Many of us, as children and young adults, owned books that were as familiar to us as family. We read them until the binding was so cracked the title was barely legible, and chunks of pages fell out if we carried the book to carelessly. For many people, “Anne of Green Gables” was one of those books — it beguiled us, and brought us into its world time and time again.
The problem is that with books like that — usally those most likely to be adapted — they’re so indelible in our minds that watching an adaptation just feels wrong. Even if a movie manages to incorporate major story beats and capture the setting, it is likely to go off the rails when it comes to characterization and casting, especially in an adaptation of a truly iconic story.
PBS premiered its new take on “Anne of Green Gables” on Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, in movie form ( with a rather brief running 90-minute time). Thanksgiving is a good night to run a story like this: A feisty young heroine causing unwitting mischief and opening the hearts and minds of the staunch citizens of rural Avonlea is fun for the whole family.
But for die-hard devotees of the original book who still identify with people who are “kindred spirits,” an adaptation is always a risky proposition. How can any actor be expected to live up to the charming and misunderstood Gilbert Blythe, who was many a young woman’s (and gentleman’s) first fictional boyfriend? And more importantly, does the cast in this PBS adaptation hold a candle to the characters you’ve pictured in your mind since you were young? Here’s our take.
Ella Ballentine as Anne Shirley
Anne Shirley is a difficult character to portray. She’s chatty, and prone to flights of fancy; she uses words like tragical. She has a flair for the dramatic, which seems appropriately childish — until you remember that before she comes to live at Green Gables, she’s been living in orphanages and unkind foster homes. Much of her whimsy is really a kind of protective cover. She’s good at pretending things are better than they are, because it’s her way of coping.
While Ballentine’s work in the first half hour or so of the movie feels a bit mannered, it settles down in a way that makes that choice seem purposeful. As Ballentine’s portrayal becomes less “desperately fanciful” and settles into “guilelessly imaginative,” it feels like the natural progression of Anne’s character. As Anne feels more at home and less on guard, she is able to turn down the self-protective, performative aspect of herself and instead be the slightly odd — but mostly enchanting and beguiling — girl that charms Avonlea.
Martin Sheen as Matthew Cuthbert
Though Anne is the lead, for many readers Matthew is the heart and soul of the story. He is described in the text, often, as shy, but it runs deeper than that. He’s a man in a time where men aren’t very expressive, in a family and a town where being sober and morally upright are considered necessary virtues. In the book he takes a quick and instinctive liking to Anne, and she instantly recognizes him as a kindred spirit.
Martin Sheen gamely attempts to capture what’s special about Matthew, but even he admits Richard Farnsworth’s portrayal in the beloved 1985 “Anne of Green Gables” miniseries was far more faithful to the book. The film’s writing does him no favors: The movie opens, incomprehensibly, with Matthew chatting at his animals, chasing around an escaped pig and ending up with a faceful of mud, and then once he’s cleaned up, he jauntily hollers at a neighbor about how good he looks all gussied up. It’s not true to the character in the book, or is it super consistent with his characterization for the rest of the movie.
Matthew is stoic and taciturn and kind: he’s not hapless, nor does he go out of his way to talk to anyone, much less gossipy neighbors. The movie does hit some of the perfect story beats between Matthew and Anne, like when he secretly arranges to get her one of the fashionable puffed-sleeve dresses she’s been pining over since they day they met. At the end of the day, Sheen is simply too self-possessed to truly do justice to the deep stillness of the book’s Matthew, but Sheen and Ballentine are able to recreate the magic of their profound mutual understanding — though the movie itself doesn’t seem to understand Matthew — in every moment the words aren’t getting in the way.
Sara Botsford as Marilla Cuthbert
To a young reader, Marilla can seem impossibly rigid and stern, like a fairytale stepmother. But revisiting the book as a an adult, it becomes clear her pragmatism is born of necessity. She and brother Matthew have taken over their parents’ farm. Neither has ever married. Green Gables is set far back from the road, unlike the rest of the houses in the social enclave of Avonlea. Marilla and Matthew have only each other, and Matthew’s health is failing. The only reason she’d ever consider bringing someone into their home would be if it was a young man that could help out around the farm. Her disappointment that Anne is sent instead isn’t personal: It simply isn’t rational to keep her.
But Marilla does have a wry sense of humor and a bit of a rebellious streak, so though she is often perplexed by Anne in the book, she is also often amused. Anne has no filter or sense of propriety, and often voices opinions about people that Marilla privately holds: She never scolds Anne for thinking these things, just for saying them aloud. In the book, it takes time, narratively, for the prickly Marilla to embrace Anne. The movie, with its shortened plotline, must hasten this process, and does so effectively by having Anne recount her various orphanage and foster care experiences when Marilla asks about them.
