Amybeth McNulty, the star of the book’s coming Netflix adaptation, “Anne With an E,” near her home in County Donegal, Ireland.Credit...Eva O’Leary for The New York Times. Hair: Laura Gibbons. Makeup: Mary Ellen Darby. Stylist: Ailis Mara.
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By Willa Paskin
Do you know Anne Shirley? You would like her. Everybody does. A lively and optimistic survivor with a feverish imagination and unchecked enthusiasms, she is a redheaded outsider who becomes an insider without forsaking her peculiarities or her intelligence. An inadvertent feminist, an unrepentant romantic, a hot-tempered sprite, she’s impulsive, she’s dramatic, she’s smart, she’s funny, she insists on spelling her name with an E at the end because it “looks so much nicer.” She speaks in exclamation marks and italics even when in the “depths of despair,” which, as an abused child, she knows a thing or two about. She is perpetually seeking “kindred spirits.” She loves trees and stories and nut-brown hair and will burn whatever is in the oven while dreaming about trees and stories and nut-brown hair. She can heal an infant with the croup, but she “cannot tie [herself] down to anything so unromantic as dishwashing” at “thrilling” moments or be asked to eat anything “so unromantic [as boiled pork and beans] when one is in affliction.” She is small and freckled and indefatigable. She is nearly 110 years old.
Anne Shirley is the heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved 1908 novel, “Anne of Green Gables,” the chronicle of a spirited but previously unloved orphan taken into the town of Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, by the unmarried, middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Over a period of years and a nearly endless series of scrapes — falling off roofs, dyeing her hair green, accidentally intoxicating her best friend — Anne transforms the hearts of everyone around her while making a home for herself. The book has sold over 50 million copies and has been translated into at least 36 languages. Polish resistance fighters took “Green Gables” with them to the front; the novel became a part of the Japanese school curriculum in the orphan-filled postwar 1950s; a television show based on the series aired in Sri Lanka; and the book occupies a pre-eminent place in Canada, where “Green Gables” is taught in school and featured on postage stamps — a cultural export matched only by hockey and the Mounties. While contemporaneous tales of motherless girls, like “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Pollyanna” and “A Little Princess” have faded from popular memory, Anne has thrived, continuing to connect with audiences as she did with Mark Twain, who once described her as “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”
Anne is also, to use the blunt jargon of the entertainment business, a strong female character with a pre-existing fan base who recently entered the public domain: an adaptation waiting to happen — again. The novel and its seven Montgomery-penned sequels have already spawned a silent movie, a talkie and more than half a dozen TV shows, including the particularly adored 1985 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation mini-series starring Megan Follows as Anne and a recently aired PBS version starring Martin Sheen as Matthew. There is also a Japanese anime; a Canadian cartoon; multiple musicals, including Canada’s longest-running one; an authorized prequel novel; and the entire bustling branch of the Canadian tourism industry that is the Anne-obsessed summer season in P.E.I. Starting next month, Netflix, in collaboration with the CBC, will air “Anne With an E,” the latest reimagining of “Anne of Green Gables” — this time as an ambitious TV drama.
“Anne With an E” is being overseen, written and co-produced by Moira Walley-Beckett, a “Breaking Bad” writer from Canada who also created “Flesh and Bone,” a 2015 Starz series about the physically and mentally brutal field of ballet. Walley-Beckett won an Emmy for writing “Ozymandias,” the watch-through-your-fingers episode of “Breaking Bad” in which the heroic cop Hank Schrader is slaughtered in the New Mexican desert because of his brother-in-law, the meth lord Walter White. This may seem like a counterintuitive credit for someone updating “Anne of Green Gables,” but it is a signal of the project’s aspirations. Walley-Beckett wants to bring the long-term psychological explorations, story arcs and heady themes of virtuosic TV, as well as its production values, to bear on the lighthearted, primarily episodic novel.
