We Need to Talk About Anne-with-an-E

PBS Anne of Green Gables Promotional

I wouldn’t call it “hate-watching.” Not exactly. Perhaps a more accurate phrase would be “hope-watching.” One hopes that someone else will really get your favorite characters, and that the translation from book to script to production to actor will be like the most perfect game of telephone you’ve ever played.

While really, you’re probably expecting us to be talking about the really big news of the Gilmore Girls and their infamous Last Four Words, PBS made a move to compete by kicking off the holiday season with a film-length remake of Anne of Green Gables.

I’m not going to dwell on the surface mistakes like the carefully placed freckles and spectacularly frenetic shade of red hair forced on Ella Ballentine’s Anne, Marilla’s drastic eyeliner, the face-full-of-manure farm joke that occurs in the first scene, and how Diana Barry’s hair is FAR from raven black. And don’t even get me started on the instances of “oh my gosh!” and “yeah, ok.”

Of course, the definitive Anne, produced during the 1980’s and starring the most perfect Anne ever seen on film, Megan Follows, is hard to beat (side note–who must she have wronged to deserve that imdb profile photo??). Follows’ portrayal is hard act to compete with, as is Richard Farnsworth’s portrayal of sweet, shy Uncle Matthew, and Colleen Dewhurst’s stoic Marilla, although actors Sara Botsford as Marilla and Martin Sheen as Matthew turn in respectable performances. I found Sheen’s character hilarious to watch, though. He’s so irrepressibly charismatic, at odds with the painfully-shy character of the book’s Matthew.

Two mistakes are common when the movies adapt from novels; one is diverging so strongly from the original story that it becomes unrecognizable, and the other extreme is simply stringing together dialogue out of the book so faithfully that the film is composed mainly of words–it tells you the story instead of showing it. While the first is annoying, and the second is presumably more faithful to the book, it still fails to reveal the heart of a character, focusing instead on surface appeals to drive the plot.

The character of Anne Shirley in the books written by L.M. Montgomery is an unstoppable force, driven by an unending thirst for beauty and love. While the new production focuses on her dramatic tendencies, passionate emotional outbursts, and fanciful imaginings, and no one could accuse it of glossing over her abused first years by way of a few on-the-nose flashback memories filmed in black and white, what it misses is her authenticity. It’s a horribly difficult nuance for a young actress to portray, and that’s what made the older Megan Follows so wonderful at it. In the new film Anne seems as overly precocious as her perfectly-glossed lipstick and perfectly-spaced eyeliner dots…I mean freckles.

Plenty of small details are included that show the filmmakers are fond of the characters. Marilla uses a magnifying glass to inspect a small seam while she is sewing, referencing her weak eyes, and scenes from Prince Edward Island are nicely fitted in; sunrise over the tide flats, oysters being shucked on a wooden stump, the pastoral scenes of farm life, the change of seasons along the avenue of trees.

But Anne as written by L. M. Montgomery  was far from a pastoral, old-timey cliché. Anne Shirley was a spark, something of a revolutionary, a change-maker, a poet, a believer and a dreamer. She defied the odds dealt to her by life and persevered.  She was not spun-sugar daydreaming. The enduring character of her indomitable optimism, her fits of rage, her deep sense of sorrow and grief, her ability to feel everything so keenly and yet survive lends depth and direction to her dramatic episodes. Montgomery’s life was difficult, and she reflected in Anne her ideal response to the darkness of life, the ability to rise above circumstances through education, idealism, and a wild pursuit of beauty and truth. We need to talk about Anne, and Emily of New Moon, and Pat of Silver Bush. We need to not forget them and their ways of wrestling with bitterness and sorrow, and somehow finding the sweetness and joy in it all anyway. Perhaps the 2017 miniseries in the works from Netflix will get it right. We can always hope.

What about you? Did you watch Gilmore Girls or Anne of Green Gables?

 

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