Because Anne chooses to tell her story in an overwhelmingly positive way — though it’s clear, through her pauses and expressions, that she was mistreated almost across the board, sometimes very badly — Marilla is won over into letting her stay temporarily while they try and sort out an alternative. She might not have given Anne’s story much stock had she told the unvarnished truth, based on Anne’s admitted tendency towards embellishment, but in putting a happy face on a sad experience, Anne is being her most truthful.
Botsford really grounds this scene: You can see brief glimpses of pain, though she mostly remains impassive. Not much is ever said of Matthew and Marilla’s parents in the book or other adaptations, so it’s impossible to tell whether Marilla is sympathizing because of abuse or deprivation she personally experienced or whether she just has compassion for Anne’s story. Her ability to be simultaneously exasperated by and fond of Anne throughout the rest of the film further shows Botsford’s aptitude for portraying Marilla. She may be a bit softer and more emotive than the Marilla in the book — to say nothing of the wise, strange, careful force of nature that is Colleen Dewhurst — but it feels earned, and right for the format.
Kate Hennig as Rachel Lynde
As portrayed in the book, Rachel Lynde is history’s greatest meddler. She has ten kids and a useless husband she barely ever mentions, she does housework and farmwork, runs all the clubs in town, and has positioned her house so that no one can enter or leave town without her knowledge. She knows everything about everyone and can’t wait to tell you all about it. She and Marilla are total opposites, and make unlikely friends, but in the book it just works.
Unfortunately, in the film Mrs. Lynde comes across as little more than a deus ex machina. She’s there to serve as a target for Anne’s quick temper, witness to Anne’s very first taste of ice cream, and when a family is found for Anne and Marilla reluctantly sends her away, Mrs. Lynde shows up to scold some sense into her: Other than that, she’s mostly just around to make exaggerated faces to communicate how the audience should feel about a given scene.
Kate Hennig is a great stage actress, and she does the best she can with the part as written, but both she and the fictional Rachel Lynde deserved better. For some reason, Linda Kash as a somehow magnetic Mrs. Barry seems to shoulder some of the emotional load here, acting almost as a second Mrs. Lynde, which ultimately splits the difference for both. It’s another odd choice, given the pains the book takes to differentiate the two, their temperaments, and their effects on Anne’s emotions and circumstances.
Julie LaLonde as Diana Barry
Of all the actors in the movie, Julie LaLonde does the best job of locking onto her character from the get go. She completely embodies Diana’s sweetness, and the quick but deep and abiding friendship she forswears with Anne feels so real. In the book, the two are fairly obsessed with one another: It’s the finest literary depictions of the intensity of young female friendships. Unfortunately, due to the abbreviated running time we don’t get to see nearly enough Diana.
A few major plot points from the book are touched on, but we don’t get to see their friendship blossoming in all its full passion and devotion — and forget the book’s most heartbreaking sequences, as Anne and Diana are held apart by cruel and ruinous fate: In this version, their breakup lasts as long as the cut to the next scene, before she’s running through the woods for Anne’s help, which robs their reunion of its power as well… Anyway. All of which is to say that Julie LaLonde really nailed Diana: We just needed more of her, in a story that seemed intent on leaving everybody out.
Drew Haytaoglu as Gilbert Blythe
Gilbert Blythe suffers the same fate as Diana in this adaptation. Many of his iconic scenes with Anne are cut, except for the very first where he taunts her by calling her “Carrots! Carrots!” because of her (much-loathed by herself) red hair. Gilbert in the book and the movie both start out as a little twerp. But while the Gilbert of the book quickly realizes he caused Anne legitimate pain and attempts to apologize and become her friend many times over, the Gilbert on-screen gets very little chance to try and win her over.
Even in the book, Gilbert can’t win over Anne after he saves her from potential drowning after a game of make-believe gone awry, but in the end, despite her continued disdain for him, he makes a noble sacrifice so endearing she cannot help but admit she really forgave him long ago. Drew Haytaoglu is given nothing to work with, and so Gilbert fades into little more than a background character. To a book devotee, this is basically unforgivable. Perhaps a series would take the time to develop this afterthought into the man Anne — and we — will grow to love so fiercely. Gilbert should hold weight in the story, like a male Diana — not be just another Josie Pye.
PBS’ take on “Anne Of Green Gables” was a fine Thanksgiving TV movie. It was quickly paced, it had emotional impact that didn’t feel manipulative, and there was a surprising freshness to it given the age of the source material. But at the end of the day most of the characters just couldn’t live up to the expectations of book lovers. By giving one character too much to do, the production had to give everyone else short shrift to keep its brisk running time — and that was an uphill battle to start with.
While Anne and Marilla were both on point, a big part of the joy of “Anne of Green Gables” is in seeing how an entire town is changed by one girl — in this quick-moving blur, we barely get to see her impact on the ones the loves the best. It’s easy to push back on a remake automatically, just for existing, but in this case the concerns are more than just “not like the other one.” It’s a well-intentioned, messy and defanged portrait of a masterpiece with easily identified flaws — and one that’s had no impact on our excitement to see the next iteration, Netflix’s more promising “Anne,” come spring 2017.