Includes Major Spoilers
Since the premiere of Anne with an E, I’ve struggled with posting a review of my honest thoughts on the series as it’s left me with mixed feelings. From its inception, the announcement sent loyal fans of the ‘80s series with Megan Follows into an upset. I, however, looked forward to a new adaptation for a new generation.
In fact, I went into Anne with an E with an open mind despite my absolute adoration for the Sullivan miniseries. I actually love seeing various adaptations of classic books as each filmmaker brings their own vision to the table. And I looked forward to seeing Moira Walley-Beckett’s interpretation. Unfortunately, the adaptation didn’t feel like much of an adaptation at all. At least not past the first episode.
The first episode began strong and I respected that this would be a more “realistic” interpretation. The dirty fingernails, the hard life on the farm, the darker Bronte-like color scheme, etc. vs Sullivan’s brighter interpretation of aesthetic beauty and idealism. While I much prefer the sunnier Romantic interpretation, which rings truer to Montgomery’s books, I could appreciate and understand an adaptation choosing to focus in on Realism with a touch of Romantic Gothic inspiration instead.
However, the first episode was only lulling book fans into a place of safety. This wasn’t going to be a moodier Romantic adaptation (despite the misleading Jane Eyre references) than the lighter Sullivan version. As after that, the series went off the rails – barely resembling the plot lines and characterization from Montgomery’s beloved novels.
RELATED L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (2016) TV Movie Review – A Cute If Underwhelming Adaptation
If you’re not familiar with the infamous story based on the classic 1908 children’s novel, Anne of Green Gables follows Anne Shirley, a young orphan girl, who mistakenly ends up with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert at Green Gables in the idyllic town of Avonlea. Now getting older, the brother and sister choose to adopt an orphan boy to help on the farm. Only there’s been a mistake! The orphanage sends Anne instead! A girl…
While the shy Matthew connects with Anne right away and longs to keep her, no-nonsense Marilla feels she should be taken back straight away to fix the mistake. Anne, an imaginative girl who uses big words, longs to stay at Green Gables. But will Marilla agree to keep her? From there, we follow the adventures of the red-headed Anne, her friendships and romance and ultimately her coming of age into a smart, capable young woman who can do anything she sets her mind to!
Anne with an E follows a similar structure but twists everything into something darker than L.M. Montgomery ever intended. Now, some viewers may enjoy this gloomy, bleak adaptation. And while I did enjoy some aspects of the series, overall, I was more often than not upset with its’ direction. Before I go off into some of the problematic aspects of the series, Anne with an E is not without its strengths.
Besides the unfortunate miscasting of Rachel Lynde (nothing against the actress’s acting abilities), Anne with an E boasts a fabulously talented cast who fit the parts! I only wish the writing and direction was there to match the fantastic cast. First, there’s Amybeth McNulty as Anne Shirley. Cast closer to Anne’s actual age in the books, she feels and looks the part. While she’s no Megan Follows, McNulty is a talented young actress with a bright future and induces a few goosebump worthy scenes in the first episode.
Then there’s Geraldine James as Marilla. A brilliant British actress, she brings a layered approach to Marilla and delivers lines like the pro she clearly is. However, the writing sometimes interprets her to be closer to the character of Elizabeth from Montgomery’s other brilliant series, Emily of New Moon. Mostly due to the lack of Marilla’s usual wit and dry humor.
And then my personal favorite. R.H. Thomson as Matthew. Now, Avonlea fans may recognize him as Jasper Dale – the beloved awkward (and romantic) inventor with a heart of gold. So, he’s no stranger to adaptations of Montgomery novels. In all, he fits and plays Matthew to perfection. It’s hard to imagine finding anyone more perfect in present day than Thomson for the role.
I was also surprisingly pleased with Lucas Jade Zumann as Gilbert Blythe. While no one will ever live up to Jonathan Crombie’s iconic take on Gilbert (who arguably has just as many fans as Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), Zumann does a great job. Sure, as written, the character’s not quite Gilbert from the books. But it’s easy to see him as a romantic interest for Anne. And it will be fun to watch the two actors grow into their characters. As is, the two already have a believable chemistry.
