I’m a big fan of Anne Of Green Gables, the 1980s TV miniseries and also of Breaking Bad, so I anticipated Moira Walley-Beckett’s 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables with great enthusiasm. I’m not disappointed. ‘Anne With An E’ is great. (It seems I’m not in good company by saying that.)
There’s much to learn from Moira Walley-Beckett. How did she manage to not only update L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a 2017 audience, but add to the original story?
First a few notes:
- Walley-Beckett doesn’t agree that her version is ‘dark’ so I’m going to avoid that word. I also don’t think it’s particularly dark. (She calls it a deep and honest take.)
- This miniseries breaks from the book. Walley-Beckett felt that the novel was ‘too fast’ for her. She wanted to go back and fill in some gaps. She describes herself as an ‘incremental’ storyteller. I guess by that she means she introduces a concept but likes to build on it, digging deeper before moving on. Anne Of Green Gables has a main narrative but is a highly episodic novel. ‘Incremental’ is a word that better describes what a modern audience will enjoy.
- Every article mentions that Moira Walley-Beckett wrote for Breaking Bad and expresses surprise that one writer would work on two such different stories. But at the deeper level, these stories are not all that different. I think the surprise lies in the idea that Anne Of Green Gables is some melodramatic, sappy crap only enjoyed by girls and nostalgic women. I think there’s a bit of that. Breaking Bad is about a white man, and is allowed to join the ranks of prestige TV.
Anne’s transformations are easy to see as part of a trend in TV and film, one in which suffering has become indistinguishable from gravitas and even the most cheerful superheroes come complete with psychological baggage. In a world where Superman no longer smiles, Archie Andrews is an ennui-filled singer-songwriter and Belle’s mother in “Beauty and the Beast” tragically dies of the plague, of course Anne has PTSD. But this new interpretation of Anne also treats a young, female character with the attention and focus often reserved for difficult men and the perversions of their machismo. In emphasizing Anne’s past, Walley-Beckett may be roughing up a sunny tale, but she is also insisting that a plucky 13-year-old girl is as worthy a subject as anyone.NYT
- I had assumed Walley-Beckett used a writers’ room for this show but she wrote all seven scripts herself.
- In the book Anne is 11 but here she is 13.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CHANGE IN TITLE: FROM ANNE OF GREEN GABLES TO ANNE WITH AN E
This change is a signal to the audience: Don’t think of this series as a ‘replacement’ for Anne of Green Gables. Consider it an addition.
The title also clues us in on a slight change in focus. Anne Shirley in the classic has always been disappointed with her plain name, preferring something she considers more romantic, like Cordelia or Penelope. More is made of this quirk in Anne With An E, highlighting one of Anne’s psychological shortcomings: She is nobody but she wants to become someone.
In episode 2 of Anne With An E, the writers created a scene from scratch: The bit where Marilla and Matthew have finally made up their minds to keep Anne. They ask her to change her name from Anne Shirley to Anne Shirley-Cuthbert and she writes her name in their family ledger.
In this updated series, name symbolises belonging more than ever before.
Anne’s name was part of her identity and importance as a person — now it is even more so. “I am somebody. Treat me with dignity.” Her gradual acceptance of her name, spelt as it was meant to be spelt, tracks her gradual acceptance of herself. She learns that she is fine just as she is, without needing to create an imaginary doppelganger to gain acceptance.
SETTING OF ANNE WITH AN E
I went for a documentary level of real—it’s very grounded in authentic maritime life in 1896. The natural world is a really present, active part of this story, too. We set out to make a Jane Campion feature. We wanted it to be visceral and real and epic and intimate and experiential.Walley-Beckett, The Smithsonian
The potatoes in Marilla’s pantry were period accurate. (They were smaller than supermarket behemoths but otherwise unremarkable.) […] [Walley-Beckett] She insisted on making room in the budget for a 10-foot-long burbling creek, built behind a schoolhouse also constructed from scratch, because the novel mentions that Anne and her fellow students put their milk bottles in a brook to “keep it cool and sweet until the dinner hour,” an evocative detail Walley-Beckett said she “couldn’t do without.”NYT
MATTHEW AND MARILLA’S CHARACTER ARC
I wonder who L.M. Montgomery saw as her reader. Young women in their teens? I expect she wrote this for her teenage self. The books have been read by about 4 generations now, and the audience of the Netflix series will appeal to grown women as much as to our daughters. In fact, women my age are probably the main demographic. (My daughter is not interested in watching it, having already seen the 1980s miniseries too many times on rainy sick days.)
