****this post contains a few spoilers for the new Anne series so stop reading if you don’t want to know***
When our eldest daughter was born, I did a very poor job of pretending we were not settled on a name. I did that for my husband’s sake, I think: I wanted him to feel like I valued his opinion. And I did! … except I totally knew in my heart of hearts that if this baby was a girl, we would name her Anne. What else could I possibly name my first daughter but Anne?
We had waited to find out our baby’s sex until the big day of birth so in the weeks of my pregnancy, we talked boy names and girl names with the grave seriousness of first time parents. We made the decision to create a short-list of names for both sexes: three boy names and three girl names apiece. That way, when we met our baby we would be able to look upon their precious bawling little face and understand which name belonged to that baby. We thought the baby needed to have a say with his or her face. (With our son, I was glad for this practice: we had a particular name that we intended for him but when he was born, we took one look at him and knew that he didn’t belong with that name: his name was Joe as surely as if he had come out of the womb with a nametag and that was that.) So I gamely chose two other girl names and I fooled myself into thinking that we hadn’t already made our decision.
But as soon as she was born, as soon as I held her in my arms while I laughed and her father cried, I called out her name – Anne! Oh, she’s Anne! – and my husband laughed because he knew all along that this would happen. Her name was Anne. Of course.
We named our daughter Anne for many reasons – a family association, the meaning of the name, a preference for classic names that had fallen out of fashion, a requirement that we avoid the Top Ten Baby Names list – but the main reason? who were we kidding? Anne Shirley.
I grew up on L.M. Montgomery’s books. I started with Anne of Green Gables, like most kids in Canada, but that initial sojourn turned into the entire series of eight (now nine, depending on who you ask) and then all of the Emily books, the one-offs and novels, the short-story collections and rare volume of poetry, the journals and the letters. I wore out paperbacks with regularity. I grew up and navigated girlhood with Jane Stuart, Sara Stanley, Valancey Stirling, Aunt Becky, Emily Starr, and of course Anne. Even now, my prized possessions are rare first-and-early editions of L.M. Montgomery books, each one showcased on our dining room’s shelves similar to how other people display fine heirloom china. These books shaped my memory, my imagination, my life in ways that defy essays and descriptions. When life is rough, people often want to go home: when my life is rough, I return home by way of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels since that is where I lived for most of my childhood and adolescence.
And so of course, as a Gen-X kid coming of age in Canada, I am devoted to the Kevin Sullivan series starring Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Farnsworth, and Jonathan Crombie. It was broadcast here in Canada in 1985 and was followed by the sequel in 1987. (There were other sequels but we don’t speak of them. Ever. I mean, everyone knows that World War 1 is Rilla’s timeline, don’t @ me.) I have watched these movies once a year, minimum, every year since they came available on VHS and then on DVD and now on Blu-Ray. I have them memorized entirely and yet they never age for me. They are the equivalent of an emotional cup of tea and a quilt on a rainy day. When Jonathan Crombie passed away a while ago, I mournfully poured out a bottle of raspberry cordial in his honour.
And who else but Colleen Dewhurst could give a line like “Twenty. Pounds. Of brown sugar” the necessary sarcastic yet rueful love?
So of course I have given major side-eye to every other adaptation of Anne of Green Gables since the Sullivan miniseries was released. (I’m look at you, Martin Sheen.) There is only one Anne of Green Gables and Megan Follows is her face, forever and ever amen.
Yes, I’m the purist. I’m one of those annoying people who rants on Facebook about how NOTHING IS SACRED OMG while declaring that Hollywood needs to stay away from our stuff because they don’t get it.
When I heard that Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad fame had taken the helm of a new Anne miniseries for CBC, I was aghast. I didn’t watch Breaking Bad (I have an aversion to depictions of violence #highlysensitive) and I could not draw the line between someone who wrote about selling meth to someone who hitches wagons to stars. I was mollified to find out that the actress who played Josie Pye in the Kevin Sullivan miniseries was also an executive producer here but still. Suspicious.
I set my PVR to record the series on CBC. I was positive I would dislike it as I have disliked every other adaptation. I was suspicious. My expectations were in the basement next to the last few seasons of Road to Avonlea and whatever that was that they called Jane of Lantern Hill.
I probably only watched it so that I could say I hated this new miniseries with some authority.
Humble pie, serving for one.
I loved Anne.
And yes, I have watched the entire series.
I know, I know.
I’m surprised, too.
All of us purists need to set aside our doilies and our carpet bags for a hot second to really watch this adaption of our beloved novel.
And I’ll tell you why.
