A Review of Netflix's Anne With an 'E': A Canonical, Contorted and Corrupted Adaptation
Having watched the first episode, only the first, of the new Anne of Green Gables Netflix series, I am struck by the differences between what we see on screen and how the novel reads. Anne, as any lover of the story will know, lives inside her imagination. She sees everything through the rose-tinted glasses of joy and optimism and the book very much gives us her worldview. This series offers us a glimpse behind the scenes, into the harsh realities of Anne’s world, which she makes very much softer and more beautiful. It is always hard for lovers of a book to see it adapted to screen, for the second time in this case, and there will always be changes to distress us. This is no exception, with the added pain that instead of just showing us the bleakness which is present in the novel, the series insists on adding darkness and cruelty, as if the hardships in Anne’s life were not sufficient.
From the very start, we are struck by Anne’s “skimpy” wincey dress and ragged straw hat. Very much in keeping with the book, these show us the neglected orphan child that we so quickly forget with her shining eyes and wreaths of smiles. We know that Anne is a skinny, red-headed, homely child, she herself reminds us of this often enough. But her beautiful words and glorious delight in the world around her quickly mask these facts in our imaginations. We know the agony these cause for Anne but we see everything through her eyes so quickly forget her impoverished orphan state in light of her rich joy in life. Where Anne spends ages agonising over puffed sleeves, we see only the vanities of fashion, but the realities are quite different. Diana, dressed so beautifully in a white dress with a blue sash – like someone out of The Sound of Music – is a stark contrast to Anne’s plain, serviceable brown dress.
Yet even when the series is strictly canonical, it still delivers a shock, such as in the behaviour of Rachel Lynde. Despite the fact that everything she says in this episode is straight out of the book (I had to watch with book in hand to be sure), somehow it seems much more cruel here. What was a harmless, gossipy woman’s dislike of anything done without her knowledge and approval becomes much harsher. An amusing country-minded wariness of strangers takes on a new dimension. More importantly, Rachel Lynde’s comments on the danger of orphans have no impact on Marilla’s behaviour in the novel but, in this series, Marilla not only agrees, but acts on these prejudices, to be discussed later on.
As mentioned previously, we must always expect changes when our beloved books are brought to life on screen. Some of these take fragments of what is in the book and distort them, such as the portrayal of Anne’s past life. In this episode, we are shown a series of flashbacks to her abuse at the Hamiltons and being bullied at the orphan’s asylum. These, though not canonical and in fact contrary to the text, are extremely valuable reminders of Anne’s bleak childhood. We know that she grew up starved for affection, working hard for those she lived with, but these facts fade in light of her shining optimism. This adaptation dwells very much on Anne not being wanted, a fact which was a sad truth in her life, but portrays her life under these women far more abusive than we have reason to believe it was. From one point these are incredibly striking and powerful, showing the hardship that this little girl has lived through but, in their exaggeration, we lose the type of neglect Lucy Maude Montgomery was trying to portray. In the book, Anne is a little girl starved of love, affection and beauty. Her neglect has been more emotional than physical. In turning this to outright cruelty and physical abuse for the sake of drama, we lose the very real emotional abuse.
This jarring imposition of modern feminism can only make us roll our eyes. This, from a character in the novel who uttered the fatal words “I’d rather be pretty than clever.”
I would love to see flashbacks that show Anne’s life as it was in the books, that of dealing with screaming children under an abrupt but hard working woman and a dull grey orphanage. Far more poignant than bullying to show her loneliness isolation is the little girl whose only friend was her reflection in the cabinet door. To me, this matters, not because the bullying and abuse shown in the screen adaptation were not part of that world, but because it implies that the abuse described in the books is not sufficient. Emotional neglect and isolation are very real forms of abuse and it pains me to see these brushed over for the sake of drama.
Another twist to our beloved story is Anne’s “I can do anything a boy can do.” This jarring imposition of modern feminism can only make us roll our eyes. This, from a character in the novel who uttered the fatal words “I’d rather be pretty than clever.” Why must there be the assumption that for a girl to be a strong female character, she must challenge the conventions of the time in such a clichéd manner? Anne is already a character to inspire every young girl’s imagination. What is more, in the novels, it is Anne’s obedience and quickness in doing the reasonable tasks asked of her, not her insistence on doing additional chores, that help to win her the right to stay. But heaven forbid we show that!
Behind Anne’s determination to prove her worth and win the right to stay lies something to grieve us lovers of the books even more, the subtle corroding of the character of Marilla Cuthbert. Marilla, as we know her, is not a cruel woman. Hard and stern, yes, but also fair. While she delays telling Anne that she can stay at Green Gables for a day, she never puts her on probation. Marilla of the novel would never be so cruel as to make Anne staying at Green Gables dependant on her behaviour. Instead, she sees with pain how little “bringing up” Anne has had and her heart goes out to the odd little orphan. Her stern sense of duty as a Christian and her generous heart combine to relent to Matthew’s silent pleading and give Anne a home. Her sense of humour is tickled, almost against her will, her lonely heart is warmed by Anne’s freely given affection.
Moreover, Marilla shows none of the prejudices against orphans that Rachel Lynde. In the book, when the brooch does go missing, she says “Of course I don’t suppose she meant to steal it or anything like that.” This is a far cry from the Marilla who checks her carpet bag, burns apple blossoms, runs to count the silver and shoves her on the train back to the orphanage. Let’s pause and look at this for a moment. The return to the orphanage was a long journey, not undertaken lightly. When Marilla first says “There’s been a mistake. She’ll have to be sent back,” she doesn’t mean like this. They would have written to tell the orphanage Anne was coming, planned the journey, given her money and careful instructions and most likely found someone to accompany her at least part of the way. They would not have bundled a thirteen year old girl, thief or no, back on the train with no assistance. With treatment like that, chances are she would have ended up on the street. This goes far beyond additional drama to become utter cruelty and neglect.
Why, one might ask, is changing the morals of Marilla Cuthbert such a big deal? As mentioned earlier, we lovers of the book cannot demand that it be represented on screen with complete faithfulness. To me, this matters, not only because of the pain at seeing a character I like twisted, but because it changes the representation of an era. Yes, Anne changes Marilla, but is it is the gentle change of love and laughter, not the harsh change of confrontation with one’s own actions. But stories like this not only give us characters to love, they give us the sense of a time and place in history. Changing Marilla’s character like this casts an entirely different light on the generation of women she represents. one which is alien to the folk of L.M. Montgomery’s much loved series. Not that the issues portrayed in the adaptation were not present in this world, but that the author had a different message to convey.
To summarise, the first episode is worth watching for its stark reminder of Anne’s impoverished orphan state and abuse childhood, but only if you are prepared to put up with imposed feminism and the mutilation of Marilla Cuthbert’s morals. It ignores mental abuse for the dramatic effect of physical torment and exaggerates the prejudice against orphans, but the scenery and costumes help us dive more deeply into the world of Anne of Green Gables.