Netflix’s “Woke” Anne with an E Wants It Both Ways, and That’s Its Biggest ProblemPhoto: Netflix TV Features Anne with an E
Adaptation conundrum: For whatever reason, let’s say you’ve decided to remake a particular work of literature for the small screen. Let’s say this work is canonical, classic, was Harry Potter-grade famous in its own time, which was during the reign of Queen Victoria, and that it hasn’t lost much steam since. Let’s say it has been adapted for screen (and stage… and theme park…) upward of half a dozen times already. Let’s say a sane argument could be made for, oh, I don’t know, green-lighting something new, but you don’t. You choose to deliver yet another version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s chestnut Anne of Green Gables to television. You need to bring something new to the table, right? Or develop a new level of fidelity to the source material that is so spot on and definitive it invalidates every predecessor? One of those two things?
Maybe you’re a cynic who has noticed nostalgia plays well in Peoria. Or maybe you’re the other, worse thing, a Romantic who genuinely believes you can do something that’s never been done with the material. You might be right. Maybe. But for God’s sake, know which one you are. Because if you’re “both of the above,” you are in deep weeds.
Can we talk about Woke Anne of Green Gables?
My dudes, I am not an adaptation fundamentalist. “Transgressive” is not a bad thing at my house. And had Anne With An E been a full-on PoMo drag cabaret I probably would have giggled delightedly through all 17 episodes (seven in Season One and 10 in Season Two, which premieres today on Netflix). Dunno about you, but I definitely grew up on Montgomery’s various portrayals of plucky orphan girls finding their way through life in late Victorian era Prince Edward Island. And I have no sacred cow issues whatsoever. But in general I am afraid I do have a prejudice toward integrity. Sorry. I do. If you’re remaking a story that gets remade even more often than Little Women or Beauty and the Beast, you need to ask yourself two questions. 1) Do I believe in my source material? And 2) Am I willing to trust my audience?
Anne of Green Gables is, at its core, a story about the power of storytelling; its protagonist (played here by Amybeth McNulty) is a girl obsessed with words and imagery, whose constant (constant) quest is to find “scope for the imagination” and who is frequently referred to as “irrepressible” vis-à-vis said imagination. Like most novels, it is also essentially a story about the transcendent power of love.
There are moments where Anne with an E is adorably faithful to the books and moments where it’s annoyingly faithful to the books. Because, honestly, Anne Shirley can be a tedious character and her world a treacly one. (Montgomery’s “Emily” trilogy, also about a passionate and bookish girl being raised by elderly unmarried people in PEI, was like 17% less golly-shucks and it was an advantage, but at the same time you can’t help relating to Anne’s oddball combination of smarts and cockeyed optimism, giant vocabulary and calamitous vanity, awkwardness and openness.) In Anne With An E there are, likewise, places where deviations from the book feel wise and interesting, and places where they are just beyond irritating.
The interior and exterior worlds of a literary heroine require contrast in order for development to occur (and in order to be interesting enough to sit with for the length of a book or two seasons of television). The enchanting (and irritating) depth of Anne’s fantasy world has always been tethered to the banalities of life outside her imagination. (To take an inverse example, the psychedelic, laudanum-saturated weirdo-world of Alice in Wonderland is made believable by its contrast with its quintessentially pragmatic title character, who falls down an eternal rabbit hole contemplating the physics of terminal velocity.) The Cotard Delusion is not a delusion if the character is, in fact, dead. So we have a problem, because when Anne Shirley’s actual, empirical, lived world is at least as melodramatic and “tragical” as her inner world, it’s no longer “imagination” at all, and the character’s hallmark trait is destroyed, along with a lot of narrative tension. At that point, her story ceases to be a story about the power of narrative. Which is exactly what happens in Anne with an E, which forego the opportunity to have a high-speed chase complete with pedophile/rapist/kidnapper scary guys, a knackered horse, a concussion, and an epic temper tantrum. Which can’t abandon the chance to have Anne save the entire village from a burning building. Which can’t resist the temptation to turn doofy boys into seriously violent bullies, or to make Anne’s “kindred spirit” minister into a fucking dolt who suggests she should allow herself to be traumatized out of getting an education and start training to become a housewife. Which can’t stand the thought of not giving Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson) a dead brother, a girlfriend, a heart attack, and a suicide attempt. Honestly, late-Victorian Avonlea is such a hotbed of prejudice, strife, terrible secrets and even more terrible non-secrets that I’m not surprised Anne’s legendary imagination has little to offer by way of a raised ante.
