The first season of this new adaptation of the childhood classic Anne of Green Gables is nothing if not a new and original interpretation of a classic. The basic story remains entirely intact. Anne Shirley and all the rest of the cast are unmistakable. This season covers less than half of the original book, clearly intending to be the first of many seasons covering Anne’s life in far more detail than any other version. Therefore, there is a great deal of added material.
Notably altered from previous adaptations here is tone.
At the start, much of the dialogue remains the same as the book. Despite the dark colors and bleakness of much of the sets, as Matthew Cuthbert drives Anne to Green Gables from the station, a viewer familiar with the book and other adaptations might find themselves giggling. A viewer unfamiliar with the material is, at this point, most likely too busy digesting the characters, setting and dynamic to react just yet. When Anne reaches Green Gables and Marilla Cuthbert makes it clear that they wanted a boy, Anne collapses to the ground in silent shock that becomes tears as she is plagued by flashbacks of the abuse she has endured in her life so far: this is when the familiar viewer might first realize that this show is neither lighthearted nor fun.
This is not the same Avonlea we know from the books and previous adaptations, with its quaint problems and warm daily life. This is a darker, grittier place, where the warmth of home is balanced with the cruelty and darkness of an unforgiving world. The crises of the book are all still present: the gender mix-up that brings Anne to the Cuthberts, Anne accidentally getting her best friend Diana drunk, the subsequent anger of Diana’s mother, and Anne’s hand in saving Diana’s sister one night when she has the coup, which earns her their mother’s forgiveness. But there are other crises, too: Anne and the Cuthberts encounter every manner of horror from fire to bullying to bankruptcy.
In fact, I have to admire the way that events such as the accidental intoxication of Diana and Marilla’s mistaken belief that Anne has stolen her broach are amped up with dramatics so that they are scenes that go toe-to-toe with any of the other, objectively more dire crises. This is the Gothic, gritty, dark version of a childhood classic.
It is the outdoors—beautiful and expansive and yet so very bleak—that breaks the illusion of safety. In the book, Anne was often sent to her room, and there she remained until matters were resolved. Unhappy though she may have been, unjust though the circumstances may have been, this creates a feel of warmth, safety and home surrounding Anne at Green Gables. So I commend the directors for shattering this illusion before it begins by having Anne outside far more often. Anne gazes sadly across the sea and even actually sleeps beneath the cherry tree one cold night in scenes where she was originally in her room in Green Gables. This creates a darker tone for the show, but also gives Anne far more agency in the viewer’s eyes: this Anne is beholden to no one unless she chooses to be.
Though I am consciously choosing to review this version before the 1985 version, which I believe is the adaptation most people are familiar with today, I want to briefly draw some comparisons. In many ways, both versions are updated to cater to the current times, including the way that the children speak to one another. Anne and Diana’s devotion to each other, so central to the book, is never the same. In the 1985 version, the dialogue was toned down so that their talk of the love they shared was either reactive, or said to a third party; furthermore, the show focused far more on Anne and Gilbert’s romance than the book ever did, providing a counterpoint so that Anne and Diana were never explicitly each other’s exclusionary Number One. In Anne with an E, their friendship is Anne’s one lifeline in a sea of unfriendliness, creating a more codependent dynamic born of necessity rather than affection. The dialogue, however, is ramped up to eleven: one character (present in all versions) is explicitly a lesbian in this version, and Anne draws parallels between this woman’s feelings for her (now deceased) partner and Anne’s feelings for Diana. Despite this, perhaps because of the bleakness of the world and the expanded cast, I felt the least genuine affection depicted between Anne and Diana in this version.
All of this said, I want to make it clear that I don’t dislike this version. It is not a show that inspires warmth or comfort. This Anne has gone through traumatic experiences and somehow manages to power on through by the sheer power of optimism. And yet—is that not exactly what we see in the book? We get only 2 to 3 pages in the book where Anne describes her tragic upbringing thus far to Marilla in only the barest of details. It does sound horrifying. It does sound traumatizing. But it was in a day when one did not complain or dwell on such things.
It fascinated me to watch this and realize that much of the dialogue can change fundamentally simply by its delivery. Rereading the book after watching this show, I found myself reading between the lines, looking for hints of Anne’s soul. I cannot call this show inaccurate to the book: no more so than any other version. The book does not describe much. It is largely dialogue, and only gives the barest minimum of character histories and thought processes when necessary. It is a skeleton, and we have become accustomed to filling the blanks with warmth and happiness, creating the comforting show that we know today. Yet it is just as conceivable that the gaps hide trials and tribulations as depicted in this version. It was also interesting to notice that though there was a great deal of dialogue that was not in the book, some of that dialogue felt to me as though it had been in the book, emotionally ringing true.
I admire this show both in its own right and as an adaptation. The bond between the Cuthberts is stronger than any other version. Anne’s bond with her friends feels diminished: neither her friendship with Diana nor her animosity towards Gilbert is as stark as it was in the book. But in the place of these constants is a more fluid, more diverse social setting, giving room to expand the characters. If this show intends to expand the book into 3 to 5 seasons to truly depict the passage of time, the expansion of the cast, the added screentime given to minor characters, and the expanded characterizations of Diana and Gilbert will make the show far more interesting to follow.