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Will You Make Bosom Friends With Anne With An E?

CBC/Netflix puts its Anne Of Green Gables adaptation in the hands of an alumna of the Breaking Bad writing staff. Is the take too gritty, or still as sweet as raspberry cordial?

What Is This Thing?

In late 19th-century rural Prince Edward Island, brother-and-sister farmers Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert gamble on adopting a pre-teen boy to help out on their farm. Both are shocked when their neighbour instead brings home Anne Shirley, a thirteen-year-old girl with a big vocabulary, an even bigger imagination, and an apparently inexhaustible capacity to talk. Will the Cuthberts decide they can make room in their lives for a girl? If so, how will this motormouthed dreamer fit in among the prosaic residents of Avonlea -- and will she cause them to revise their prejudices against orphans?

When Is It On?

It's already been on in Canada; CBC aired the Season 1 finale on April 30. In the U.S., all seven episodes of the show's first season will be available to stream on Friday, May 12.

Why Was It Made Now?

Canada doesn't have a ton of pop cultural products for which almost everyone retains uncomplicated affection -- even Hockey Night In Canada is problematic thanks to Don Cherry -- but L.M. Montgomery's novel Anne Of Green Gables is eternal, and CBC's last miniseries adaptation is over thirty years old. If this works for CBC and Netflix, Montgomery has a slew of texts they could use to expand the franchise.

What's Its Pedigree?

Montgomery's 1908 novel is the basis for the series, adapted by Moira Walley-Beckett -- formerly a writer on Breaking Bad, and more recently the creator of Starz's ballet drama Flesh And Bone. Geraldine James (Milner in Utopia; Mrs. Hudson in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films) plays Marilla; Canadian national treasure R.H. Thomson (Jasper in CBC's Avonlea series back in the '90s) is her brother, Matthew. Newcomer Amybeth McNulty plays the eponymous Anne. The rest might be more familiar if I hadn't moved out of Canada ten years ago, but they're all new faces to me.

...And?

Last month in our Extra Hot Great spring roundup, I expressed my love for the '80s miniseries with Megan Follows -- which I watched dozens of times as a kid -- and said I was resistant to the idea of a remake with Matthew played by anyone other than Richard Farnsworth. The fact that the series had been described in marketing materials and early reviews as "gritty" also gave me pause: the story of a sweet, creative orphan with braids as red as carrots did not, I feel, need to get roughed up in order to appeal to the current generation of tweens, or their moms, or their grandmas; its very real drama and suspense comes from such events as the misplacement of an amethyst brooch, not that brooch getting traded for heroin or whatever the hell.

If you shared my fears, let me immediately allay them: it's really good! Great as Follows was in the lead role, I applaud the decision to cast an actor who looks and behaves less like a young teenager than what McNulty actually is: a kid. Of course Anne is still bold and plucky and seriously cannot shut up, but her youth makes her confidence read as much more of a coping mechanism to cover her vulnerability than a fully formed trait of her personality. McNulty's performance as a scared girl trying to make the best of things really endears her to the viewer...

...which is crucial, because like real tween bookworms, Anne can also be legitimately annoying. Something I noted watching this adaptation that I lacked the sophistication to appreciate when I watched the miniseries as a kid was how well constructed the story is -- not just for the way it, like so many novels of its vintage, creates genuine stakes from the "small" events of women's lives (raspberry cordial mistaken for currant wine, OH NOOOOOOOO!), but for the way the viewer's empathy slides back and forth between Anne, with her exuberance, and Marilla, who often just needs her to SHUT UP for ten seconds in a row. Having been on both sides of this dyad, the deftness with which Montgomery built her narrative and the sturdiness of the adaptation are impressive.

As for the claim of "grittiness": "social realism" is probably a more precise term. The series portrays with more detail what the book and miniseries only glance at, from Anne's adoption by a family whose abusive parents intended to use her as a slave-au pair for their many children to her bullying by other girls at the orphanage. The effect gives a new dimension to Anne's compulsion to create romantic stories that obscure the grim truth of her circumstances: she's a traumatized child, and using her imagination is the way she copes. Along the same lines, the series jumps off from the rural legends neighbours tell to warn Matthew and Marilla from trusting an orphan, automatically suspect, since they don't know who her "people" are. Rachel Lynde knows about a boy who put strychnine in the well (a story straight out of the book), and though Marilla doesn't seem to credit the report, at a church picnic we hear the villagers' bigoted hisses about Anne -- wondering if she'll go to school, speculating that her orphanage is indistinguishable from a "lunatic asylum," calling her "Garbage Girl." It's hard not to see parallels between these prejudices and those contemporaneously circulating, among certain people, about refugees, in which case the series offers parents an opportunity to open a conversation with younger children about current events.

But if you're not here for social relevance in your Anne Of Green Gables: I get it. The story and characters you love haven't changed, and you'll be happy to see them again.

...But?

R.H. Thomson is a great actor -- his generation's Gordon Pinsent (where my Canadians at) -- and I get that he's not trying to do the same thing in the role of Matthew that Farnsworth did, which is wise. Still, Farnsworth was so perfect in the role that it's hard for me not to bristle at Thomson a bit. I'm hoping that, as the series continues (I've seen the first two episodes), I'll quit making mental comparisons, because that really isn't his fault.

While the first episode hits all the high points of Anne's arrival as the story's told in the novel, Episode 2 -- "I Am No Bird, And No Net Ensnares Me" -- takes a wild left turn into an original adventure plot invented for the show. It's not a gigantic leap for the character (fine: it may be a bit less Anne Shirley than Pippi Longstocking -- with a little Jason Bourne, tbh), but I might have felt more comfortable having at least the earliest going hew more closely to the source.

Finally: it was bad enough when CBC just called the show Anne, as if "Green Gables" are old-fashioned. But Netflix has chosen to call it Anne With An E, which is cutesy and gross.

...So?

BARFY NEW TITLE ASIDE, Anne With An E is a very affectionate adaptation of a very venerable story that will unite viewers of all ages in enthusiastic approval. (I was thrilled to recommended it to my mom last night, and wistful that because she lives overseas we couldn't watch it together.) Grab your nearest best girl and sink into it.

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