Dalila Belle, while not as dynamic as the other actors cast, does a fine job as Diana though she is a little on the dull side.
Besides the main players, the supporting cast also does quite well. I was especially pleased with the casting of Kyla Matthews as Ruby Gillis, who seemed to walk right out of the pages of the book. And I did love the exploration of the often ignored character, Jerry, who was played by Aymeric Jett Montaz with a ton of charm.
Besides the wonderful casting, the series also has fantastic production quality. Everything about this series looks professional with a clearly decent sized budget. The quality is comparable in scope to a BBC period drama, which is no easy feat. The cinematography, the music, the costumes, the directing all are wonderful. If the series were standalone, and not an adaptation, I’d probably enjoy the series more than I did. Sure, I’d have some issues with the over the top bleakness, the negative attitudes toward the past, and the misinterpreting of the time period itself but the dialogue is strong, the actors brilliant, and the filmmaking itself well done.
Which brings me to the main problem I have with the series. How Anne with an E works (or doesn’t work in this case) as an adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
Avonlea, A Villain? Modernism Vs. Montgomery’s Romanticism
While this adaptation presents itself as being all about realism, one quickly learns that this is not about realism at all. But rather modernism disguising itself as realism. This isn’t historically accurate to the time and place. Nor is this an accurate reflection of how people behaved or believed. But rather, Anne with an E is a modernist adaptation that uses modern characters and beliefs and places them in the “villainous” past. Characters become heroes in Anne with an E when they see the “typical” morality of the time period as bad. To claim realism in an adaptation that is clearly not is unfair to the audience.
Walley-Beckett can’t write the time period because she appears to have no affection for it. She can’t seem to reconcile that people of that time are different than people today. While Reverend Allan and his wife are kindred spirits to Anne in the books, in this adaptation, the Reverend is a “villain” against women’s rights. Marilla can only be likable because she questions the teachings of the Bible and re-thinks her beliefs to better fit modern views of the 21st century.
In fact, Avonlea, or the past, becomes a villain to modernism and modern ideals. Avonlea, a character in and of itself in Montgomery’s novels, is a place of optimism and hope. However, Avonlea in this interpretation is negative, even verging on sinister. The time period is also a villain. It’s Realism (or Modernism claiming to be Realism) against Romanticism in Anne with an E – arguably a statement against Montgomery’s own viewpoints. One wonders how a writer seemingly against stories with Romanticism would want to adapt Anne of Green Gables – a book series enveloped in imagination and optimism. Not much you’ll see of in Anne with an E. Walley-Beckett interprets nearly every plot from the book with a disturbing lens.
A harmless slate broken over Gilbert’s head in the books due to her impulsive temper becomes more unhinged and almost violent in this adaptation. It wasn’t endearing.
While Anne and Diana giggle over a possible romance between their teacher and a student in the books, in this version, Anne discusses (due to the troubling sexual images she’s witnessed) a bizarre and disturbing sexual analogy about petting mice – which causes the village and the other students to turn against her for a time.
Then there’s Matthew. Our sweet, beloved Matthew. While the Cuthberts do face hardships, it’s never overwhelming or despairing. However, in this adaptation, Matthew contemplates suicide because they’re about to lose the farm. Yes. Suicide. This plot and the handling of it made me incredibly upset. Anne of Green Gables is an uplifting children’s series that has stood the test of time. It’s not an HBO show. It’s not Breaking Bad. And Matthew as a character would never contemplate suicide.
And then there’s the cliffhanger. Villains come to stay at Green Gables. A message that stays true to this version! Don’t be neighborly because you never know when someone’s out to rob and attack you. But I guess we’ll have to wait until next season to see if Marilla and Anne make it out of this situation. Sigh…
Now, let’s talk about Anne and Gilbert! While it’s easy to imagine young girls swooning over the new Gilbert, the writer’s approach to the actual buildup between Anne and Gilbert disappointed me. In this adaptation, Anne and Gilbert don’t connect over an intellectual meeting of the minds. Rather, Walley-Beckett found it would make more sense to turn Gilbert into an orphan as well so they can bond over this similarity. No doubt this is a disservice to both characters as well as their romance. Still, they have a few cute scenes and the two actors work well off each other.