How does this older/dual audience affect the storytelling? Well, in this re-visioning the main adults are more rounded characters. I very much identified with Marilla in this story. Fully rounded characters need their own arcs, and that is what they are given.
In the original story Marilla’s brooch goes missing, Marilla assumes Anne has stolen it, then believes that she has dropped it in the well, and once again Anne’s position at Green Gables is in jeopardy. Fortunately for Anne, Marilla finds the brooch and Anne is never sent away. Marilla offers something of an apology. “I will forgive you if you can forgive me.”
To the modern viewer, in an age of increased self-awareness, this stands out as a sorry-not-sorry. We feel bad for Anne and as if something is left hanging. Walley-Beckett has obviously felt that pang herself, and makes much more of Marilla’s own character arc. She does this by really putting her through the wringer. Matthew takes Anne away, where she will complete her own journey back to the orphanage. In the meantime, Marilla finds her heirloom brooch down the back of the chair. She sends Matthew off to find Anne, and an entire episode is spent on finding her. When he finally tracks her down she is selling her services as a beggar-storyteller (similar to a scene from Before Sunrise) and before agreeing to come home, Anne dresses him down in the public forum of a busy train terminal.
Marilla’s character arc isn’t over with episode two, of course. Walley-Beckett takes the time afforded in a 7 episode miniseries to fix a character discrepancy in Marilla’s journey from ‘good, old-fashioned church lady’ to ‘woke, first-wave feminist’. The original doesn’t show us how Marilla starts off as prejudiced as almost anyone else in this insular little village — against girls, against orphans, against red-heads (“I do believe she’s bewitched you, Matthew”). This re-visioning sees Marilla invited to a tea party of suffragettes, masterful in its depiction of early feminism — at once woke and terribly closed-minded. Later in the episode, Marilla is excluded from the suffragette circle. News has travelled about Anne’s naive talk about rape and violence — scenes she has witnessed at an earlier posting. Now the audience can see exactly how similar Marilla and Anne are, in circumstance if not in temperament (yet): While Anne is being excluded at school, Marilla is being excluded in the world of mothers. This binds them together.
Even the character of Rachel Lynde is less of a caricature in this modern re-visioning. (Over) acted by Patricia Hamilton in the 1980s adaptation, Corrine Koslo makes a more nuanced job of Rachel in this 2017 update. She has more to work with, too, as both a product of her time and an intense curiosity for what’s new. Even her gossipy ways have a positive as well as a negative effect on the community — when Matthew arrives at her door wanting to be filled in on what everyone’s saying about Anne, she serves a useful role, inviting him inside with compassion.
Mythic Journeys in Anne With An E
Marilla’s emotional journey is of the Robinsonnade, static kind — stuck at home as women were back then. Lots of filmmakers use running scenes to indicate emotional turmoil but of course Marilla would never have wasted precious energy running — the realistic equivalent for a homemaker is scrubbing the floors vigorously. We see her make a ridiculous amount of food, ironically having fewer people to nurture now. She awkwardly offers it to the hired hand — she’s realising the food might not be eaten. Finally we see her start to cry. Marilla has gone through a rocky emotional journey without even leaving the farmstead.
Matthew’s journey is of the more typical heroic, Odyssean kind. He leaves the house on a mission. He encounters various characters, some helpful, some not. He encounters problems (his horse tires out, he runs out of money) and finally he almost meets his death when he thinks he sees Anne across a busy road (an hallucination?) and gets knocked down in the traffic. Finally, Matthew proves himself a worthy hero, fulfills his goal and returns home a changed man: He now knows that he will do anything for this little girl.
