Stuff You Should (Maybe?) Be Watching: Anne with an E

Anne with an E posterNetflix dropped Anne with an E, a gritty variation on Anne of Green Gables (which aired in Canada in March of this year) on May 12th. It caused a lot of stir, and I asked Cleolinda Jones (you may know her from Tumblr, or from her blog) to join me in a discussion on what we thought worked, what did not, and what was just kind of random.

Spoilers abound, and yeah, there are some significant detours from the books, so be warned. These spoilers are not over 100 years old.

RHG: Well, that happened a lot.

CJ: Everything happened… so much.

RHG: There were a lot of things I liked, a few things I am kind of like, “Well, that was worth trying, I guess” and a few things that I did not like at all.

I am also still in mourning for Jonathan Crombie, OG Gilbert from the 1985 Kevin Sullivan version, so this Gilbert was never gonna live up. He was fine, but you can’t compete with a dead guy. Sorry bro.

Lucas Jade Zumman as Gilbert Blythe.

CJ: You know what? I actually liked New Gilbert, although I’m not sure why they chose to give him and Anne such a different dynamic. Like I told you before I started watching, these are the books I read every summer when I was a kid. I’m not married to the Sullivan series per se, although I liked it.

A couple episodes in, I started putting my reactions into three groups:

  • “I don’t like this, but I can’t argue that it’s a valid artistic choice.”
  • “I don’t like this, and I think it’s an actual misstep.”
  • “Maybe I’m just being too hard on this.”
    With sometimes a side of “Okay, I actually liked that part.”

Anne, finally over Gilbert's teasing, and whacking him IN THE FACE with her slate. If you don't have this scene, you don't know Anne.

RHG: I liked the exploration of the reality of Anne’s situation. We often ignore the fact that she ends up at Green Gables because they want to acquire a free farm hand, and the child welfare system of the Maritime provinces in the 19th century was perhaps…not very well regulated? So Anne’s trauma and abandonment issues I think were worth exploring.

And Amybeth Mcnulty was REALLY good at levels of her chattering that went from“I’m talking just to hear myself talk,” “I’m talking because someone is finally listening,” and “I’m expressing panic and trying to talk my way out of a mess that’s NOT EVEN MY FAULT.” I really liked her portrayal.

Anne, in the moment that she's learned that the Cuthberts asked for a boy, and she's shattered, with a tear running down her face.

CJ: You know, I went back and reread the first book after I watched the series – I did the show the favor of not reading it first, at least – and I do think the book plays Anne’s initial “you don’t want me” reaction a bit callously–for laughs. I can’t argue that it’s reasonable to look at Anne’s personality and behavior through the lens of more realistic levels of trauma. I found it really, really upsetting, but complaining about that approach sounds callous.

What I ended up realizing was that this was why I found it so upsetting–not because it wasn’t realistic or valid, but because so many of us grew up with this character and knew her as someone cheerful and resilient, the kind of person we would hope to be in these situations, and we looked to her as a role model for how to be when things got tough for us. This version of Anne is more like what it’s actually like for us. It’s Real Life Anne, and not only are we watching a character we love get brutalized, we’re feeling adrift as viewers empathizing with her: who’s going to get us out of this?

RHG: And the answer to that is the same: Anne, with the help of the people she meets along the way. Matthew and Marilla (who comes around- slowly- even more slowly that book!Marilla) and Rachel Lynde (I loved the friendship between Rachel and Marilla in this version) and Diana and Jerry, who actually gets to be a person here. Once Anne is given a stable environment, there’s the Anne we knew, buuuuuuut with some more realistic quirks.

Rachel Lynde, seated at the table in Green Gable's kitchen, saying Tea please, I must have fortification. Don't we all.

Marilla, sipping her tea. She also needs fortification.

I admit, I never thought about how Anne Shirley would react to getting her period, but yes, the answer is “Over-dramatically.” (Though I have some questions about how much blood was on her sheets.)

CJ: That’s one of the additions I actually liked! I was kind of stressed by the very high key of the first couple of episodes, but then Anne’s shrieking about how menstruation is A WAKING NIGHTMARE and I’m like I feel u Anne.

It’s funny, because you say “a stable environment” and I feel like you could have just as well have said “material actually from the book.” The invented flashbacks were where I felt they made some missteps, mostly in terms of tone or extremity. In the book, Anne claims that her previous foster parents/employers “meant well, I’m sure.” And that could easily be someone wanting to hide the abuse she suffered, I know. She’s not necessarily reliable in that moment.