But Anne and Gilbert are not the only romance. Matthew also has a romantic story. Some viewers were upset by this addition to the series as he never had a romance in the books. This was one aspect/change, however, of the series I was actually okay with. I felt it gave some lovely backstory to Matthew and I wanted him to find his own happy ending.
Anne Shirley is one of the most beloved female characters of all time! Imaginative, intelligent, ambitious, compassionate, and yes, hot-tempered, Anne is a character everyone can admire despite her flaws. She faces numerous hardships and yet continues to look at the bright side of life. And along the way, she inspires others to do the same. One doesn’t need to change her to be more feminist as she’s naturally a “strong” (whatever that means) female character as is. And yet, the writers and producers decided Anne just wasn’t good enough. So, they changed her. Tweaked her to fit into the modern 21st century.
Anne is not Anne from the books. Rather she suffers from post-traumatic stress, can be selfish and even whiny (what was the point of Anne’s abysmal treatment of Jerry, the French-Canadian farmhand?), a couple times verging on hysterical. Imagination seems more like a crutch or reaction to abuse and neglect rather than the strength of character and uniqueness Montgomery intended.
Not only that, suddenly Anne is better and smarter than everyone in Avonlea – almost to an eye-rolling ridiculous level. In one episode, Anne even knows how to put out the huge fire when the town firefighters don’t! But remember, Anne is a hero because she’s “modern!” Whereas the “ignorant” villagers of the past couldn’t possibly have any common sense!
Putting Anne on such a high pedestal to make the villagers of Avonlea look bad (or perhaps it was simply to hammer Anne’s greatness into the audience) was silly and overstated.
And while McNulty plays Anne with a charm and likability, overall, I didn’t feel like her character felt like the essence of Anne from the books. This was an altogether new character who, at times, resembled Montgomery’s Anne Shirley.
Growing up, I read the books of Montgomery, watched the Sullivan adaptations, and then later watched the spinoff series Road to Avonlea. The idyllic, dream-like quality of Avonlea was something of wondrous beauty. Books and shows I return to when I need to get away from the harshness of the world. To see it obliterated in this adaptation is an affront to Montgomery, Cavendish (the place Avonlea was based on), childhood, and even Romanticism in general.
Was I entertained by the series? For the most part, yes. But I also felt disturbed and uneasy by the series’ direction. Children should be allowed to have wholesome adaptations of wholesome children’s novels. This is not the adaptation you want to show your children, that’s for sure. I’m not sure Walley-Beckett’s even read the book. Because if she has, she’s completely misunderstood just about every word. It’s as if she decided to take a popular book and reimagine the story to what she “wished” it to be rather than what it is. A writer who can only write bleakness should not be adapting a series all about the opposite. If she wanted to write a period drama with a modernist view, she should have created an original series with new characters.
Overall, while the production quality is strong, Anne with an E is not a believable adaptation of Montgomery’s beloved series. Walley-Beckett misunderstood her audience. And while I’m sure there are many who enjoy it, no doubt the polarizing nature of the series will keep it from ever becoming a definitive adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Unlike the ‘80s Sullivan adaptations, it’s unlikely to become a fan favorite people will return to again and again.
Content Note: The series is Rated TV-PG but a couple of episodes should be rated TV-14 for violence (Anne is beaten in the first episode in a slightly explicit scene), bullying and abuse, adult themes including suicide, and discussion of disturbing sexual situations.
Where to Watch: You can stream the entire series on Netflix.
Fun Factoid 1: One of the Executive Producers is Miranda de Pencier, who played Josie Pye in the Sullivan adaptations of Anne of Green Gables.
Fun Factoid 2: Amanda Tapping of Stargate SG-1 fame directed the season finale!
UPDATE: I grew to like the series more over time and rate it much higher now. The series can be enjoyed if you appreciate it separately from the books. I’ve updated my ratings below to reflect that.
What did you think of Anne with an E? Did you like or dislike this controversial adaptation? Make sure to let me know your thoughts in the comments!