I’m constantly amazed how moved I continue to be by these same old, same old mythic patterns — proof to me that we shouldn’t cast them aside just because they’ve been done before. (And when I say ‘before’, I mean for the last 3000 years in Matthew’s case!)
This leaves one major myth-structure yet to be used by Walley-Beckett: The Female Mythic Structure. After episode two I’m waiting with bated breath to see if she will use it in this 2017 updated Green Gables story. She may well, because it was used with great success by the writers of Pixar’s Inside Out. This new big struggle-free myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things. The hero(ine) of a Female Myth is ‘a walking emotion’, demonstrating to the audience a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting.
Sure enough, I conclude Walley-Beckett wrote this re-visioning in a woke way, and has updated Anne’s Mythic Journey somewhat, but not so much that we lose the spirit of the original story.
Like many heroines who eventually learn to embrace their inner selves, Anne has absorbed the dominant cultural (and patriarchal) message that beauty in a woman is the most important thing. But Walley-Beckett really emphasises Anne’s proto-feminism, if borne from desperation rather than a sense of gender injustice, that she can stay on the farm and do anything a boy can do, and more. This is a shouty kitchen scene in Anne With An E — a scene which was absent from the 1980s adaptation starring Megan Follows. Anne is now more feisty — a word often used to describe Pixar heroines, for instance. Her feistiness and irritation at the gender divided hierarchy is taken out on the hired hand, also absent from the book and from the 1980s adaptation. We know he’s been hired, but we don’t see him. Walley-Beckett makes the most of him, bringing him in for conflict with Anne to show us Anne’s insecurities. (Walley-Beckett also achieves increased diversity by having him hail from a French-speaking family.) Walley-Beckett also achieves some LGBTQ diversity by telling a modern audience in old-fashioned terms that Miss Barry has been in a lesbian relationship all these years and has recently lost the love of her life.
Anne’s pathway to increased acceptance of her looks, or at least her demotion of them in her priorities, is evidenced in her nightly prayer. Her first attempt at prayer has her place beauty on a par with family and belonging. She obviously believes one begets the other. In the next prayer scene she acknowledges to God that she doesn’t mind if she’s not beautiful, so long as she has a family. Walley-Beckett has updated the beauty message, as described by Willa Paskin:
If “Anne of Green Gables” were written today, it is easy to imagine that over the course of the book, Anne would come to learn that none of these externalities matter: not the color of her hair, not the sleeves of her dress. Instead, in the novel, her hair mellows to the coveted auburn, and Matthew, in a moment of tremendous fatherly kindness, gives her a dress with puffed sleeves. Rather than dispense the message that it’s only what’s on the inside that counts, “Anne of Green Gables” conveys something more nuanced, that beauty can be a pleasure, that costumes can provide succor, that the right dress can improve your life — all things that adults know to be true, sometimes, but that we try to simplify for our children.NYT
Doretta Lau has a point when she points to the fact that some scenes of Anne With An E feel anachronistically modern:
The first time Anne Shirley sets foot in her early twentieth-century rural classroom, four young women strut over like they have been studying the movie Mean Girls. Anne’s friend, Diana Barry, introduces her to the group: “Anne loves to read, and she knows ever so many big words.” Their tall blonde schoolmate, Josie Pye, replies witheringly, “Does she use them in every sentence?” The actress playing Josie delivers this with a fake laugh (bearing her big twenty-first century Chiclet teeth) and a queen-bee head tilt; with the sound off, it appears if as she’s scoffing at Anne for being a virgin who still uses an iPhone 3. Canadian children didn’t act this way in the 1980s, much less in 1908.The Walrus
THE THEME TUNE
“Ahead By A Century” may refer to the longevity of this story. Cinderella is the ur-Story and in rich countries orphans are fewer and far between these days, but the need to belong and the need to be noticed time travels.
