The Problem With Anne

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This Post Contains Spoilers for the Netflix Series Anne With an E

Much has been written about the joint CBC-Netflix show Anne with an E, with many reviewers feeling as though the series has ruined the magic of the book. (Magic that was in contrast, encapsulated by the 1985 movie). Like many young girls growing up in Canada, Anne holds a special place in my heart and I was sceptical about the iteration of her story. (I did not watch the American version starring Martin Sheen or the BBC Version). This deep-seeded love of the free-spirited Anne is the reason there was so much backlash against the grittier story Director Niki Caro decided to bring us. I however, don’t mind a darker Anne.

From the opening credits set to The Tragically Hip’s Ahead by a Century I had tears in my eyes. This was going to be a Canadian-driven production and it would be true to the story. I fell in love with Amybeth McNulty and the casting of R.H. Thompson and Geraldine James as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert respectively was likewise on point. The sweeping picturesque scenes filled me with a warm appreciation for my country and I was totally engrossed in the story. Even Anne’s flashbacks, which signal a dramatic departure from the original tone of the book and 1985 movie, moved me. It’s realistic for Anne to have suffered from PTSD as being an orphan in the Maritimes at the dawn of the century would not have been easy. I was willing to accept this artistic choice, but then they changed some fundamental things.

My one main problem with the new series is that the creators lack a full understanding (as I see it) of what made Anne so inspiring. As a young girl I wasn’t outright bullied with name calling or threatened with physical violence, but I was a social outcast. I knew I was different from the other girls in my class because I loved to read and I loved to learn. I was an awkward looking girl with little interest in boys, or at least they had little interest in me. For me, my sense of who I was came, and still does come, from my academic achievements. Characters like Anne, Matilda, and Hermione got me through my rougher years in grade school and taught me that things get better; smart girls can rule the world.

In the new series, Anne isn’t the brightly shining student she is in previous incarnations. Yes, she loves to read, but when it comes to math she seems to fall behind. She even drops out of school for a while due to unrelenting bullying, something unheard of for the Anne Shirley I know and love. I understand trying to make Anne a more sympathetic character, someone other kids being bullied can identify with, but this series weakens her, especially in her relationship with Gilbert Blythe.

In the book, and 1985 movie, the entire relationship between Anne and Gilbert is founded on an intense academic rivalry. He is a charming blowhard who Anne has no romantic interest in until much later on in their lives. In the Netflix series, Gilbert initially meets Anne in a forest after he rescues her from a bully threatening to harm her. The series rewrites their relationship turning Gilbert into an sensitive brooding boy who can bond with Anne over their shared orphan-ness. The series turns Anne into a damsel in distress which is an interesting choice, given that the rest of the time the series seems hell-bent on convincing the viewer she is a feminist icon.

The thing is, Anne already was a feminist icon. Not because she is inspired to “be her own woman” by Aunt Josephine, or because she bests a bully telling her to literally “get back in the kitchen.” She was a feminist icon because she took school seriously at a time when women weren’t supposed too. The need to “better than the boys,” that innate feeling, is one that will resonate with many young girls whether is be competing with men at school, with sports, or at work. I could write at length about how hard it is for women and girls in higher education and the workplace because young girls are taught to be nice while boys are taught to be brave but I won’t do that here. (Reshma Saujani did an amazing TED Talk on this subject).

The competition appears mid-way through the series but doesn’t feel authentic to me. It’s forced and is simply a means to the end: The two are a romantic pair from the start and Gilbert is later removed entirely from this academic setting. The two trade barbs but do so cautiously in a way that highlights a different connection between the two, one based on an emotions rather than on one of intellect.

Previous versions of Anne never let anything hold her back, she knew she was smart and went for it even though she was constantly having to prove herself as a woman. She’s a feminist icon because she’s a fighter. She fights to stay at Green Gables; she fights for herself in school and repeatedly ends up at the top of her class gaining a scholarship and attending university despite all the societal pressures working against her. When she ultimately ends up with Gilbert it is only after years of academic rivalry out of which grew a deep mutual respect for one another.

The series overall isn’t bad. It’s worth it for the artistic shots of Ontario and PEI alone, and puffed sleeves and raspberry cordial still play prominent roles. For anyone watching for the first time however, I urge you to go back and either read the books or watch the 1985 film version. I am interested to see if they do another season and if any of these aspects of Anne are reclaimed. I recognize that this is my own personal bias but she was an idol for me, someone I looked up to and wanted to be. Girls, and boys, being introduced to Anne today deserve to have her as their role model too. To ignore Anne’s intelligence is to do her a complete and total injustice.

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5 thoughts on “The Problem With Anne

  1. Shane

    Personally I don’t see any “problem” with this series. For me it’s a GREAT series with heart.