What this means in practice is that the cheerful novel has, in Walley-Beckett’s hands, become much darker. Extrapolating from asides in the text, Walley-Beckett has fleshed out minor characters; given major ones back stories; drawn out themes of gender parity, prejudice, isolation and bullying; and emphasized the trauma of Anne’s childhood. On Anne’s first journey to Green Gables in the new TV show, she is still, as in the book, so overcome by the beauty of a drive thick with apple trees in bloom that she renames it “the White Way of Delight.” But in an invention of the show, she is also overcome by memories of being beaten by her former employer. The resulting seven-episode season, the first of a hoped-for five, all based on the first novel, is an amalgam of that which is expected from Anne Shirley (her buoyancy) and that which makes for prestigious television today (her depths).
If you begin to ask why Anne has remained popular for as long as she has, you will get multiple explanations and a bounty of adjectives: She’s curious. She’s hopeful. She’s optimistic. She’s timeless. She’s ahead of her time. She’s imperfect, but perfectly so. She is easy to love. Everything about Anne — her disposition, her gender, her age, her provenance — is a rarity for acclaimed television. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Hannah Horvath and the rest of the antihero litany are infamously challenging to love, while Anne’s appeal is as plain as the freckles on her face. When I mentioned to Walley-Beckett that Anne is a straightforwardly winning character, her initial reaction was to defend her as if from an undermining charge. “Oh, she has got some antihero stuff, which is fun,” Walley-Beckett said. “She’s not classically beautiful, and she has a bad temper, and she can be heedless.” But then she agreed that yes, “she is a highly lovable and yummy pleasure to sit down with at night.”
When Walley-Beckett says that Anne has some antiheroic traits, she is not denigrating Anne’s charms. She is making a claim for Anne’s importance in the terms of our television moment, when antiheroes are seen as self-evidently fascinating but a resilient teenage girl who has been adored for over a century might be dismissed as kid’s stuff. Walley-Beckett is, needless to say, hoping that “Anne With an E” will be meaningful to children, and especially young women, but she is very explicit about refusing to pander to them. “My bottom line is: Go deep and make the show worthy of watching,” she says. “There are other versions of ‘Anne’ out there for 5-year-olds.”
With her TV series, Walley-Beckett is trying to solve a riddle: If everything about “Anne of Green Gables” is what prestige TV usually avoids, how do you adapt it in a way that is both sufficiently sophisticated and yet not a betrayal of the source material? Can Anne Shirley, the yummy pleasure who has flourished by cheerfully gliding above her trauma, be transformed into an almost-antiheroine who, in the fashion of contemporary television, has to grapple with her awful past directly? And can she do so while remaining quintessentially Anne?
In late November, on the outskirts of Toronto, inside an exacting historical recreation of an 1890s P.E.I. farmhouse — itself within an old gum factory — strings of apples, cut carefully into rings, appeared to be drying above a cast-iron stove. Oatmeal-colored laundry rested on a rack beside it. Canned fruits, dilly beans, baskets of parsnips, brussels sprouts and russet potatoes were among the fare in a fully stocked pantry. Dark wood desks were filled with letters ready to be mailed, addressed using quill and ink. Outside the green front door, after a small porch gave way to a yard but before that yard gave way to the poured-concrete floor of the factory, the earth was red. Crushed bricks had been rolled out like a rusty red carpet, the color of the iron-rich sandstone soil of Prince Edward Island.
“Anne With an E” was filmed briefly on P.E.I. but spent the majority of its six-month shoot at two locations in Ontario: the gum factory for interiors and a farmstead outside the small city of Pickering for exteriors. At the farmstead, the crew painted and stripped the barn; turned its main floor into a hayloft; sank its electric wires underground; fenced in the paddock; added a porch, a roof and an attic onto the farmhouse; and planted a tall tree — now dead but stapled with a smattering of autumnal leaves — just outside, so Anne would have the cherry tree mentioned in the novel to stare at reverently from her bedroom window.