Anne is timeless, but she’s timely right now. I’m not influenced by what’s come before. I feel like Anne’s issues are incredibly relevant and topical right now. There’s so much conversation in the world about gender parity and feminism and prejudice and those who come from away. People who are other. All of these conversations are within L.M. Montgomery’s writing. It’s the perfect time to talk about it again.Walley-Beckett, The Smithsonian
ROMANCE IN ANNE WITH AN E
Anne’s rejection of society’s gender roles is taken out on Gilbert Blythe, who tries to engage her in a typically, but unacceptably, masculine way — more recently called ‘negging’ by the pick-up artist community — a rhetorical technique in which a man insults a woman to inspire passion, then turns it around by apologising, displaying his humanity and hopefully winning her affection. Although the term is recent, the phenomenon is much older. Writers of rom-coms know might call this trope ‘slap, slap, kiss’. It continues to be popular with certain audiences, leading to ‘shut up and kiss me’ fantasy moments, although this jaded middle-aged woman gets a little tired of the trope when it is brought down into children’s stories, not because children shouldn’t be exposed to the way the world actually works in practice, but because of a general lack of trope subversion. We rarely see stories in which the negging ends with an out-and-out, permanent rejection for being an asshole. Girls learn to expect bad behaviour before a relationship can kick off. Taking the entire corpus of children’s stories into account, we are basically training heterosexual girls to expect assholery, and boys to give it.
What does Walley Beckett do with the Gilbert character? Does she subvert this trope at all?
The slate over the head scene is so iconic in Anne of Green Gables that it is compulsory. But in this adaptation it is not a simplistic slap, slap, kiss, and is therefore redeemed somewhat. We have already seen what a decent character Gilbert is when he deflects a bashing from the boy in the woods. There’s a metafictive moment where Gilbert says, “Anything else you want me to help you with today? Any dragons to slay?” He is self-aware and knows that he has just ‘saved a damsel in distress’, just like out of some romantic fairytale. Later, when he enters the classroom we are shown how popular he is with the other boys. Anne presumably sees this too, and comes the same conclusion. By the time Gilbert calls her ‘carrots’, this is simply a desperate and unthinking way to get her attention. Walley-Beckett makes sure the audience has already seen Gilbert’s intrinsic goodness, and even inserts some scenes in which we see evidence of Gilbert’s social capital among the boys. He is definitely the pick. Without these earlier scenes introducing Gilbert as a sympathetic character, the slate on the head wouldn’t work.
Anne still, for example, smashes a slate over the head of her future husband, Gilbert Blythe, when he has the temerity to call her “Carrots,” but this is no longer foreplay; it’s the culmination of many weeks of bullying, including by an older boy who calls her a “talking dog” because she is an orphan.NYT
Later, in episode seven, Walley-Beckett gives Anne a snippet of dialogue that shows, like Gilbert, she is aware of story structure. Talking to Marilla in the kitchen, she is disappointed that she is forbidden from going to town on her own, where she must raise money by pawning off some precious items. I’m sure Walley-Beckett meant the fairytale intertextuality with tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Anne argues that going to town alone would be the perfect opportunity for her to star in her own mythic journey. Walley-Beckett realises she’s already used the mythic journey structure in episode two, and so this time she makes sure to vary the pattern; Anne’s trip to the city is another Odyssean story but unlike Matthew who made significant heroic sacrifices, Anne takes help from others, and teaches Marilla that it’s okay to take charity if charity is truly needed.
INCREASED EMPHASIS ON AN ISLAND SETTING IN ANNE WITH AN E
While readers have always known that Green Gables is on an island, this fact is never really used symbolically. Sure, it’s a kind of utopia. But we never at any point see anyone actually leave the island.
In Anne With An E, I was reminded that actually the island setting of this story is significant, because we see Anne boarding the ferry. This scene in itself underscores the fact that Anne is crossing over between two very different worlds. It almost functions as a portal, as seen in fantasy stories. The island equals home and safety (though in Walley-Beckett’s version not a utopia) whereas the Canadian mainland equals danger and loneliness. The expanse of the Canadian wilderness hits home when we realise Matthew has lost Anne’s trail. Perhaps even more could have been made of this Canadian vastness with some overhead drone-camera shots.
See also: Islands In Children’s Literature.
