It is taking on a very tricky task, to tinker with a much-loved novel, especially one that was published in 1908, written for all ages, and which has sold over 50 million copies, not to mention the fact that an earlier television series from 1985 has its own army of articulate fans. The Canadian author, Lucy Maude Montgomery, set her story in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, in the late 19th century, an era of rural farms and horse-drawn buggies, one-room school houses, hard work and hardship for some, comfort and plenty for others. What is it that creates such love and loyalty for the book, Anne of Green Gables
This three series adaptation (2017-2020) for Netflix, written and co-produced by the Emmy-winning Moira Walley-Beckett – of Breaking Bad
and Flesh and Bone
– maintains the strengths and sensitivities of the original book, while recognising that its truths are universal and timeless. With additional storylines and characters, and slight alteration of emphasis, Walley-Beckett's Anne with an E
is made more relevant to our own century, pointing up issues around gender conformity, sexism, racial prejudice and social justice, while also piling on the joy and laughter, following the exploits of this outspoken and outrageous heroine as she negotiates 'Life', with a capital L.
In 1896, a skinny, red-headed orphan girl of 13 is sent by train from Charlottetown, the capital, to be fostered with a middle-aged, unmarried brother and sister, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, on their farm, Green Gables. The trouble at once is that the Cuthberts had requested a boy, to help with the chores.
Rather like Dustin Hoffman auditioning in Tootsie
, Anne declares desperately that she can certainly be everything that they want and do everything that they need, but she cannot actually be a boy, just as Dustin Hoffman couldn't actually be any taller. This dilemma, in brief, is the heart of the story and its enduring appeal: we all must discover and accept who we are (even if this includes red hair) and throughout life we will find others who accept us as well. Anne is insistent that her name has an 'e' on the end, because this makes her more special. She may not be what Marilla and Matthew thought they wanted, but it does not take long before they realise just how special she is, this firecracker in boots who explodes into their carefully constructed and constrained lives.
There is a large cast of colourful characters in Anne with an E
, but in particular the trio around whom the story revolves is amazing: Amybeth McNulty's Anne fizzes with energy and intelligence, a boundless imagination and resourcefulness to draw on, often for the service of others; R H Thomson, as Matthew, whose large and small screen appearances of half a century give him that ease of a character actor who can take up any role and be utterly convincing; and Geraldine James, in what has been referred to as one of the great roles of her later career, creates in Marilla a woman who has forgotten what it was like to laugh and to be loved, to take chances, to be herself.
All three have in common their fear of becoming attached to another soul lest they be disappointed or deserted. This, perhaps, is where the new series acquires another layer different from other series, and from the books (of which there are seven sequels). The focus on the older generation is fuller and more significant to the storyline, as both the older and the younger characters develop throughout the series.
Whalley-Beckett looks a little deeper into what is essentially a coming of age novel, to include the psychological excavations that make any good story more meaningful, as they delve into human emotions. Anne is an outsider, who must find her place within the relationship of Matthew and Marilla (fractious to say the least, but mutually dependent) without fracturing it; she is taunted at school for being not only an orphan, but red-headed and outspoken, not a good combination; and, worse, she is a girl in an age when the superiority of boys was unquestioningly accepted. Except, it is Anne who knows how to save her friend's younger sister from croup; it is Anne who knows how to prevent a house from burning down; it is Anne who realises that the town property deal is a scam. There are also issues between the social status of the Cuthberts as farmers and the town families of some degree of wealth, such as that of her best friend.
The episodes are full of humour – sometimes predictable – and delightful details: the new schoolmistress arriving on a motorbike, to everyone's astonishment; the accidental burning down of the schoolhouse by the school board itself; baking in country kitchens; excruciating recitals by young ladies in townhouse parlours; Marilla asking what this word 'feminism' means exactly. The filming of the Canadian countryside – through the seasons – taking in the extravagant glory, as Anne would have it, of lakes and trees, evokes, as intended, a more innocent-seeming time; the costumes and interiors are superb, genuine to a belt buckle and kitchen sink.
There are interesting parallels with other series that could also be called 'coming of age' stories, such as The OC
or Veronica Mars
, which ran from 2004 to 2019 and has been described as 'rich and complex'. In both of these it is a troubled outsider with special qualities who comes to the rescue of others, gaining acceptance and at the same time following a journey of self-discovery. Sixteen-year-old Veronica Mars, for example, lives with her detective father after her mother inexplicably left home. Like Marilla and Matthew, they support each other following a loss that they cannot bring themselves to speak about. Anne herself longs to discover her own story, to reassure herself that though she was abandoned she had been loved.
As much as anything, this is a story of how friendship sustains life, whether it is the close friendships that develop between the schoolgirls in their woodland writing retreat, or the bohemian friends of Aunt Josephine, who is herself the voice of a less prejudiced future both for women and for men who do not conform to the expectations of society.
The introduction into the series of black characters in central roles creates a historically better balance, and Dalmar Abuzeid as Sebastian 'Bash' Lacroix brings to the story a reminder that a black community existed at this time in Charlottetown. Again, it is the outsider who causes other characters to examine and recognise their own prejudices, providing the opportunity for discovering more about themselves in the process. French settlers and Native Canadians also play parts, and yes, it sometimes has the feel of setting out to be inclusive, but these characters are well-developed and believable, with back stories and personal desires that are convincing. Cross-cultural and cross-racial friendships both strengthen and enhance Anne with an E
Adaptations arouse strong feelings, perhaps especially those taken from books which were read at an impressionable age, so to speak. There are some who feel that these stories are untouchable, set in aspic, and in particular that they 'belong' to those intense adolescent years. However, one reason that these stories flourish from one generation to the next is that they strike an internal chord that still echoes in adulthood. With the enormous success of stories about young adults, such as The Hunger Games
, and the adaptation of books by Leigh Bardugo – Shadow and Bone
– grown-ups are more willing to explore what young adult novels have to offer for them.
This is the story of an outsider, who wins over her adversaries and whose determination makes more of herself than is ever expected of her, all the while acting as a catalyst for others; Anne with an E
is a tale of identity discovered. And where do you think she got her red hair from? Of course, she's Scottish.