CULTURE & ARTS
05/12/2017 03:00 pm ET Updated May 17, 2017

The Relentlessly Grim 'Anne With An E' Reveals The Limitations Of Today's TV

What happens when you put "Anne of Green Gables" into a prestige TV machine?
Marvin Moore

Depending on how you look at it, Anne of Green Gables is either a heartwarming, funny tale about a spunky girl coming of age, or it’s a dark saga about a child repeatedly submerging her own trauma in order to survive. The former has long been the popular perception of L.M. Montgomery’s beloved book, but the latter lends itself better to prestige drama ― so, naturally, the new Netflix/CBC series “Anne with an E” sets about excavating the tragedy at the heart of Anne, mostly obliterating the joyous comedy of the original tale along the way. 

In truth, the Anne books have always been a delicate blend of both aspects. Anne’s wild imagination and penchant for chattering her way into various scrapes draws attention from her truly tragic childhood and its ongoing reverberations, a current of real pain and darkness that is masked by her tendency toward fictional melodrama.

Orphaned as a baby, Anne Shirley winds up in an asylum, with occasional stints as live-in help in homes. She has never known her parents, and her care has been institutional at best and abusive at worst. When she arrives at Green Gables, at the age of about 11, and discovers that her new guardians ― Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew ― had instead wanted a boy to help around the farm, she performs her disappointment in an unconventionally theatrical way.

The child raised her head quickly, revealing a tear-stained face and trembling lips. “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!”

Something like a reluctant smile, rather rusty from long disuse, mellowed Marilla’s grim expression.

This is how comfortably tragedy and comedy intermingle in Anne of Green Gables: Crusty old Marilla actually smiles because she is so amused by a child’s accurate description of a traumatizing thing she is experiencing at that very moment. A pint-sized version of the sad clown, Anne puts on a whimsical show to express but also distract from her pain ― a depth and breadth of personal tragedy that she’s far too young to grapple with directly. You could almost believe that she’s actually OK, if you read quickly enough.

Over 100 years after Montgomery began the series, society and children’s fiction have grown far more solicitous of young people, more interested in the darker side of childhood traumas like abuse, parental loss and bullying. Looking back, Anne’s relentless perkiness seems repressed, even callous. So it’s welcome to see an adaptation that not only acknowledges the undeniable melancholy of Anne’s story, but looks directly at it.

Caitlin Cronenberg/Netflix

What’s uncomfortable is how much the series seems, at times, to revel in it. Her tribulations as an orphan, a girl who has been shuttled between menial live-in roles and an asylum all her life, and a young woman who is painfully aware of the distance between classical beauty norms and her own flawed appearance, constitute insufficient suffering for the protagonist of a serious TV series today.

In the show, her difficult early childhood is revealed vividly, not just in Anne’s anecdotes but through nightmarish flashbacks in which she’s screamed at, whipped, taunted and insulted. It heaps on new trials: The father of a family she worked for dies suddenly while he’s actually in the process of beating her with a strap; other girls at the asylum torture her with dead mice; the sweet middle-class town of Avonlea from Montgomery’s books has transformed into a Stepford-esque country club peopled by sinister Englishmen in light-colored leisure suits and their sneering children. All this suffering is gorgeously, sensuously shot, and her sobbing and panicked breathing lingered upon. 

In the book, while Anne does struggle for acceptance thanks to her unconventional background and more unconventional imagination, her winning personality quickly makes her popular with the other children at school. “I think I’m going to like school here,” she tells Marilla. “There are a lot of nice girls in school and we had scrumptious fun playing at dinnertime.” But a prestige drama’s adolescent heroine today stands little chance of such easy acceptance. In the show, an older boy barks at her like a dog, while the other girls quickly deem her “trash” and give her the cold shoulder. Anne, played with tremulous vivacity by Amybeth McNulty, can’t simply win inclusion through a combination of human goodness and her own sparkling personality, but scrabble for it through gritty acts of heroism. Her pathway to the popular clique ends up going through ― believe it or not ― a burning building.

“Anne” also distinguishes itself from a classic public television adaptation by amping up the focus on hot-button issues (like the above-mentioned bullying). The creators have transformed Anne into a story for today set 100 years ago, rather than a recreation of a story of and for 100 years ago, with mixed success. The script, which blends actual text from the book with original scenes and lines, reflects the difficulties caused by using a century-old tale to examine issues that we’ve begun to talk about relatively recently. While McNulty, Geraldine James and R.H. Thomson (who portray her guardians Marilla and Matthew) handle their roles with subtlety, much of the cast is not so surefooted. Characters waffle between sometimes stilted delivery of period dialogue and breezily tossing off anachronistic phrases, exchanging offhand greetings of “how’s it going?” and assuring each other, “no worries.” (Sure, that’s how Canadian farmpeople addressed each other in 1908.)

Some embellishments succeed with flair: Its mischievous addition of how Anne might have reacted to her first period ― naturally, she’s convinced that she’s dying a quite tragical death ― adds a funny yet meaningful modern layer to the more buttoned-up Montgomery tale. Menstruation, as the other girls tell Anne in hushed tones at school the next day, simply wasn’t to be spoken of openly at that time. “That’s just the way it is,” says Diana ruefully.

Elsewhere, Anne serves as a projection screen for popular anxieties about children today: Bullying, sexual harassment and exploitation, differing treatment between the genders. Always a bit of a proto-feminist, Anne has sprouted into a full-blown crusader, never missing an opportunity to bring up gender equality. When told that girls keep their menstruation hidden, she retorts, “We can make a whole person, where’s the shame in that?” Besides, she adds, “Do boys have to contend with anything like this?” While true, these sentiments seem retrofitted from another era ― our current one, for example.

With these on-the-nose additions, “Anne” risks telling when showing would be more resonant. Montgomery could be didactic, to be sure, but the ongoing power of Green Gables has been that Anne’s story in itself speaks to generations of girls. Her academic aspirations and disregard for convention allow readers today to see, as McNulty put it in a recent interview, an “accidental feminist” in Anne. Other generations could make the case that she was a wild child carefully reared by good Christians into a domestic goddess ― also, to an extent, true. This nuance and real, human texture provides more scope for conversation than squeezing an old story into a narrow modern mold. 

Overemphasizing Anne’s painful childhood, too, seems counterproductive, not because such things don’t happen but because it serves no purpose. Her original story serves as ample basis for the series’ most interesting angle: Teasing out how vital Anne’s performative conversationalism and outsized imagination are to her psychological survival. Instead, this poignant interplay is frequently drowned out by melodrama. 

A very good adaptation of Anne is buried within the Jane Eyre–esque Gothicism of “Anne with an E.” The cinematography is exquisite, the lead actress is bewitching, and the interplay between Anne’s dark and light sides makes for a fascinating update. But the bonus pain and social issues make the series seem almost cartoonishly HBO-ified, what would result if showrunners fed Anne page by page into a prestige-drama machine that screwed on gratuitous violence and social issues haphazardly.

After all she’s been through, Anne deserves more than that.

“Anne with an E” is now available on Netflix.

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