Since my own daughter’s ADHD profiling I have read Anne Shirley as a neurodivergent character. Because of her background as an orphan and attendant trauma, her escape into an imaginary world can also be attributed to a coping mechanism provoked entirely by environment, but I think it entirely possible that Anne’s inherited neurology makes up a large part of who she is. After all, the other orphans in the orphanage picked entirely different coping mechanisms — namely by forming a clan and enforcing their own social hierarchy by using Anne as victim, at least in this re-visioning.
Anne’s imagination and bottomless energy are clearly presented in the TV series as coping mechanisms, a frantic and resourceful means of keeping upsetting memories at bay. “I like imagining better than remembering,” Anne says, always choosing between one and the other.NYT
While I doubt Walley-Beckett approached this new re-visioning of Anne with a mind to neurodiversity, I watched to see if my own reading is different this time. In fact, I only see more evidence of neurodivergence, not less:
Anne pinches herself so much that it leaves a bruise. Ostensibly this pinching is ‘to remind herself that it’s not all a dream’, but can also be read as an obsessive compulsive stimming behaviour not dissimilar from skin-picking or hair-pulling, which is reasonably common in the ADHD community.
Anne continues to talk ‘too much’. Of course, she exists in an era where children are to be seen and not heard. Nonetheless, she admits that, more than other children, she finds it almost impossible to stop talking but she can do so if she really sets her mind to it. This is very similar to the experience of an ADHD child. Children with hyperactivity issues are able to suppress their natural inclinations to move and talk, but it comes at great cost — they are unable to suppress their movements and attend to other things (such as learning) at the same time.
On one of her first days at school, Anne shows impulsive behaviour when she jumps up to correct a boy who spells a word wrongly on the blackboard. This could be explained away as not knowing the rules of school, but neurotypical children would learn quickly simply by gauging the mood of the room that this is not done.
In episode four Anne helps out in a house fire, rushing in to block off the oxygen, shutting all the doors and windows. This helps to put the fire out and she is praised. This can be read as ‘brave’ and ‘resourceful’. It can also be attributed to ADHD, in which neurodifferent people are more likely to rush in because they don’t have the extra few seconds typical people have to consider the danger to life and limb. In the meantime, people waiting outside for Anne worried themselves half to death. This episode is foreshadowed with the burnt pie at the beginning of the episode — another example of inattentiveness.
Anne can focus really well on things that interest her, but part of the reason being a housewife would seem so uninviting to her is because of the day-in, day-out monotony.
She can heal an infant with the croup, but she “cannot tie [herself] down to anything so unromantic as dishwashing” at “thrilling” moments or be asked to eat anything “so unromantic [as boiled pork and beans] when one is in affliction.”Willa Paskin, NYT
Anne has a precocious active lexicon which demonstrates a deep interest in language and the way it works. About 30 per cent of ADHD children also show characteristics of autism — there is a broad genetic crossover — and I think Anne is a candidate for that. Her interest in literature and vocabulary might be seen as a ‘special interest’. She has encyclopedia knowledge of vocabulary and of the literature she’s had her hands on. When she tells Marilla and Matthew that she had a chocolate caramel ‘once two years ago’, this seems unusually specific. She may also have a knack for dates.
Before meeting her new classmates she rehearses the conversation on her trip to school. This is a trope often used on screen to show how nervous a character is about meeting someone. Anne is so good at ‘memorising’ her own rehearsal that when she blurts out her self-introduction to the group of same-age girls they react as if Anne has come from a different planet. Diana is often swooping in to smooth over Anne’s social blunders — more so in this adaptation. An autistic/ADHD girl often relies on a girl like this in order to get by in socially complex arenas such as school. If Anne is the ‘weird’ girl, Diana is the neurotypical Everygirl.
