There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting. — L.M. Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
The television movie “L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables” debuts on PBS this Thanksgiving, while Netflix’s upcoming series, “Anne,” is due next year. Devotees of the 1985 television adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s classic didn’t take early news of the two upcoming reboots well. But is there an inherent sacrilege in creating work outside of Kevin Sullivan’s much-admired movie, starring Megan Follows?
The word “original” gets thrown around a lot in these discussions — but in literary adaptations, we know well enough to know by now that “original” means something closer to “the version that I, the most important person in the world, am most familiar with.”
But in fact, the Sullivan version itself isn’t exactly OG Green Gables. Montgomery’s tale of the red-headed orphan spurred adaptations almost from the moment it was published, more than a century ago. From a 1919 silent movie to an ongoing web series, literally dozens of television, radio, cartoon and big screen versions of the novels have been made around the world. A multiverse, you might say: Meaning that Megan Follows’ Anne is just one point on the Green Gables continuum, allowing infinite red-headed snippets to safely coexist, in their various forms.
To ask why this orphan-on-a-farm story — of so many in the genre — has endured is probably as pointless as wondering why modern-day foundling Harry Potter became such a phenomenon. Somehow, both series achieved an alchemical balance of compelling main characters, settings at once cozy and mystical, plenty of local color, and acerbically reliable authority figures (Marilla and McGonnagle are sisters under the skin)… Oh, and the heartbreak of ginger persecution.
On top of that, both book series are almost insanely rich in the kind of memorable dialogue and cinematic surroundings that make for a successful adaptation, if you can avoid blowing it. Kevin Sullivan’s first two beautifully-filmed, impeccably-cast “Anne” movies definitely didn’t blow it.
The Follows versions are justifiably revered by Montgomery loyalists for the faithful adaptation, and the inspired casting of not just Megan Follows herself, but Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth as her adoptive parents, siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert.
While she might not have given the role all of the subtle shadings Montgomery created — Follows skewed more to the plucky than the ethereal — her warmth and wit took Ann seamlessly from uncertain, ready-to-hurt preteen waif to confident, engaged teacher in the first movie alone, a range that’s easy to grasp when reading the printed word but much easier to skew in performance.
And yet — we need to talk about Kevin. Because if anything makes the coming reboots more palatable, it’s Kevin Sullivan’s bungling of of his own franchise. By spinning Anne-mania into more sequels, prequels and spin-offs than the original source material could provide, Sullivan’s scripts wandered ever-further away from the books, eventually to an absurd degree. His first “Anne” movie was faithful; the second conflated books and invented incidents; and the third went completely off the rails.
Granted, Sullivan was facing a steep challenge as he got deeper into the book series: The Anne of the last few novels gradually fades into the woodwork after “Anne’s House of Dreams,” Montgomery’s soulful novel covering the earliest years of her marriage to Gilbert. Subsequent books were really “next generation” adventures, focusing on her six children. By the time Anne Blythe sends her sons to fight in World War I in the final book, we mostly see that horror and grief through the eyes of her youngest daughter. (“Rilla of Ingleside” is one of the great North American war books of that period, by the way — a superb evocation of life on the homefront.)
But even taking these limitations into account, it’s hard to imagine how Sullivan, previously celebrated for painstakingly recreating so many beloved chapters of Anne’s life, could possibly have dropped the ball so badly in the last of the three movies, 2000’s “Anne: A New Beginning.”
In Montgomery’s creation, the dawn of World War I finds Anne and Gilbert still living on their beloved Prince Edward Island, married, parents of grown children. Sullivan’s alternate version presents them as young and engaged, with Anne working as an reporter in New York, before… Gilbert goes off to war and gets himself captured or lost, prompting Anne to rush to Europe to find him. Wacky espionage hijinks ensue, capped by Anne sneaking around in a nun’s habit.
It’s not just the fan inside us speaking, either: To make the degredation more complete, even more on the nose, we’re subjected to Sullivan’s invention of a decayed, falling-down Green Gables, depressingly abandoned after Marilla’s death. Which is then literally set on fire. if any rationale is necessary for these new retellings — Sullivan’s embarrassing 2000 swan song more than justifies letting other filmmakers have a crack at the original material.
Mrs. Lynde says, “Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.” But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed. — L.M. Mongtomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
The upcoming PBS adaptation, “L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables” boasts not only the cachet of Montgomery’s granddaughter as an Executive Producer, but also the gravitas of Martin Sheen starring as Matthew. It has already been broadcast in Canada — both projects are, as you may have expected, primarily Canadian productions; the partnerships with PBS and Netflix are about US broadcast — and sequels are planned.
The Sheen adaptation doesn’t start out with particular promise, loaded down as it is with wacky farm hijinks — Matthew literally falls into pigshit, nosy neighbor Mrs. Lynde pops out of nowhere like a Hee Haw character — and throughout, the dialogue veers between old-timey and inexcusably anachronistic (“Ya see what I mean?”).
Most damagingly — and there’s no getting around it — Gilbert Blythe is, in this adaptation, a straight-up punk.
But eventually, and before too long, the movie begins to work its magic: Like the Sullivan production, the film presents the island’s gentle farmland and dramatic red seaside cliffs with both love and a connoisseur’s delectation. And Ella Ballentine, oddly reminiscent of a young Oksana Baiul, brings to the title role the uncanny, child-witch quality so often remarked upon in the novels.
While Sheen’s Matthew is more gregarious than the book’s version, takes up more room, and Sara Botsford’s Marilla more tolerant, they — and Green Gables itself — are just cozily homespun enough to ground the movie against Anne’s flights of poetic sentiment… Which even in the book, between just us fans, can be a bit much.
It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will… — L.M. Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
The CBC/Netflix series is still in production — but there are already signs faithfulness may not be the only goal, as Netflix tells us: “While the new series will honor the foundation of the novel held as a Canadian treasure and global phenomenon, ANNE will also chart new territory. Anne and the rest of the characters will experience adventures reflecting timeless issues including themes of identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self.”
It is impossible to be the jerk who grumbles about tolerance lessons in a family show, but as we’ve learned from particularly torturous episodes of period dramas like “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons,” wandering too far from the source material, even for a good cause, can lead to moments that feel profoundly inauthentic. To make a story relevant is one thing; to put one’s own virtuous mark on it for personal reasons quite another.
…I begin to understand what is meant by “the joy of strife.” Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing. — L.M. Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
But the series boasts an impressive creative team, with credits including “Breaking Bad” and “Whale Rider” among them. So whether Netflix’s invented scenes are triumphant or awkward, in the end the new series is just another point of entry in the Anne multiverse — none of which has the power to obliterate the actual novels.
If we realize and accept the Green Gables books will probably spawn new adaptations for the foreseeable future — a movie musical based on a long-running stage show, for example, is also in the works — the less we’ll resent the latest adaptations. For all we know, there will never be a movie version as well-received as the Sullivan’s production, including the still-filming, issues-oriented Netflix offering.
But none of that really matters: Anne would be the first to tell you just how many Annes there can be: After all, there are already anime Annes, war hero Annes, silent movie Annes, and internet Annes. Surely a woke Anne will do no harm, and probably even add a little good to the universe…
I’m not a bit changed — not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out. The real me — back here — is just the same. — L.M. Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
…Or at least one of them, anyway.