“I’m gonna tell you plain, you’re doing a mighty foolish thing, a risky thing, that’s what.”
— Rachel Lynde
I deliberated for a few weeks about watching Anne with an E. I’m usually disappointed with the 2-dimensional feel of most adaptations. I enjoyed reading Lucy Maud Montgomery's series so much, I was reluctant to watch something that would spoil the essence of Anne that had me pulling each book off the bookstore shelves as eagerly as any eleven-year old with a story crush. Only, I was in my 30’s when I first read the series. Anne’s enthusiasm was irresistible. Adaptations miss the essence of character that books uniquely develop. What stayed with me, years after I read the books, was Anne’s irrepressible love of life. I wasn’t prepared to have those memories forever ruined. But on the off chance that I’d find something more, I plunged in.
It was worth the risk. Series writer, Moira Walley-Beckett was adept at bringing out Anne’s superlative view of life. Here was the most joyful, most exuberant heart and soul of the Anne Shirley the books describe as all “spirit and fire and dew.”
Walley-Beckett highlighted Anne’s effervescence by finding “scope for imagination” in the backstory Montgomery sketched out for us. By reverse engineering these slim details she mined the trials that would have made up a decade of Anne’s life that included loneliness, poverty, and physical hardship. Because we’re given a clear picture of her past we get the feeling that the beauty of the books and poems she loves to quote changed her world of drudgery and neglect even before she left it. Seeing Anne's dark past creates a richer character.
Because Walley-Beckett helps us see Anne’s trials, we’re better able to see their fruit. When Marilla plans to return Anne to the orphanage, Anne spends the night in tears. But by morning, she is able to temper the devastation of not being wanted or loved with the thrill of seeing, one last time, the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters. Anne’s joy goes to the marrow, and now we know that both her outlook and imagination were forged in the suffering Walley-Beckett knew was inherent in her story.
Is this Anne a little too odd to become a classic? She’s eerily lonely at times, like when she seeks the companionship of Katie Maurice, a friend she first conjured in the glass door of a bookcase at the Thomases. Feeling shunned and unwelcomed by the people of Avonlea, Anne seems nearly unhinged when she whimpers and begs Katie to come visit her in the glass of the Cuthbert’s clock. It’s an unsettling scene, and I can’t help but wonder if Walley-Beckett has scarred her for life, something I never considered when reading about Anne weathering her childish “scrapes” in Montgomery’s books.
Whether Walley-Beckett’s Anne is odd or not, drawing out her struggles is a masterstroke for the way they impact our own lives. Julian Friedmann, a film, TV, and literary agent, would suggest it’s not really Anne we’re watching after all. Speaking to writers about the connection between an audience and a story, Friedmann says, “When we’re looking up at the screen, we’re not looking at the actors, who are saying your wonderful lines, we’re not looking at the characters you have so lavishly and lovingly created. We’re certainly not looking at you. We’re looking at ourselves.”
It could have been foolish to turn a classic story into this “gritty, dark reboot.” But playing off the scenes of human brokenness with Anne’s buoyancy makes Anne with an E all the more timeless. And it’s always risky to show us more of ourselves.