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Anne With an E turns Anne of Green Gables into a high gothic tragedy, missing the point

Amybeth McNulty in Anne with an E
Amybeth McNulty as Anne
Netflix / Caitlin Cronenberg

In the best of the classic novels of the late 19th and early 20th century that are beloved of certain teenage girls, there’s a careful balancing act between the sensibility of the heroine and the sensibility of the world around her: The more gothic and lurid the world, the more sensible the girl, and vice versa.

Jane Eyre, with its gothic haunted mansions and madwomen in attics, requires sensible, acerbic Jane, who when asked why she isn’t afraid of a fortune-telling gypsy woman, replies sharply, “I’m not silly.” Alice in Wonderland is such a topsy-turvy acid trip of a world that it needs a heroine who considers such sensible topics as latitude and longitude even while in the very act of tumbling down a rabbit hole.

Conversely, Little Women, with its sweet-natured domestic plot of dolls and cookery and nursing, can accommodate Jo March’s blood-and-thunder sensibilities. Pippi Longstocking’s gentle Swedish village has room for Pippi and her suitcase full of gold coins to hold her horse over her head with one hand.

And Green Gables — lovely, pastoral Green Gables with its lyrically described woods and sunsets and freshly baked cakes — has room for the wild, rambling imagination of Anne-with-an-e Shirley. It’s the push and pull between Anne’s absurd fantasies and the sensible and unthreatening world in which she lives that makes L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels so immensely charming — and it’s that very push and pull that’s missing from Netflix’s new adaptation, Anne With an E.

Anne With an E makes Anne’s absurd fantasies reality

Montgomery’s Anne Shirley knows exactly what she’d do if she had to spend the night out of doors. She says so in the first few pages of Green Gables, upon greeting her new guardian at the train station:

I had made up my mind that if you didn’t come for me tonight I’d go down the track to that big wild cherry tree at the bend, and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid, and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think? You could imagine you were dwelling in marble halls, couldn’t you?

The fantasy’s combination of tragic pathos — a poor little orphan girl, all alone in the world, forced to sleep outside! — and picturesque sweetness is typical of Anne’s imaginings. And equally typical is the reader’s easy certainty that the fantasy will remain just that: a fantasy. Anne Shirley will never have to sleep in a cherry tree if she doesn’t want to. That sort of thing simply doesn’t happen in Green Gables.

Sure, there are tragedies in Anne’s past. She alludes matter-of-factly to her time as a glorified child slave, neglected and unloved and so lonely that her only friends are her own reflection in a glass door and the echo of her own voice. But the walls of Green Gables are so loving and secure that the reader can relax comfortably into the knowledge that all of that loneliness and neglect are in the past. In the present of the novels, Anne will never be so alone and without resources that she would have to sleep in a cherry tree, because Montgomery would never allow her world to become so lurid.

In the second episode of Anne With an E, Anne spends the night outside, alone and unloved, under a cherry tree. (Not in the cherry tree; she’s not Katniss Everdeen.) A tragic misunderstanding has led her guardians Matthew and Marilla to send her back to the misery of her orphan asylum, but Anne is too traumatized to set foot in the place.

Instead, she takes shelter under the blossoms of the cherry tree, racked with flashbacks of how her evil fellow orphans used to pelt her with dead mice. Meanwhile, Matthew runs himself ragged trying to find her, and along the way is injured in a carriage accident that leaves him blood-soaked and disoriented. When he finally finds Anne, she’s in a train station, trying to earn money for train fare by reciting poetry to strangers. (She has already evaded a sinister stranger who wants to kidnap her for purposes unknown.)

It is all exactly as torrid and gothic and romantic as Anne Shirley’s wildest imaginings, and it has no place whatsoever in the orderly calm of Green Gables.

Anne With an E is supposed to give Anne the prestige TV treatment. Why does it have to change her world to do so?

Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett has said that with Anne With an E, she wants to give Anne Shirley the prestige TV treatment: lavish production values, psychological depth, and a focus on antiheroes. (Walley-Beckett is the writer behind Breaking Bad’s much-celebrated and pitch-black “Ozymandias” episode.)

“I don’t see the point in doing ‘Anne’ in a way that’s been done, that’s very charming, teacups and doilies and ‘Oh, Anne’s in another scrape,’” she says. “What’s the most realistic way to show the way a girl like this, from a strange place, with enormous prejudices against her, would move through the world?”

The production values are certainly there — Anne With an E is consistently immersive and beautiful to look at — and increasing the focus on Anne’s PTSD is, in theory, an entirely reasonable move. Anne did go through traumatic events, and although Montgomery handles them with a light comic touch, they do leave a mark on her psyche. If, as Walley-Beckett has said she is, you are interested in trauma, why not treat those plot elements with more seriousness than the novel chooses to? Why not flesh out her backstory?

But there is a wide, wide gulf between giving Anne’s traumatic backstory its due and turning her lurid gothic fantasies into the literal truth. And Anne With an E goes beyond changing the angle through which we normally read Anne: It puts her in an entirely new world. Which creates the unfortunate implication that the kind of sweet domestic fiction that Montgomery wrote so well is not worthy of the prestige TV treatment, and that psychological depth can only be found in worlds of exaggerated and lurid cruelty.

This Anne is unmercifully bullied by the people of Avonlea, the community that’s home to Green Gables. Children run circles around her shrieking that she smells; boys compare her to dogs and bark at her. In Montgomery’s Avonlea, the worst Anne faces is some snide comments about penniless orphans from her schoolmate Josie Pye, who everyone knows can’t help but be nasty. The rest of the town is easily charmed by her sweetness and by her silly, unrealistic fantasies, which, after all, are so very far from describing the world in which they live.

Toward the end of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne turns her hand to writing stories with her friends. She sends a few of them to an old lady of her acquaintance, and is very much puzzled by her response:

We copied out four of our very best and sent them. Miss Josephine Barry wrote back that she had never read anything so amusing in her life. That kind of puzzled us because the stories were all very pathetic and almost everybody died. But I’m glad Miss Barry liked them.

Miss Josephine Barry would find Anne With an E highly amusing, but perhaps not quite in the way it’s intended to be. Anne Shirley would weep torrents over it, though.

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