Anne Shirley’s Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
The Barrys’ picnic in the 1980s miniseries is a pleasant affair. Given the era, this insular (literally an island) community is unrealistically welcoming of orphan Anne. Walley-Beckett has taken a more historically uncomforable but realistic approach and at this same picnic Anne looks around and sees every single group staring at her and making rude comments within earshot. This picnic can be interpreted literally, or more symbolically as a snapshot of Anne’s lack of confidence. In ADHD terms, this is known as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Not limited to people with ADHD, this is nevertheless a heightened emotion for the ADHD population, possibly because ADHD children experience many more actual rejections over the course of childhood than the typical population. (20,000 more admonishments before age 12.) This teaches ADHD children to accept rejection, to the point where rejection ends up the assumed state. Anne expects to be rejected by this community because that is all she has ever known. This expectation can be read as a combination of her red-headed, orphan, outsider status but also combined with her possible ADHD neurology.
Anne Shirley would not be Anne Shirley without her extensive imaginary world. This is what I see in my own daughter, and I hear about this imaginary world a lot. My daughter’s imagination is very dear to her. Last week she received an award in maths, but her best friend received an award for her imagination and my daughter threw aside her maths award as if it were of no consequence, annoyed that no one had formally recognised her own vast imagination. Again I’m reminded of Anne, who repeatedly expresses incomprehension that other people do not live at all in their imaginations (notably Diana Barry and the ever-practical Marilla Cuthbert). Her storytelling ability is so important to her that she sees it as her one saleable attribute, and even decides she can make a living out of it as a street child.
By the time the first series had ended I had come to think that Anne Shirley was neither ADHD nor autistic. That’s what comes of analysing completely fictional character who, unless specified as neurodifferent, and sometimes even then, has become more mature, responsible and better at coping than at the beginning of the story. I would say the same about Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the main character, Clay Jensen, could definitely be read as autistic at the beginning of the series but who by the end has demonstrated emotional maturity to the point where that is no longer a possible interpretation.
The book, in a manner that is rare for young-adult novels even now, is a celebration of Anne’s intelligence, which is ultimately cherished by her adoptive parents, her community and her future partner, Gilbert — who is also her closest academic rival and who instead of being threatened by Anne’s brain admires her for it. And yet at the end of “Anne of Green Gables,” Anne quits college and returns to the farm to care for an ailing Marilla, never becoming the writer she wanted to be as a child. This is, perhaps, a disappointing ending (and one that presages a string of follow-up novels in which Anne eventually becomes muted by family life), but it is an honest one: We still live in a world where a woman’s intellect does not preclude her from accruing vast domestic responsibilities.NYT
ON THE TOPIC OF ‘POVERTY PORN’
The first time I came across the term ‘poverty porn’ to describe fiction was in a review of Anne With An E — the Netflix revisioning of Anne of Green Gables:
Whereas the 1985 Sullivan Entertainment adaptation starring Megan Follows is a delectable confection that captured the wholesome and imaginative spirit of Montgomery’s books, the first few episodes of this reboot border on poverty porn, with traumatic flashbacks that rely on dirt and dark lighting to elicit emotion.Doretta Lau at The Walrus
According to the ‘poverty porn’ entry on Wikipedia, the phrase originally refers to “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause”. Obviously, a TV series isn’t asking for money. Main criticisms of poverty porn centre on the idea that depictions of real children in terrible situations are exploitative — these children are not consenting to having their images all around the world. They cannot consent even if asked, since the desperation of their situation means they have no real choice but to comply.
So I’m interested to see it used in relation to fiction. Is it possible to ‘exploit’ a fictional character? Surely, when we talk about poverty porn in relation to Anne Shirley, we’re actually talking about all the real children in similar situations.
When does depiction of fictional poverty cross over into poverty porn? I don’t think Anne With An E is a good example of poverty porn, because life in 1908 for orphaned red-headed girls was not good.
Depictions of poverty cross the line when:
- The story misrepresents poverty, e.g. when the individual poor person is blamed for systemic economic inequality or when poverty seems like something which is simple and easily fixed
- The story misrepresents poor people, e.g. depicting poor people living in actual gutters wearing rags rather than showing all the more realistic faces of poverty, and how it feels trumping how it looks to the outsider. In America that tends to look like inner-city, minority groups living in dilapidated housing. Emotions experienced by people living with poverty include: shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. These emotions should be explored.