    Ten years ago, as a man in his early twenties, I saw your beloved “magic” 1985 movies. What I remember most is a well-nourished young woman playing a 11 to 13 years old little orphan girl. Not very credible.

    Despite this incongruity, these are good movies, clean, cute, fun, but that didn’t touch me because precisely everything was too much cute, clean, not realistic. The sun always shines on Avonlea. (Except for a huge cloud, the death of a very sympathetic character).

    It’s true that some reviewers/viewers don’t like Anne With an ‘E’ and some others hate it with something similar to religious fanaticism. But it’s also true that many more reviewers/viewers really likes/loves this series and wish for more seasons. I am one of them.

    Reply
    1. Erin

      Writer, director, and producer, Kevin Sullivan, was concerned that Megan Follows was too old to play the part, but cast her after auditioning 3,000 potential candidates. And I’m so glad he did. The beauty of Megan Follows performance is that it is not about her looks. As a young girl watching, the last thing I was concerned about was that she didn’t look like a scrawny, thirteen-year-old, because I was too busy watching her compete with Gilbert Blythe and give impassioned resuscitations of “The Highway Man.” Authenticity can only serve to a certain point; talent and artistry are what produces a truly convincing performance.

      Reply
  2. charandtheweb

    Is this still on Netflix? I’m not familiar with the original series but I saw it pop up on Netflix about a month ago and thought it looked interesting. I also wanted to comment because I just wanted to throw out there that this is a very well-written review. Fantastic job. And though you didn’t think it was the best thing you’ve ever seen, it still makes me want to give it a go. Just out of curiosity. I do have a thing for period dramas.

    Would you be interested in sharing your work on Movie Pilot? I’d like to invite you to join the platform, and I’d love to hear from you so I can to expand on that. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail, my contact details are on my “About” page. Hopefully talk soon!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Why I Cried During Wonder Woman | Katie Wilson

  4. Erin

    I think you capture an essential issue with the series. It’s the relationship between Anne and Gilbert that was particularly unique in Montgomery’s writing. It is Anne’s dedication to her education and her unwillingness to waver in her aspirations (as demonstrated, in particular, the first time Gilbert proposes) that make Anne such a strong role model. I think that in attempting to create a “gritty” and “moody” re-boot, the creators of “Anne with an E” do not capture the spirit of the original source material. In attempting to examine Anne’s bleak circumstances we lose the eternally optimistic orphan whose keen imagination enables her to eventually overcome all obstacles. It is this pluck that has won audiences over since L.M. Montgomery first wrote the story and it’s what makes Anne so universally appealing.
    I would further argue that’s it’s a completely unnecessary exercise because Montgomery herself already created the “moody” Anne the creators were hoping to produce when she wrote “Emily of New Moon.” Montgomery herself lost her mother at a young age and was left with elderly relatives in P.E.I. while her father went out west to search for work. It’s well documented that Montgomery had a difficult time with these circumstances; she was not supported in her efforts to pursue an advanced education or to become a published writer. Later in life, she moved to Ontario with her husband, Rev. Ewan Macdonald, who experienced numerous mental breakdowns and became dependent upon prescription drugs. The general impression one gets from reading Montgomery’s papers is that she had high hopes about where life would take her but had many disappointments. While Anne’s character and story is the life Montgomery wished she had, “Emily of New Moon” was written later and many scholars argue that it is much more reflective of Montgomery’s true experiences and feelings.
    Anne is the ideal while Emily Starr is arguably Montgomery’s moody counterpart to her original upbeat orphan. Similar to “Anne of Green Gables,” the “Emily of New Moon” series looks at life through the eyes of an orphan. After her father dies of tuberculosis, Emily is sent to New Moon farm, P.E.I. to live with her aunts Elizabeth and Laura, and cousin Jimmy. A gifted writer – with Anne’s coveted raven hair – Emily clashes with her aunt Elizabeth who does not understand her desire to write. Emily befriends many of the neighbourhood children who all have their own set of burdens. Issues of class, jealously, disreputable parents, and scandal, all challenge this set of gifted children who are burdened by their parents faults and the limits of society. Montgomery herself considered Emily to be much more similar herself than Anne and many of the events captured in the series happened to her. Whereas “Anne” was published in 1908 while Montgomery was still young and optimistic, “Emily” arrived in 1923 following the chaos of WW I, the loss of numerous children and close friends, a lawsuit with her publisher, and her husband’s deteriorating health. “Anne” was the fairytale; “Emily” was the grit.
    Perhaps more “grit” is needed for today’s audience but instead of taking what is familiar and trying to change the vibe, some exploration of Montgomery’s back catalogue could have produced something groundbreaking and in tune with the spirit of the original source.

    Reply

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