Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: Anne With an E

I finished watching Anne With an E last night.  I have to admit, I've never been an Anne of Green Gables fan.  Probably I just read the books too late in life; I read the first one as a teenager and three more as an adult.  It's hard at that age not to be put off by children's literature, because it doesn't have the subtlety you're used to.  The other reason I didn't like them is because I've had people telling me I'm "exactly like Anne of Green Gables" since I was about eight.  I read the books and was like -- that's how you see me?  As a girl who constantly says ridiculous things?

The books just seem to idealize what it's like to be an imaginative, talkative, impulsive girl growing up.  How come when Anne calls something "The Lake of Shining Waters" everyone just magically likes her, whereas when I said something fanciful as a kid, people laughed at me and said I was silly?  Why do bosom friends and helpful mentors spring out of the woodwork for her, while when I was her age I was getting bullied and adults mostly felt I was bringing it on myself by being so weird?

I guess I have learned in life to have a very negative feeling toward her type of romanticism, because I learned so thoroughly the lesson that it isn't appropriate and nobody likes it.  But maybe it's my bias that's wrong: maybe I shouldn't feel obligated to write in plain or ironic language for fear of embarrassing myself.  Other people manage to be a little florid or poetic without getting mocked.  I just worry because I've miscalculated in the past and it didn't win me any friends.

But when I heard Anne With an E was supposedly "grim and gritty" I figured I'd want to watch it.  The books are definitely written through rose-colored glasses; the tragedies are described with a bit of distance and euphemism, while the funny bits are played up.  I didn't like the romanticism, but I thought I might like the gritty version.

And I did!  However, it honestly was not that gritty.  It's gritty compared to Lucy Maud Montgomery, but not to anything else on television today.  There was no sex.  The scenes of Anne being beaten by Mr. Hammond or bullied by the orphanage girls weren't graphic or intense.  I wouldn't mind my kids watching it (though I might not actually let them, because Marko takes things to heart that I wouldn't always expect).  Yes, some tense scenes are added that aren't in the original; yes, at least one character dies who doesn't in the book.  Anne's friendly schoolteacher and the kindly preacher's wife don't make an entrance, at least in the first season.  Marilla and Matthew are given tragical pasts, just as Anne would have wanted.  But it's not bleak.  It's not, you know, Call the Midwife.

What the show mostly does is allow you to hear some of the tougher stuff from the book that maybe you didn't notice when you read it.  We all know Anne is an orphan, that she was raised by uncaring people who saw her as a source of free labor and then abandoned her when she was no longer convenient, that she is constantly told she is ugly ... but somehow it's easy for a modern reader to miss or undervalue that stuff.  I actually went back to the book after watching the show, wanting to see just how much the show was inventing, and was surprised to find most of the "dark stuff" was in there after all.  For instance, the following lines show the dark side pretty well:

"For pity's sake hold your tongue, you talk entirely too much for a little girl." -- Marilla
"I'll come back in a few minutes for the candle.  I daren't trust you to put it out yourself.   You'd likely set the place on fire."  -- Marilla
"What a starved, unloved life she had had -- a life of drudgery and neglect."
"Marilla looked at Anne and softened at the sight of the child's pale face with its look of mute misery--the misery of a helpless little creature who finds itself once more caught in the trap from which it had escaped.  Marilla felt an uncomfortable conviction that, if she denied the appeal of that look, it would haunt her to her dying day."
"If you'll take my advice... you'll do that 'talking to' you mention with a fair-sized birch switch."  -- Mrs. Rachel Lynde

The show doesn't always quote lines like this, but it does get across the impression of just how rough it is to be an orphan.  Somehow I never thought of Anne as particularly disadvantaged, but when I realize that she would have been, I feel a lot more friendly to her.  All the "stuff working out perfectly" is meant to be a little surprising, not just Mary Sue-ing.

But the different focus of the show definitely gives a different impression of Anne.  Sometimes, true, she chatters because she is happy.  Other times, like on the ride back to see Miss Spencer, when she thinks the Cuthberts are going to give her up, she says she's "made her mind up firmly" to enjoy herself, and you get the impression that she's being as bright and winsome as she knows how, in the hopes of getting the Cuthberts to keep her.  It seems like maybe some of the relentless chipperness is put on, because she knows that as an orphan she owes it to people to charm them.  I find that a lot more sympathetic, myself.