Walley-Beckett, who has lived in Los Angeles for the last two decades but was born and raised in and around Vancouver, is meticulous in the way of many accomplished creative people, whose imaginations are matched only by a fanatical patience for detail work. She is so devoted to giving Anne what she called a “documentary feel” that she assured me the potatoes in Marilla’s pantry were period accurate. (They were smaller than supermarket behemoths but otherwise unremarkable.) She insisted on making room in the budget for a 10-foot-long burbling creek, built behind a schoolhouse also constructed from scratch, because the novel mentions that Anne and her fellow students put their milk bottles in a brook to “keep it cool and sweet until the dinner hour,” an evocative detail Walley-Beckett said she “couldn’t do without.”
Yet, on this November morning, Walley-Beckett was settled into a director’s chair inside Matthew Cuthbert’s bedroom, full of the period, right-angled wood furniture that hurts your back just to look at it, watching as Amybeth McNulty, the 15-year-old Irish actress who plays Anne, filmed a scene that cannot be found anywhere in the novel. Walley-Beckett did not use a writer’s room for “Anne,” writing all seven scripts herself, and told me with no little pride that she was “almost completely off book.” To flesh out what she hopes will be an at-least-35-hour series, she filmed new histories for Matthew and Marilla that explain how they wound up emotionally remote and unmarried; reimagined one of the novel’s many spinsters as one-half of a long Boston marriage; conjured an entire character, the Cuthberts’ young farmhand, Jerry, from a few of Montgomery’s sentences; sent Marilla to a progressive parenting group in which “feminism” is complimentarily defined; aged Anne from 11 to 13; and accentuated Anne’s abusive upbringing while taking countless other liberties with the plot.
Walley-Beckett has long white-blond hair and a dancer’s comportment that give her the air of a romantic disguised in bluejeans. She looked on as, in the scene, Anne both lets loose her imagination and is brought up painfully by her past. Perched on a tabletop, Anne stares into a pewter plate as if it were a mirror, imagining herself to be a Princess Cordelia, talking to her servant Griselda about a new ball gown. “I do so appreciate your attentions, Griselda,” she says to her imaginary maid, but increasingly to herself. “I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. How awful it would be to be in service to people who neglect you and treat you unkindly. I imagine it would make you feel quite small and hopeless and occasionally despairing and sometimes lacking in confidence. I wonder if those feelings ever go away.”
Early in the novel, Anne laments: “You would cry, too, if you were an orphan and had come to a place you thought was going to be home and found that they didn’t want you because you weren’t a boy. Oh, this is the most tragical thing that ever happened to me!” Her hysteria is so charming that it masks the bleakness of her circumstance, but the circumstances are bleak indeed. Orphaned at 3 months, Anne spends years of her life working — first for the Thomases, looking after their four young children and avoiding the drunken Mr. Thomas, and then for the Hammonds, who have eight children, including three sets of twins. When Mr. Hammond dies, Anne is sent back to an orphanage. Anne develops her much-heralded imagination visualizing a playmate in a bookcase’s only surviving plate-glass front, so lonely she can find a friend only in her own dim reflection.
All these details appear in the book, but Montgomery treats them with such a light touch that they often come to adult rereaders as a surprise, an unexpectedly painful subtext they may not have noticed as children. Walley-Beckett makes it manifest. In “Anne With an E,” Anne is constantly remembering her abuse, filmed in jerky, tightly framed, intentionally disorienting flashbacks of, for example, Mr. Hammond’s dying of a heart attack while beating her with his belt. Crying babies cause her to recall Mrs. Hammond sneeringly describe her as a “miserable piece of trash.”
When she realizes that the Cuthberts do not intend to keep her, instead of exclaiming, “Tragical!” as she does in the book, Anne falls to her knees and enters a momentary fugue state. Anne’s imagination and bottomless energy are clearly presented in the TV series as coping mechanisms, a frantic and resourceful means of keeping upsetting memories at bay. “I like imagining better than remembering,” Anne says, always choosing between one and the other.