Oh, speaking of aunties, I have vowed not to spoil it, but y’all know Aunt Jo is headed for a real corker of a storyline, right? And that she saves the universe like 14 different times in Season Two? (Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of Deborah Grover’s wry and dignified performance. It’s just… narratively suspect.) So without “revealing plot points” because I pinky-swore I wouldn’t, I will be vague and say you’re going to get the following from-outer-space additions to the quaint town of Avonlea: a Trinidadian stevedore who becomes a farmer and of course is bullied shitless by everyone but the Woke Brigade (Anne, Marilla, and Gilbert). A runaway bride. A crap-ton of gay-bashing. A ridiculous closet-case. Another suicide contemplation. An angry mob instantly converted to adoring progressives by a potato. Women in Trousers. A death that definitely doesn’t happen in that book (because things weren’t grim enough). A ridiculously heavy-handed wanton destruction of a highly metaphorical sanctuary. A bastard. Also, an actual child born out of wedlock. A bride who does not run away. A highly unlikely birth. I’m sure I’m leaving out a wide range of traumas, scandals and awfully depressing subplots, but you get the drift.
Why is any of this bothersome? What’s so terrible about a character who wasn’t in the books suddenly appearing ex nihilo and taking center stage for like eight episodes? What’s so terrible about extrapolating, “Well, but what if you didn’t conform to the societal mores of this time and place; what might happen to you?” Arguably nothing. It’s about the execution. With a property as well-known as this one, you can play. You can play with utter fidelity to source. (Think Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings). You can see the source and raise it a new level of character depth within the confines of the original world’s themes and rules. (The Handmaid’s Tale is pulling this off so well it turned a book I detested into a must-watch show.) You can bank on the familiarity of the characters and settings to create distortions that are funny or even profound. (Keep the actual characters pure as that PEI snow and plunk them into modern day New York? Captain America has leveraged that to both hilarious and affecting effect, and he’s a freaking comic book character. Or go the other way, keep the story untouched but tweak the characters.)
Anne With An E doesn’t really do any of those things. This show tramples the source material in a way that dilutes and arguably betrays the protagonist. What’s the power in Anne’s legendarily overwrought imagination once the world around her is darker than anything she could ever come up with? What’s the point of scenic and linguistic fidelity to the time and place once you’ve powder-coated it with an incredibly unsubtle overlay of 2018 sensibilities? It’s not postmodern, it’s not sardonic, it’s not playful, it’s not transgressive. It’s a ham-handed dissertation on “feminism” and “diversity” and how only the terribly, terribly outcast can ever understand when something is a good idea and it’s sanctimonious twaddle that would have made the book’s author break out in hives. And it’s agonizing because it is visually lovely and incredibly well-acted sanctimonious twaddle. You’ll tear up in spite of yourself twice per episode, just because the expression on Geraldine Davis’ face is so perfect or because you remember that exact line from the book, which you read three times when you were 10. McNulty is a really, really good Anne. She’s exactly as endearing and annoying as the original. Many of the other characters, even if they’ve been adulterated by the story or the script, are elevated by solid-gold performances.
For Anne to have a little more of a dark side is fine. Even wise. Had it been handled with any subtlety whatsoever, it could’ve been magnificent. For Miss Josephine Barry to have been an open lesbian feminist over there in Charlottetown? Fine. Even wise. Had it been handled with any subtlety at all, it could’ve been a wonderful enrichment. Characters dropping out of the sky to seize large chunks of the narrative? Arguably reasonable—this is long-form screen drama and there’s space for it. Had it not been patently to provoke a frenzy of bigotries and cruelties to be overcome so the audience can get a social justice primer, I doubt I would’ve had a problem with it; Sebastian (Dalmar Abuzeid) is a perfectly good character and Abuzeid a wonderful performer. Never mind that Canada was 100% part of the British Empire, which included enormous swaths of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, and that while Prince Edward Island was a tiny and relatively insular enclave, it’s awfully specious (and not a little patronizing) to assume 99% of people would be scandalized, horrified and enraged by the presence of a black man in town.
There are one million original scripts being generated per second and if you must, must, must adapt something that’s already been adapted multiple times, you have a lot of options for how you do it. Despite some wonderful visual sensibilities and a super-solid cast, Anne with an E remains an object lesson in what not to do to a classic YA series.
Season Two of Anne with an E is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.