Anne's first day at school hit me right in the feels, even though (or because) it's nothing like the book.  In the book, Anne gets along well with her peers (except of course for Gilbert), and though she's a little behind in some subjects, it doesn't appear to be a huge deal.  In the show, Anne tries hard to make a good impression but the other girls (apart from Diana) just think she's weird.  And it gets worse, because there are all kinds of unspoken rules (all lunches have to be shared!  don't steal someone else's spot for storing their milk!  don't talk to Gilbert Blythe because Ruby Gillis has a crush on him already!) that she keeps accidentally breaking.  It's equally embarrassing that she's so behind in math and that she's so ahead in literature.  She finally manages to impress them a bit with her superior (but completely inaccurate) knowledge of where babies come from, but she goes on a bit too much, egged on by their interest, and ends up causing a huge scandal.  It's an entirely fabricated episode, but felt very true to life for me.  This was exactly my experience, starting school so much later than everyone else and not knowing the rules.  And maybe I've got Asperger's too much on the brain, but Anne comes across in this part like a textbook case of it.  Talks to herself?  Check.  Sounds like a little professor?  Check.  Unusual intonation when she speaks?  Check.  Has exactly one friend, who tries and fails to shepherd her through her social life? Check.  I wonder if the show's writers were consciously trying to convey that -- it's certainly not something I think is in the book at all.

Anyway, it gives a lot more pathos to Anne's story.  When she hits Gilbert with her slate, gets in trouble with the teacher, and quits school, it no longer looks like she's being overdramatic.  It looks like she has been pushed past her ability to cope and is giving up.  And then when she starts winning people over after all, it's much more of a triumph.  Instead of thinking "Why is everyone falling all over Anne?" I thought, "At last people are giving her a chance."

Overall, I thought it was an improvement on the book.  It took out all the preachiness (except perhaps a bit on women's education, Montgomery was into that and so are the show's writers, apparently) and pumped up the drama, but I wouldn't say it's entirely alien to the book.  Like all good adaptations, it tried to keep the subtext intact (orphan makes good, kindness can win hearts, quirkiness should be celebrated rather than condemned) without being too slavish about the actual plot, because not all events work equally well in print and film.

I won't spoil it any further, but will just say, I recommend the show for both Anne fans and Anne critics like myself.  It's just a good show, whether you've read the books or not, full of historical detail, gorgeous scenery, and interesting characters. And the one season is not long, so it won't be too much to watch if you're busy like I am.


Baroness said...

See now this is a good review. I loved Anne of Green Gables growing up and it's frustrated me reading vicious reviews of how the TV show is "spoiling all things beautiful and childlike and innocent" because like, did they not read the same book I did?? There was plenty "gritty" stuff in the book.

Baroness said...

Also you should know that I have a lot of comments I've wanted to make on your blog posts but I always end up chickening out lol.

Sheila said...

No need to be shy, this blog is like a private living room given how few people read it. ;) And I like comments because it lets me know I'm not shouting into the void.

Cristina said...

I think that Anne with an "E" is in the same boat as that other Netflix original Riverdale. (Did you grow up reading the Archie comics? LOL!) That is, they're both professionally produced Fan Fiction. And I don't say this to put them down: I love Fan Fiction! I can't say I'm the biggest fan of this "AU" variety, though.

Sheila said...

And the Aeneid is Iliad fanfiction! People love making stories in other people's worlds. Of course a different person always winds up telling the story very differently - just as a new actor can't help playing a completely different Doctor. But as you point out, that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

I think a lot of people who don't like Anne with an E might just be attached to the other versions, like I couldn't like the Tenth Doctor till halfway through his first season, because I resented him taking the place of the Ninth. Other people, even after giving the new version a chance, might still decide a different version is more their speed. Either way, it's perfectly okay for people to like what they like!

kiyotei said...

Very nice review. You make some excellent points. I enjoyed the series as well and I don't understand why there are all the ruffled feathers about it. I think there is plenty of room for creativity in an adaptation and I love to see different interpretations of the Green Gables stories.

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