We asked an Anne of Green Gables superfan to review the first episode of CBC’s new TV series
Anne of Green Gables helped inspire Saleema Nawaz to become a novelist. We asked her to watch and weigh in on Anne, the new adaptation from CBC and Netflix
No book influenced me more than Anne of Green Gables. I read and reread all of the books in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s series and, when I was nine or 10, my mother took me on a pilgrimage to Cavendish, P.E.I., where we hit every Anne-related tourist stop and bought out all the gift shops. When we visited Montgomery’s grave, I waited until my mother wasn’t looking to drop a kiss on the author’s headstone. It was the kind of earnest gesture my favourite heroine might have made. But I didn’t just want to be Anne Shirley—I wanted to be Anne Shirley as played by Megan Follows, whose photo adorned the front cover of my beloved paperback and who starred in the iconic 1985 CBC miniseries.
Of course, Anne of Green Gables has been interpreted umpteen times, all the way back to the silent era. In Canada, Kevin Sullivan’s miniseries and its sequel have defined Anne for more than a generation. As we’ve lost its wonderful leads one by one, the country has mourned them: Colleen Dewhurst as the stern but unexpectedly warm Marilla Cuthbert, Richard Farnsworth as the shy and sympathetic Matthew Cuthbert, Jonathan Crombie as the dashing and loyal Gilbert Blythe. Just a few notes from the Hagood Hardy score (which, yes, I had on cassette) and my eyes well up with childhood nostalgia.
All of which is to say that I was skeptical when I heard there was going to be a new CBC series. I couldn’t imagine loving another TV Anne quite so much.
The new Anne is a collaboration between Netflix and CBC, with former Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett serving as showrunner. The series opens with a scene like something out of Lord of the Rings: a wide shot over a gorgeous landscape, a horse at a wild gallop over sea and red earth. And, on the horse, not a wizard or immortal elf, but an older man in a bowler hat, apparently trying to outrun a train.
Before you have time to wonder whether Anne is going to arrive at Green Gables via horseback (how will she keep a grip on that broken carpetbag?), the camera cuts to a title sequence set to the Tragically Hip’s “Ahead By A Century”—a stylish, if jarring, announcement that this Anne has a contemporary sensibility, that she’s a 21st-century heroine, that she’s as relevant today as she was 100 years ago. While Anne and the Hip aren’t the most obvious CanCon pairing, I like it, especially if it gets global Netflix viewers to discover one of Canada’s quintessential bands.
Anne is played by 15-year-old Amybeth McNulty, who is a more convincing 13-year-old than Megan Follows was at 17. She’s as thin and waifish as described in the book (in which Anne is actually supposed to be only 11), with big, expressive eyes. We first meet her on the train, looking out the window. When she’s startled from her reverie by a crying baby, the cheery fiddle soundtrack dissolves into dissonance and she slips into a dark memory of being slapped and screamed at by Mrs. Hammond in the unhappy household where she used to be a little drudge. Before Anne has even uttered a word, we learn she has PTSD. When she comes back to herself, she remarks to Mrs. Spencer, “I like imagining more than remembering. Why are the worst memories the most insistent?” There’s more than a touch of bitterness in the question. Evidently, this Anne Shirley has issues—and an edge.
Once Matthew arrives at the train station to collect her, we’re in more familiar territory. Episode One covers the first 10 chapters of the book, more or less, with a few later incidents thrown in. The drive from the station is basically canonical, as Anne chatters to Matthew and marvels at the blossom-lined drive known as the Avenue. When they arrive and she discovers she is not wanted after all, the world recedes again as she begins to disassociate. It’s hard not to be affected by McNulty’s performance, especially later, when she sobs herself to sleep. The experience of trauma and its aftermath feels real, though it’s not exactly the stuff of Montgomery’s romantic escapism. It’s one thing to read about Anne crying herself to sleep, and quite another to witness her reliving the experience of being viciously beaten by Mr. Hammond. Unlike Montgomery, Wallet-Beckett wants to show life as it really is, not as we wish it could be.
R.H. Thompson is well cast as Matthew, a laconic beacon of goodwill. Geraldine James plays a harsh Marilla who doesn’t begin to thaw until about 40 minutes in. Clearly, oiling the hinges on what Montgomery described as Marilla’s “rusty sense of humour” is going to be part of the journey. More than once, I longed for Colleen Dewhurst’s wry smile and repressed laughter, which was such an essential component of the 1985 adaptation. Watching Anne and Diana make their first forays into friendship is charming. When the little girls swear to be best friends, sunlight drenches the scene. It’s all overexposure and soft focus, like any happy memory in the making.
One contemporary update is Anne’s response to the gender mix-up. When the Cuthberts tell her they wanted a boy for farm chores, Anne insists that girls can do anything boys can do, and more. She even offers this thought experiment to Marilla: “What if suddenly there were no boys in the world? None at all?” This sets the groundwork for my least favourite scene, when Anne confronts the French hired boy, Jerry. When Jerry reasonably asks her what her problem is, she gets in his face: “You. You’re my problem.” This is an ungenerous, attacking Anne—definitely not the one I signed up for. She stalks out of the barn and only allows her heart to soften (cue the soft Celtic fiddles) when she sees Matthew rubbing at his weak heart.
Anne doesn’t feel particularly close in spirit to Montgomery’s novel, in which Anne is a buoyant Pollyanna, unwilling to condemn those who mistreated her. In that regard, the 1985 series is more successful, with Megan Follows portraying an Anne who seems less affected by her past, having escaped into fantasy and a rich inner life.
Of course, staying faithful to the original is not always the goal of the filmmaker or showrunner. Walley-Beckett has her own gritty vision. We’ll see how Anne adjusts to Green Gables in light of her difficult past—and how far the series continues to stray from the source. I’ll admit I enjoyed the episode more than I expected to—especially the impeccable set design and costumes—but I found myself rolling my eyes at most of the manufactured drama, such as Matthew’s wild horse ride. Maybe as a novelist I should accept that I will probably always be that person droning on in a tiresome way about how the book was better. While I don’t think this series will ever find a place in my heart, Anne may be a compelling vision for the next generation. It almost feels dark enough for our times.
Saleema Nawaz is the author of Mother Superior and Bone and Bread, a Canada Reads 2016 finalist.