It is Walley-Beckett’s interest in trauma that attracted her to both “Breaking Bad” and “Anne of Green Gables.” “I am drawn to the psychology of wounded people,” she says, linking Walter White to Anne Shirley like a vulture to a moth: It’s true, they both fly. (To get a further sense of Walley-Beckett’s typical interests: She worked on “Anne With an E” while on location for “The Grizzlies,” a movie she wrote about teenage suicide in Nunavut territory in the Canadian Arctic.) “I was extremely drawn to what it meant to be an orphan in that time,” Walley-Beckett says, “what it meant to not belong, what it meant to be derided and abused and maintain the forthright, determined optimism and point of view that Anne has.” If, in “Anne of Green Gables,” hints of Anne’s suffering occasionally waft by, like feathers that escaped from a down pillow, in “Anne” the feathers hang as heavy as if there had just been a pillow fight.
Viewers familiar with the books and previous adaptations may feel when watching “Anne With an E” that the emphasis is on the wrong syllable, while also finding something provoking and substantive in the new pronunciation. Walley-Beckett’s series is recognizably “Anne of Green Gables,” but with a grimmer feel. Anne still, for example, smashes a slate over the head of her future husband, Gilbert Blythe, when he has the temerity to call her “Carrots,” but this is no longer foreplay; it’s the culmination of many weeks of bullying, including by an older boy who calls her a “talking dog” because she is an orphan. Even the show’s handsome look, which Walley-Beckett developed with the director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), is naturalistic and washed-out, evoking sepia despite being in color.
Anne’s transformations are easy to see as part of a trend in TV and film, one in which suffering has become indistinguishable from gravitas and even the most cheerful superheroes come complete with psychological baggage. In a world where Superman no longer smiles, Archie Andrews is an ennui-filled singer-songwriter and Belle’s mother in “Beauty and the Beast” tragically dies of the plague, of course Anne has PTSD. But this new interpretation of Anne also treats a young, female character with the attention and focus often reserved for difficult men and the perversions of their machismo. In emphasizing Anne’s past, Walley-Beckett may be roughing up a sunny tale, but she is also insisting that a plucky 13-year-old girl is as worthy a subject as anyone. “I don’t see the point in doing ‘Anne’ in a way that’s been done, that’s very charming, teacups and doilies and ‘Oh, Anne’s in another scrape,’ ” Walley-Beckett told me. “What’s the most realistic way to show the way a girl like this, from a strange place, with enormous prejudices against her, would move through the world?”
If you know only one thing about Anne Shirley, it is most likely that she has red hair. Maybe you can even picture it, braided into pigtails, sticking out from underneath an unfortunate straw hat, as when Matthew first sets eyes on her. In the 1890s, red hair was a symbol of witchiness, ugliness, passion. Anne’s hair immediately establishes her as an outsider, even as it intimates a kinship between her and Avonlea, with its startling red roads. Anne wants nothing so much as to be rid of it. “I can’t be perfectly happy,” she tells Matthew with characteristic drama on their first ride to Green Gables. “Nobody could who has red hair. ... It will be my lifelong sorrow.”
Anne longs to be beautiful. Not only does she wish for her hair to turn a more dignified auburn, she also tells her best friend, Diana Barry, “I’d rather be pretty than clever.” Praying at Marilla’s behest, she asks God to let her stay at Green Gables and to “please let me be good-looking when I grow up.” She loves pretty things, because she has had none, and swoons over cherry blossoms, an amethyst brooch and the possibility of one day having a stylish dress with puffed sleeves, which sensible Marilla refuses to make for her.
