Review: Children's Fiction · Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Romance · Review: Teen Fiction

TV Show Review: Anne of Green Gables miniseries (CBC, 1985)

When adults speak of Anne of Green Gables today, this is probably the most common adaptation that comes to mind. Clocking in at over 3 hours total, this adaptation takes on the entire first book.

In stark contrast to the 2017 version reviewed last week, this is a textbook comfort show. It goes out of its way to be easy on the ears and the mind. This review contains spoilers, because I assume most people reading this will already know the show.

As I mentioned in my review of the book, it is essentially a series of episodes in the life of a girl as she grows up, aging from 11 through 16. There are large gaps of time between one episode and the next, so there is not necessarily a narrative leading from one episode to the next. Furthermore, given how much Anne ages over the course of the story, this could be ideal for a TV show with mostly self-contained episodes, filmed over the course of a few years. But this is not that. Though aired as a mini-series, this is essentially filmed to be one continuous, very long movie. It was also filmed all at once, giving them no opportunity to use the actress’s real-life aging to portray Anne’s.

They get around the potential issue of aging by making Anne 13 at the start rather than 11. The only problem I see here is that they keep the Cuthberts’ dialogue the same: they want a child old enough to work, but young enough to train. 13 seems to me on the old side for that; but this is a small complaint. Since Anne was not what the Cuthberts originally wanted anyway genderwise, there shouldn’t be a problem if she’s a little on the older side as well.

The changes made to address the episodic nature of the book are far more glaring, because this means that much of the book is reorganized or subtly rewritten to change the implications. Many of the events that occur in the book are portrayed as being reactive. For instance, Anne attempts to dye her hair because Gilbert made fun of her hair by calling her “carrots”. In the book, her sensitivity over her hair is simply an ongoing, ever-present insecurity and while Gilbert’s comment inspires her to hate him for five years (an overreaction by any standard, but only one of many such reactions throughout the book). This is also not her first meeting with Gilbert, as they meet first at the picnic where he winks at her and generally shows a great deal of interest in her.

You see, by aging Anne up 2 years, this version also manages to hijack the narrative to be about Anne and Gilbert’s will they or won’t they dynamic. As soon as Gilbert enters the scene, the narrative falls into the comfortably familiar line of a romantic comedy. Where Diana and Anne’s relationship was the focus of most of the book, from the start of their friendship in the show, they are talking about boys: especially Gilbert Blythe. While this helps to create a more streamlined narrative, it also diminishes their friendship. Though Anne and Diana’s bond is stronger than in the 2017 show, it falls short of the love and closeness they exhibit in the books, because their world never quite condenses down to just the two of them. Their separation after Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk does have an emotional impact, but it never has the world-ending effect it has on Anne in the book, so their joy at their reunion and subsequent inseparable dynamic don’t really come through either.

Meanwhile, Gilbert’s role is enhanced, from nuisance-to-rival-to-friend into a more familiar role of the love interest that the main character likes but doesn’t want to admit she likes.

In the book, Gilbert’s role in the earlier parts of the story are spent trying to make up for his error in teasing her about her hair. But when she refuses to forgive him (3-4 years after the fact) he gives up on her and they become merely rivals until the end, when tragedy strikes Anne’s life and changes her future plans, so Gilbert gives up the job he was going to take for Anne, which at last begins a friendship. We the readers understand that Anne immediately regrets her refusal to forgive him after she says it. She simply never speaks up out of pride, and because there is no underlying desire to get to know Gilbert at this point. It is really from the point when she rejects Gilbert’s request for forgiveness and friendship that she begins to be aware of him and her focus begins to rest largely on him–though mostly just as an academic rival.

But in the show, the implication of romance began at the start. Gilbert clearly falls for Anne at first sight, and Anne is portrayed as being attracted to him but denying her own feelings. At the scene where in the book she rejects his apology and regrets it, the show must now diverge: because Anne was already hyper-aware of Gilbert and even attracted to him, they have been using the dynamic from the latter part of the book between the characters, and now they must progress further. And so they do, starting what looks to be like it could be the beginning of a friendship or even a courtship, which is thwarted immediately by your average misunderstanding and lack of communication so typical of ’80s and ’90s fare to bring them back to the book’s version of them, rivals but not friends at Queens Academy so that they can become friends after Gilbert gives up the job for Anne at the end.

I have to say that for my own part, I understand why people love this version. It’s easy to watch, and leaves the viewer with a warm and fuzzy feeling (which I both admire and find a little odd, since the final part is about Matthew Cuthbert’s death). I admit that I am not a fan of romcom dynamic that they created between Gilbert and Anne, and a little sad at the way that Anne’s friendship with Diana is portrayed. The show added a lot of scenes for the pair that weren’t in the book, but somehow most of those scenes seemed to revolve around boys. Most baffling to me was Diana’s crush on Gilbert, which was hinted at in the start, mentioned once later when she asks Anne’s permission to pursue him, but then came to nothing whatsoever. It only seemed to be a way to build Gilbert up as some perfect heartthrob coveted by all the girls; but in the books, he is not that. His and Anne’s compatibility is based on their friendship and mutual minds. In fact, reading the book, I got the impression that Diana might even be a little jealous of Gilbert as Anne’s focus begins to shift toward him.

But I’m first to admit that my jadedness over this dynamic is because it’s so overused that I’ve seen it far too often and as such find it too easy to poke full of holes. And I saw such films as often as I did because at one time, this sort of romcom truly worked for me. I think at the right time in my life, I would have proclaimed this a masterpiece for the way that they managed to take an episodic, disconnected book and adapt it into a streamlined, cohesive narrative still so close to the original work. Because while they did change a great deal, for most of the show they do this by making small, minimal changes. (It’s only when they need a reason for Gilbert and Anne to distance themselves from each other again that they really add large chunks of original material.)

This is 3 to 4 hours of warm, happy fun. The show was made as a self-contained adaptation of the first book; in that it did what I feel was an excellent job.

(If you feel like there is a “but” that follows that statement, there very much is. But that’s for another review: that of the sequel.)

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