But it’s really jarring to compare that to how completely awful the flashbacks are. The first one, where Mrs. Hammond is demanding eight different things of Anne at once–I thought, you know, maybe that’s Anne’s subjective experience remembering that, it feels like it happened that way to her, good job.

Show Spoiler
And then we get to the flashback where Mr. Hammond HAS A HEART ATTACK AND DIES BECAUSE HE IS BEATING HER SO HARD and it just felt too over-the-top horrible.

Like there’s a level of modulation that was missing within a valid interpretation.

RHG: There was a moment there (The “all men have a mouse in their pocket” bit) where I was afraid that they were going to reveal Anne as having been sexually abused too, which would have been about twelve bridges too far. Thank god they did not.

There’s a stretch in the first episode where they’re word for word from the book and the Kevin Sullivan version (which I last saw a few years ago, but I’ve seen enough times that it’s worn grooves into my brain, I have so many clear memories of it), and I was going, “Okay, but why are were here, though?” So I appreciate the effort to make it different.

A shot for shot remake isn’t needed (like… ever…) and I think the goal here was to not even attempt to replace the version that so many people grew up with (unlike the terrible version from last year with Martin Sheen as Matthew. Matthew doesn’t like talking to people, and Sheen is a great actor but he physically cannot shut up. I love him, but Matthew he is NOT).

So in many cases, I appreciate the artistic effort, and there were a few additions I adored. Like Miss Barry and her Boston marriage. 

CJ: Let me take those points out of order:

What. Martin Sheen what. What are you talking about. What the fuck. What? What.

I hated the “pet mouse” subplot. I hated it so much. I hated that the series kept finding reasons for Anne to be misunderstood and hated by the other students and the town. In the book, she’s actually adopted pretty easily by the other kids, albeit with rivalries and spats here and there. And maybe that’s unrealistic. But it’s one of the reasons the books are so beloved–that appeal, that wish fulfillment, of managing to be yourself and still fit in and be (mostly) accepted.

The one saving grace of the Pet Mouse Subplot was the moment when Marilla was indignant that Anne had embarrassed them with sex talk… and Matthew was indignant that Anne had been exposed to it. Just that moment of turning the blame on its head. Because otherwise, I was not fond of “let’s shun Anne and call her a trollop because she’s a preteen and thinks holding hands makes babies.”

All the material I recognized from the book was great, honestly! I love the new Matthew and Marilla and Rachel! I wasn’t even expecting to, but I genuinely did!

Anne and Matthew on their way to Green Gables for the first time. Anne is relieved and overwhelmed at the idea of having a home.

I LOVE MISS BARRY AND HER GRIEF FOR HER LONGTIME COMPANION (I mean I don’t love her grief, I’m sad, but) AND HER GIVING ROMANCE ADVICE TO ANNE FROM THAT POSITION AND THE SIMPLIFICATION OF INTRODUCING HER THROUGH THE MINNIE MAY ILLNESS. Yes. I approve of these things. This is the kind of thing worth adding.

RHG: The Minnie May section was always my favorite bit (of many favorite bits), so I was happy that was honored properly. And the relationship between Anne and Miss Barry has always been delightful. (I have often wondered precisely where Miss Barry got her money. This doesn’t answer it, really, but it’s still something I wonder.)

I found that some of the dialogue was a bit too modern sounding (Gilbert and his “I’m not your pal!” was almost Ocean’s Eleven-ish. “Don’t call me pal, friend!”), but whatever. And were I objective, I’m sure I would be fine with Gilbert himself (though the “I’m gonna go work on the docks because I’m an orphan now” thing was… strange). I did like Anne awkwardly trying to offer him comfort by pointing that she was QUITE an old hand at being an orphan, and if he had any questions…. I did like their dynamic.

CJ: Oh, it was worse than that. “I’m not your bud!” “Sure, bud.” Dude! Bro! Buuuuuddy.

I don’t quite get why they changed their dynamic that way–Gilbert’s father was ill in the book, but didn’t die, and the Blythes didn’t seem to be in any particular financial straits. Not sure why “dock work” was clearly the answer, either, except to put Gilbert squarely in town to run into Anne. But yeah, I suspect it was to set up Anne trying to bond with him on the shared orphan experience and it going awry, to give them something to fight about that wasn’t “Gilbert is arrogant and Anne refuses to talk to him ever again and this just continues in their heads to the mystification of everyone else for like four solid years.”