First of all, we need to admit that all movies/miniseries are adaptations. Film isn’t meant to be a word-for-word telling of the book. Lest we forget, the Kevin Sullivan series took some mighty strong liberties with the source material as well. And you know what? we loved it. We loved Morgan Harris and Mrs. Harris, we loved Kingsport Ladies College. In the book, Matthew didn’t buy the dress, he went to Mrs. Lynde who picked out a brown gloria (not blue!) and made the dress herself (which just makes us love Mrs. Lynde even more).
Don’t get me wrong: the Kevin Sullivan miniseries is a delight. And yet it is also an adaption from the book. There were important developments left out, segments glossed over, timelines shifted, plot points were outright changed. This is what miniseries do. They are true to the spirit of the book (we hope) and they translate it for film.
We could take a page from our friends across the pond: the Brits regularly remake and reimagine their classic books and stories for new audiences. Pride and Prejudice has had at least eight re-tellings over the years through that medium and while everyone has their favourite (all the heart-eye emojis for the 1995 BBC version starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), each version brings something new to the story. And yes, sir, as a matter of fact, I will show up for every movie or miniseries version of Persuasion and I’m not even sorry.
So no, of course Anne is not the Kevin Sullivan 1985 movie adaptation of the original book. That spot in our hearts is sacred. I will always love it but I can love that miniseries while recognizing that it did exactly the same thing that every other adaption does: it changed the source material. We just happened to like what they changed.
No fim can compare to the book, I agree with that. I’m a book snob every time and in every way. But we’re talking about rewriting the Anne of Green Gables book, we’re talking about a miniseries adaption of the book.
Now let’s talk about this new miniseries. Even if some parts of the series aren’t “true to the book” they are more true to the Anne Shirley and Marilla Cuthbert and Matthew Cuthbert characters than any other adaption so far.
This version is fresh and updated, it’s bold and reinvented. It takes some serious magic to make this familiar story and well known dialogue feel brand new and exciting – after all, as fans we have whole passages memorized! – and yet somehow every word of this feels brand new. I couldn’t stop watching it.
It’s beautifully shot, of course, and several scenes are an absolute work of art. That opening credit with the song “Ahead by a Century” by the Tragically Hip is legit inspired. The film work is staggering.
The young girl who plays Anne (Amybeth McNulty) is probably is the highlight of the whole series to me. She’s physically more like how Anne is described in the books, that’s for sure – almost other-worldly, alien in her earnestness and her scrawniness and her big eyes that are too much for every adult to look into, always prompting comments on her appearance by the look of her. She captures the subtext of Anne and truly communicates how weird she was, how out of step, how damaged, why she was off-putting to the grown-ups around her. Anne made people uncomfortable because she was a lonely, desperate, longing, hungry – likely abused – child who is suffering. She’s an intense kid.
Rather than making her precocious and endearing and non-threatening, this series made Anne real: why does she imagine so much? why does she talk like she’s filling dangerous silence? why is she so desperate for a bosom friend? People in Avonlea thought she was weird, she didn’t fit with how they were and this is why.
A lot of Montgomery’s audience would have been able to fill in the context for why Anne was the way she was (and why – as she becomes loved and attached some of those quirks were integrated in a more healthy way) but we aren’t able to fully understand the time period without this backstory. There are definitely some hard scenes to watch that are technically “out of canon” but they were strongly implied by the books. If you have any familiarity with the books, you won’t be surprised.
Now we understand why Anne is the way she is. We understand the raw desperation behind her eyes, her hunger for love, her despair over leaving Green Gables, her longing for home.
The Anne we all grow to love is in there – we can see her, just as Matthew and Marilla can see something in her that Rachel Lynde and Mrs. Barry and everyone else can’t see – but now it’s clear that it is going to take love and security to make her whole.
This version of Anne is closer to the books. We see how harshly people judged orphans and considered them outsiders, we see the difference between how Anne grew up and how Diana grew up. We even see how quickly Anne attaches to Diana as a symptom of who she is – a kid hungry for love and too quick to jump to talk of soulmates because she’s desperate for connection and attachment. We see that it wasn’t even necessarily Diana she loved – it was the idea of a friend she loved and Diana just happened to be willing.
Other highlights: Matthew, as always, is the heart of the show. I have always loved R.H. Thomson as an actor (shout out to the other “Road to Avonlea” watchers who know him as Jasper Dale) but he can communicate more in a look than most actors in a whole monologue.
I was unsure about the new Marilla, played by Geraldine James, but she captures her beautifully. This series doesn’t gloss over or romanticize real pain. When we realize that Marilla had loved John Blythe once upon a time, the series portrays our Marilla as a woman – not the caricature of a cold spinster. We even see a young fiery Marilla, the Marilla who is in there still, the woman who loves out of a deep well of never-ending love even after hope is gone.
