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‘Anne With An E’ Argues ‘Anne of Green Gables’ Is Way More Than Just Twee

Where to Stream

Anne with an E

Netflix’s Anne With An E is pretty darn good.

Now, I know I’m probably biased in my opinion. After all, I am an overly dramatic redhead named Meghan (with an H), meaning I’m the target demo. Heck, I already own the 1985 CBC Anne of Green Gables mini-series on DVD and have a framed poster of Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shallot” over my bed. As Chandler Bing might say, “Could this show be any more me?” Still, the new Netflix series Anne With An E does something with the source material I couldn’t have expected. From the get-go, it shows that the “Anne” saga is more than just a non-stop celebration of all that is sweet and twee. It scratches at the dark side underneath, and in doing so, elevates the moral of the overall story.

Anne With An E is just the latest screen adaptation of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heart-warming classic Anne of Green Gables — and just the second major television adaptation of the last calendar year. The book has been adapted countless times over the last century, but the most beloved version is Kevin Sullivan’s four-part 1985 mini-series. Anne of Green Gables starred young Canadian actress Megan Follows as the ginger-haired orphan who finds happiness in the picturesque towns of Prince Edward Island. The series was elegant, yet down-to-earth. It was a celebration of family, friendship, and good old-fashioned values. Anne With An E is not quite that. The Netflix Original comes with a Mumford and Sons-lite soundtrack and the aesthetics of an Anthropologie catalogue, but it also comes with a dark edge, courtesy of creator (and Breaking Bad alum) Moria Walley-Beckett.

Photo: Netflix

I understand The New Yorker‘s Sarah Larson’s objections with it — in her review, she chastises Walley-Beckett for introducing darker, crueler subplots to the mix that dilute the pristine moral messaging of Montgomery’s book and Sullivan’s celebrated mini-series — but I certainly prefer this remake to last year’s made-for-TV-movie version that had Martin Sheen’s Matthew Cuthbert prat-falling into manure within the first five minutes. Anne With An E may not be as darling as the 1985 classic series, but it highlights Anne’s desperation to be loved like never before.

A lot of Anne With An E’s success is going to depend on what you make of its leading lady, Amybeth McNulty. McNulty has a scrappier vibe than Follows ever did. Follows played young Anne with an almost daffy earnestness. At times you worried Follows was on the verge of working herself into a consumptive swoon. It was charming in the way Lisa Frank notebooks covered with tween girls’ signatures (sometimes altered with the last names of the boys they like) are charming. McNulty’s Anne is far less swoon-y. If Follows delivered Anne’s more loquacious lines as if she were possessed by some pagan demigod, then McNulty’s line delivery is cribbed from an Aaron Sorkin drama. It’s fast-paced and razor-sharp, as though she’s trying to use her brains to bargain with reality in real time.

And why is this little girl trying so hard to bend reality? Most versions take Anne’s vibrant imagination as nothing more than a “quirky girl” character trait, but it’s also meant to be a coping mechanism Anne has developed to conquer trauma. This is true in both Montgomery’s book and Sullivan’s mini-series, but Anne With An E makes it clear she has been abused. Walley-Beckett uses a number of bracing flashbacks to illustrate this, but it’s also evident in the way McNulty’s Anne interacts with others. Both Anne’s sweetness and her temper are fiercer. Wooing Matthew and Marilla to her cause becomes a matter of life or death. When Anne snaps at Rachel Lynde for insulting her, she takes actual sadistic glee in causing someone else pain for once. No, this isn’t your sweet Anne of Avonlea, already tamed and ready to win over the world. This Anne is a work-in-progress.

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Ultimately, Anne With An E understands that this a major part of the story that is often overlooked. Avonlea is thought to be an edenic place. It’s a pristine small town, full of high-minded Christians, set on gorgeous Prince Edward Island. Its remote location is part of its legendary charm. It’s a place that the rest of the world forgot about and so it is a place without many of the real world’s troubles. Green Gables is a place where an orphan girl like Anne can be encouraged to develop her talents and to plow through her deficiencies. Anne’s later personal triumph is the success of a community that bands together to love a child who could have otherwise been left behind. So, yeah, Anne With An E is also an inherently political work, but what were you expecting from a story that opens with a girl arguing that her worth is equal to that of a little boy’s?

Anne With An E is not another simpering retelling of Anne of Green Gables. It’s a tricky one that wants us to confront the pain and anxiety running beneath the warm fuzzies of the original work. We find the story comforting because it shows how good can triumph in everyday life — so long as we come together as kindred spirits.

Stream Anne With An E on Netflix

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