If “Anne of Green Gables” were written today, it is easy to imagine that over the course of the book, Anne would come to learn that none of these externalities matter: not the color of her hair, not the sleeves of her dress. Instead, in the novel, her hair mellows to the coveted auburn, and Matthew, in a moment of tremendous fatherly kindness, gives her a dress with puffed sleeves. Rather than dispense the message that it’s only what’s on the inside that counts, “Anne of Green Gables” conveys something more nuanced, that beauty can be a pleasure, that costumes can provide succor, that the right dress can improve your life — all things that adults know to be true, sometimes, but that we try to simplify for our children.
“Green Gables” is rife with complications like these; it’s an artifact from a different time that, instead of being outdated, speaks to ours in an uncanned, unpredictable voice. Anne has survived for so long because she is more sophisticated than she initially seems.
The book, in a manner that is rare for young-adult novels even now, is a celebration of Anne’s intelligence, which is ultimately cherished by her adoptive parents, her community and her future partner, Gilbert — who is also her closest academic rival and who instead of being threatened by Anne’s brain admires her for it. And yet at the end of “Anne of Green Gables,” Anne quits college and returns to the farm to care for an ailing Marilla, never becoming the writer she wanted to be as a child. This is, perhaps, a disappointing ending (and one that presages a string of follow-up novels in which Anne eventually becomes muted by family life), but it is an honest one: We still live in a world where a woman’s intellect does not preclude her from accruing vast domestic responsibilities.
“Anne of Green Gables” is also a romance, but a slow-burning one. Anne can’t stand Gilbert until the final pages of the first novel, her attentions turned less to love than her friendship with Diana. In the middle of the third novel in the series, “Anne of the Island,” Anne is still putting Gilbert off, rejecting his proposal of marriage. It is not until the beginning of the fifth book, “Anne’s House of Dreams,” by which point Anne has had other suitors and other proposals, that the two are finally married, going on to have seven children. For all her curiosity, imagination and education, Anne eventually arrives at the traditional ending: a husband, a family and all the attendant duties, the nonconforming woman who conforms. But the novels do not present this as either a great tragedy or a great victory. Instead, these choices look a lot like the fraught and difficult compromises of adulthood, in which you might put aside personal desires to care for your mother or modify your career goals to accommodate children. We would flatter ourselves to think that there is anything particularly old-fashioned about Anne’s trajectory. She is a thoroughly modern girl.
A few hours after shooting the scene with Princess Cordelia, Walley-Beckett was sitting in her sparsely furnished office, saying hello to her dog, Tiger, a rescue she found on the set of “Breaking Bad.” Her show’s costume designer, Anne Dixon, walked in to show her a swatch of muted jacquard covered in embroidered flowers — very couchlike. It was a candidate for the material that would be used for Anne’s dream dress, the aforementioned surprise gift from Matthew. Walley-Beckett wanted “something more best,” perhaps in Anne’s favorite colors, “willow green and azure blue,” which she knew off the top of her head. “But satin would be too much?” Dixon inquired, before referring to the analogous dress in the 1985 CBC mini-series. “When Megan Follows comes out, it’s so ... big.”
“Eighties polyester?” Walley-Beckett countered, as if polyester were a bad taste in her mouth.
This may sound innocuous enough, but to a certain subset of “Green Gables” fans, those are fighting words. Walley-Beckett’s series is contending with memories not only of the novel, but also of the 1985 mini-series, which is so beloved among a certain group of “Green Gables” admirers — probably women, of impressionable age in the ’80s, perhaps from Canada, where it was one of the highest-rated programs that had ever aired — that it has surpassed the books as the canonical text. (“Can ‘Anne of Green Gables’ overcome 30 years of nostalgia?” an article published in The Guardian recently wondered, as if the 1985 series, not the book, were the original.) The mini-series ensorcelled a generation of “Green Gables” lovers with its own interpretation of Montgomery’s novel, one that was faithful to the tone of the book but emphasized the romance between Anne and Gilbert. If you think of “Anne of Green Gables” as a love story and swoon at the name Gilbert Blythe, chances are you watched the mini-series. The director, Kevin Sullivan, accentuated the blooming (and admittedly captivating) romance between Gilbert and Anne to the extent that the scholar Susan Drain argued that the novel’s “careful character-building had been sacrificed to the television love story” in a 1987 academic article titled “Too Much Lovemaking: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ on Television.”