In this version, each of the characters feel more complicated. They are full people with motivations and complexities and longings, just like Anne. Everyone feels fresh and alive.
This version is the pine forest and bracing north wind to Sullivan’s doilies and tea cups indoors.
In a way, it gives us new eyes to see someone we loved so well we let them get stuck in time. We allowed the story to stagnant in our hearts, instead of allowing it to challenge us and grow with us.
I lost track of how many times I said, “I never saw it that way before but… yes, I see…that’s right.”
A small example is the side-story of Prissy Andrews. In the Kevin Sullivan version, we see her making eyes at her teacher Mr. Phillips who simpers back at her. Eventually, he leaves Avonlea reluctantly at the request of Mr. Andrews and they have a party to send him on his way (which is where Anne breaks her ankle falling off the ridgepole of the roof). As children, we didn’t see more than what was shown.
But this series tells a child’s story through the wiser eyes of an adult. And all of a sudden, we see Mr. Phillips grooming Prissy. We see that she is young, too young, for this attention, she is vulnerable. We see her discomfort over his attention. And we see why Mr. Andrews would have him fired for this inappropriate behaviour.
Another example is why Avonlea people were reticent for their children to be around orphans who were in institutional care or foster care. Institutional care wasn’t a lovely benign place particularly in the 19th century: there was physical and sexual and emotional abuse, bullying, deprivation, and kids learned to survive any way they could. Foster care situations were similar to what Anne experienced with the Hammonds – a drunken husband, poverty, abuse, a too-full home. Anne’s method of survival is her imagination, thankfully – like with her imaginary friend Katie Maurice in the window of the cabinet. But when you take a step back, you have to ask yourself for the first time: why? Why was her imagination preferable to her reality? Why would any child need to imagine as survival?
When many of us read the Anne books, we were children. And so we wanted a mini-series that would reclaim and recapture that feeling of childhood. The Kevin Sullivan series does that for us. And it will have that sacred spot for us forever. But there comes a time to see the story that L.M. Montgomery was telling under the story.
The story of Anne is still here. She is still our Anne. More so, even in some ways. She isn’t a saint, she isn’t a doll in a museum, she isn’t a still-life painting: she’s resolutely alive. Irreverent, funny, winsome, bright, ferocious, fierce, smart, loving, and indomitable.
Yes, there are some scenes that will be disruptive or sacrilegious to us purists, perhaps. There is a scene wherein Anne, seeking to make friends, shares some of what she learned from the orphanage and her foster homes about sex and, in her innocence, she violates social codes. Avonlea kids don’t talk like orphanage kids. But even in this uncomfortable development and the fall-out of mothers clutching pearls and freezing out Marilla who is horrified, we circle back to Matthew. Matthew, who is the only one brokenhearted over a child of Anne’s age even knowing of these things. He centers her with compassion instead of judgement.
We want the childhood version of Anne, not the real book version. But we’re not children anymore. This version of Anne is fully alive in the time and place of her telling. It’s honest. It’s opening our eyes to our willful ignorance about context and time, about struggle and suffering, about the entire backstory for these books we would have missed without a strong history lesson. L.M. Montgomery’s original audiences, particularly the adults, would have understood the undertones for her revolutionary book. We’re simply catching up, I think. There are hints of this all throughout the books if you go back and read them through as adults: we missed them then, we see them clearly once we have seen the world.
I think this version of Anne is more true to how L.M. Montgomery saw the world. If you’ve read more than Anne of Green Gables, you know that she often wrote about loneliness, about family. she wrote about the social ostracization of orphans and the impact of drunkenness on families, she wrestled with themes of loss and betrayal and innocence, with sex and longing in her way and in her time. (She was also deeply problematic in her portrayals of Indigenous and French communities but that’s another post.)
There are imperfections in this series, of course. That’s going to happen and I won’t deny that there were moments when I was suspicious and unconvinced of certain choices or directions.
Yet we purists should to watch this one, not in spite of our great love for the original story but because of it. It’s because we love Anne Shirley’s story of finding love and home that we need this telling. We will open our eyes to Montgomery’s subtext but also to Anne’s vitality and ferocious survival. This version of the story tells of that familiar love story between an orphan and two older siblings with equal parts of both the grace and the grit that characterized Anne in the first place.
This series made me even more proud that my eldest daughter is named after this complicated and beloved Canadian heroine.
Now who do I have to pay to get a half-decent adaptation for Emily of New Moon or The Blue Castle?
Note: The series is called Anne here in Canada, but in the USA it will be on Netflix as Anne with an E. Canadians, you can still watch it online at by clicking here.
Another note: Personally, I haven’t allowed my children to watch this version of the series yet. I will let them enjoy the innocent childhood version of the story for a while longer. PG-13 is likely an accurate rating.