil in it: that’s how much I love them. But so far the show has never gotten their dynamic quite right. In this second season, however, there are signs, with the arrival of the delightful Miss Stacy and their competition in her class, that there might just be better times ahead?

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