Speaking of The Shared Orphan Experience, which sounds like maybe a really gloomy chamber-music garage band, I noticed that this version references Jane Eyre A LOT. And I didn’t see any of that in the book. It reminds me of the way that Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (the one with Keira Knightley, which I adore) took on what people called a more Brontëan tone, more windswept cliffs and such; several sweeping vistas and musical interludes on this show reminded me of Dario Marianelli’s work on both the P&P soundtrack and–in fact–Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre a few years ago.

And Jane Eyre, of course, begins with Jane’s famously horrible childhood sufferings. I feel like the series was trying to really orient itself around that gritty-yet-melodramatic vibe, sort of as its guiding light for how they wanted to retell the story. And the thing is, I love both those movies.

But that tone was just not working for me here. It might easily work for other viewers, so I won’t say it’s objectively a mistake. I saw people on Twitter saying, “I loved this series and so did my daughter.” I saw other people saying, “I love these books and I hate what they did with the show.” Again, I’m not saying the tonal shift is a mistake–I’m saying it’s an explanation for why some viewers have really, really disliked the series, viewers who grew up with the sunny, cozy atmosphere of the books, and why it ultimately just doesn’t work for me, despite the parts I liked.

That, and the point when the plot just goes off the rails.

RHG: See, this is why I knew I wanted to talk with you about this whole thing. You catch literary allusions like no one else.

How boring would entertainment be if everyone liked everything?

Yes, there are rails, and we’re chugging along, and chugging along, and then…

Show Spoiler
the Cuthberts lose all of their money way too soon and then they go and sell everything they own, and get boarders, because sure, and then Matthew decides that suicide for the insurance money is a good idea?

Like? What? Why? WHY.

That’s the point, around episode 7, where things swerve into, “What if we soap opera now? WHAT IF.”

And I did not like it at ALL.

CJ: I don’t catch everything, but you gotta get up real early in the morning to get a Jane Eyre reference past me. Like, the episode title about “A Tightly Knotted String” is from Jane Eyre. (In fact, all the titles might be.) Anne quotes from it by name more than once. Miss Barry is reading the book. They’re really trying to flag us down with it, I think, as their calling card of intention.

But that’s the thing: the books gently make fun of that kind of melodrama! Every time Anne tries to be dramatic, it bites her in the ass! She has some fun flight of fancy, probably accompanied by a catastrophe of her own well-intentioned making, and we appreciate that imagination is fun but sometimes you gotta keep your feet on the ground.

Meanwhile, the show is like, “What if… COINCIDENTAL STREET-ROBBER BOARDERS?!?!?! AND ANNE WILL HAVE A CRUSH ON ONE.”

Show Spoiler
That is, SPOILER, our cliffhanger-slash-setup for season two. And Matthew’s not even dead! (He does not go through with the suicide idea. In the book, he actually dies of that heart attack we see him collapse from.)

I have no idea where the hell they’re going with this! I’m sure that’s the effect they want! But I do not want! Like, what, Jerry the farmhand (WHO THEY ROBBED) would recognize the new boarders, are they going to skulk around threatening him in the barn while flirting with Anne and stealing the silver? I DO NOT WANT.

RHG: DO NOT WANT.

Ultimately I think this is a flawed adaptation with some really great performances (Geraldine Page as Marilla in particular) and some really great moments, and other moments that just made me go, “Ugh, how about no?” It won’t replace the Kevin Sullivan (although it would be nice, Powers that Be, to have that available on streaming!) and it will not replace the books. It exists on its own, for better or for worse.

Marilla, having a lot of emotions crossing her face- she's trying to decide Anne's fate.

CJ: Yeah, and I would even say that the flaws are specifically in the story choices. It’s beautiful, it’s well-cast and well-acted, it has lovely opening credits, the original material from the book is played well, and several additions are also very good.

But there are some changes that I am not sure objectively work, and there are several things that I think will really, really turn off devoted fans of the books (or the Sullivan series, for that matter).

And I keep pointing out that discrepancy because I feel like Anne with an E is a very, very “your mileage may vary” kind of experience. I’m not even sure I can give it a specific grade or score.

I can just say, you’ll either like it or you won’t, and I can understand either reaction.

What about you? Have you watched Anne With an E? What’s your take on this new adaptation? 

Important Note from Sarah: While we hid some of the spoilers in the discussion above, we can’t discuss the program and our reaction to it in the comments without spoilers, because the things that happen are the things we are reacting to. 

So if you do not want to read spoilers, much as it pains me to say this, I’d suggest skipping this particular comment thread. And if you are posting a spoiler, if you would acknowledge it in all caps (“SPOILER ALERT!”), I would be very grateful. Striking the balance is difficult! 

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