But just as evidence of Anne and Gilbert’s love story exists in the text of the first novel, and was drawn out by Sullivan, so does the trauma that Walley-Beckett stresses. The last book Montgomery wrote in the Anne series, “The Blythes Are Quoted,” is a structurally experimental and grim volume of poetry and short stories, concerning the death of one of Anne’s children, World War I, adultery and murder. It is so wholly a departure from what came before that it was not published in its entirety until 2009, despite purportedly having arrived on Montgomery’s publisher’s doorstep the day she died in 1942.
A bleaker interpretation of “Green Gables” is further supported by the life of L.M. Montgomery herself. Montgomery’s mother died when she was an infant, and her father left her to be raised by her cold grandparents in Cavendish, P.E.I., the future model for Anne’s Avonlea. A high-spirited young woman, at odds with her caregivers, she nonetheless spent years caring for her aging grandmother, eventually marrying a depressive preacher while contending with her own mood disorder. “Montgomery was a woman who wrote about expansive, sunny worlds,” says the professor Mavis Reimer, an Anne scholar who holds the Chair in Young People’s Texts and Cultures at the University of Winnipeg, “but she lived in a dark little room.” She may have committed suicide. Her official cause of death was coronary thrombosis, but a note was found by her bed that read, in part: “My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best in spite of many mistakes.”
But as Margaret Atwood wrote in an essay on the occasion of the “Anne of Green Gables” centenary, “The presiding genius of ‘Anne’ is not the gritty gray Angel of Realism, but the rainbow-colored, dove-winged Godlet of the Heart’s Desire.” Montgomery’s life may have been hard, but her writing, purposefully, was not. In another of her novels, “Emily’s Quest,” Emily’s teacher offers his pupil a bit of advice: “Don’t be led away by those howls about realism. Remember — pine woods are just as real as pigsties and a darn sight pleasanter to be in.” It is not an accident that young readers finish “Anne of Green Gables” feeling as comforted as the odd child who has found a kindred spirit: They are meant to.
You can concede that shaking things up is the creatively fulfilling spirit in which to undertake an adaptation (Say something new!) while also recognizing that adaptations of beloved stories, particularly those worshiped by those sticklers for repetition known as children, will always be subject to reactionary desires (Say something familiar!). We want dear tales to be as we recall them, even as we rely on memories formed when we understood less but could wonder more. It doesn’t matter how accomplished, how polished, how heady and period-perfect “Anne With an E” may be: We want Anne to be as we remember her — even if we don’t remember her that well.
For all the changes that Walley-Beckett has made in adapting “Anne of Green Gables,” she understands this sentiment. “I take nothing away from Anne,” Walley-Beckett insists. “She is buoyant, she’s optimistic, she’s bright, she’s fiery, she’s sunny, she’s imaginative, she’s curious. I just add in the reality of her history.”
And so in addition to drawing out the darkness embedded within the text, Walley-Beckett has also included lovely and entirely concocted moments that match the sweetness of the novel, like when Matthew and Marilla ask Anne to sign her name in the Cuthbert family Bible and make herself, officially, one of them. “Shouldn’t we hold hands over a running stream and pledge ourselves to each other as Cuthberts forever, or prick our fingers and mingle our blood as a symbol of our lasting devotion?” Anne wonders, by way of asking for a grand ceremony to mark the occasion, before settling instead for a celebratory glass of raspberry cordial and a signature. “With this pen,” Anne says, her hands shaking, “I take you, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, to be my family forever, to call you mine and to be yours, for always.” Then she writes down her name.
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