The group CDZA has a series of odd and amusing videos where they run the lyrics of pop songs through Google Translate and then have a performer reproduce what happens when you translate them back into English. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s” theme song somehow acquires the word “apricot” in Mandarin; as it is further garbled through the machine, more and more nuance is lost until the only recognizable terms are “mom,” “7,” “8,” and “chair” (which is all of “throne” that made it through).
“L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables” feels a bit like the Google Translate version of “Anne of Green Gables,” Montgomery’s book introducing redheaded orphan Anne Shirley — an imaginative 11-year-old who accidentally is adopted by a pair of elderly siblings and ends up stealing their hearts. In the television movie, which will air on PBS this Thanksgiving, Anne (Ella Ballentine) is a bit too adorable to play the homely orphan, with freckles that appear to be dotted on by a makeup artist and a temperament that is more confusingly erratic than charmingly mercurial. Anne, in the book, is a singularly Victorian construct, characterized by bursts of temper, flights of fancy, and multisyllabic words. Her monologues, which frequently take up whole pages, are brilliant, sentimental, ridiculous, and full of romantic adoration for the world, whether it is the unceasing beauty of Avonlea’s plum trees or raptures over a particularly fine set of puffed sleeves. Her charm is in her guileless admiration for the world, her heart perpetually worn on her sleeve.
None of that charm translates through “L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables” — not when it comes to the acting, the dialogue, or even the treatment of episodes from the book, such as the moment where Anne cracks her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s (Drew Haytaoglu) head. Though the characters are somewhat recognizable and the adventures faintly ring a bell, the 90-minute made-for-TV movie truncates the plot, flattens the characters, and fumbles through the small-town sentiment that the book’s author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, excelled at.
Matthew Cuthbert, a character defined by shyness and silence, is played by Martin Sheen — an actor so engagingly garrulous that it’s all he can do to hold his tongue with Marilla (Sara Botsford). Rachel Lynde (Kate Hennig), a figure made for outsize portrayal, doesn’t have enough to do in this adaptation except show up for preordained moments where she and Anne will interact momentously (puffed sleeves!) and otherwise just casts vague aspersions about orphans in Marilla’s direction. And given that Avonlea, more than Anne, is Montgomery’s most beloved creation, precious little time is spent enjoying the small-town drama of Prince Edward Island. Despite the much-touted fact that this production is produced by the author’s granduaghter, Kate Macdonald Butler, upon viewing, the lengthily titled “L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables” turns out to be anything but.
The film chooses to only adapt the first half or so of the book — focusing just on Anne’s arrival in the fictional town of Avonlea and the Cuthberts’ decision to “keep” her. It’s the most kid-friendly half — focusing on Anne’s marvelous ability to land into “scrapes” and her growing acceptance from the rest of the town — but doesn’t really have much of a narrative arc. With just 90 minutes to make it through the first half or so of the book, the film skimps on establishment and impact of the various plot developments in order to merely tick items off a list. Anne must meet Diana (Julia Lalonde, a thin brunette terribly miscast as the plump, raven-haired Diana) and use the world “bosom friends” and/or “kindred spirits”; she must fly into a temper at Rachel Lynde, and then receive the dress with puffed sleeves; she must of course begin the first step of hate-flirting with Gilbert, which will end, eventually, in friendship and then marriage. Perhaps this last is the most telling interpretation in the film; rather than the white-hot rage that Anne feels for the boy who pulls her hair and whispers “carrots,” film-Anne hides a grin of pleasure. Character development here is less significant than winking to an audience that already knows what’s going to happen.
Which is to say that in the choice between making a good adaptation or a good film, “L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables” chooses… neither, content with being a dull film and a mediocre adaptation. It’s not poorly done as much as it’s just off, with an interpretation of the story that feels like a blurred copy of the original. Considering how readable the book continues to be — and how many other TV versions of this story already exist — it is hard to imagine who this adaptation is even for.