TV Review: ‘Anne With an E,’ Based on the Book ‘Anne of Green Gables’

Anne
Courtesy of Caitlin Cronenberg/Netflix

A darker, moodier adaptation of the Victorian young-adult novel brings a stark tragedy to the story of imaginative orphan Anne Shirley

Anne With an E,” like its protagonist, is fond of a little sweeping romance. The opening frames of the first episode of Netflix’s next offering depict Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thompson) astride a galloping horse, racing across a gorgeous and remote landscape of seaside meadows and flowering cherry trees. It’s a distinctly more dashing interpretation of Matthew than who he is in L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” in which the never-married Matthew is an old, shy man — reticent to a fault, afraid of women, and terrified of conflict. He would be surprised to learn that in “Anne With an E,” he cuts quite a heroic figure as he rushes through the pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island.

But perhaps “Anne With an E” is showing us the world a little less than it is and a little bit more as 13-year-old redheaded orphan Anne Shirley (Amybeth McNulty) would want it to be: more “romantical,” more “tragical,” more “radiantly lovely.” And though the Canadian series has not changed Anne’s name to her preferred Cordelia, fans of the beloved Avonlea books will still be surprised by the series’ angstier interpretation of Anne’s story. In “Anne With an E,” quirky and spirited Anne is definitively an abuse survivor, fleeing from cruel foster parents and a bleak orphanage (Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett did, after all, work on the rather dark “Breaking Bad” for several years). The series expands Anne’s backstory through flashbacks, framing her characteristic flights of fancy, spurts of temper, and grandiose monologues as the defense and survival mechanisms of a traumatized child.

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On one hand, it’s a brilliant interpretation: Like many young adult stories, “Anne of Green Gables” has disturbing subtext about Anne’s life before she meets the Cuthberts. On the other hand, the show can’t quite sustain the brilliance, veering first into maudlin territory and then into the oddly saccharine as it tests out its tone. “Anne With an E” offers insight into Anne’s character and the formation of her odd-but-lovely community in the quaint, cozy town of Avonlea — indeed, this interpretation might be the first time that Anne’s sudden attachment to the otherwise boring Diana Barry makes sense. But the show gets a bit bogged down in telling the story of Anne’s dysfunction, distracting from the book’s greatest strength — its lighthearted comedy, which both laughs with and occasionally at Anne. The show is a little more emo, for lack of a better word, with a slightly soapy view of Anne’s trials and tribulations that at times really humanize her and in others, are rather infantilizing. And while, once again, that seems to be part of the show’s attempt to tell Anne’s story from Anne’s perspective, that breaks down during the scenes she isn’t in.

Still, Walley-Beckett’s adaptation of the Montgomery books is mostly successful. “Anne With an E” takes the books, and she in them, completely seriously — and lends visual components to her raptures over the landscape of her new home, from its apple blossoms and cherry trees to the “Lake of Shining Waters,” i.e., a pond. McNulty throws herself into every single one of Anne’s fancies, with physical commitment that is both admirable and a little worrying (how many times can one little girl throw herself onto her knees?). The actress’ ease with the role is especially apparent in how she struggles to get over the traumas inflicted upon her by a troubled past. In fact, she sometimes seems to have a better handle on it than the writers do.

In Anne’s eyes, everything has a wonderful story and some deeper significance, and “Anne With an E” gives her landscape a little of that fantasy. The first episode, directed by Niki Caro, is awash with lush landscapes and gorgeous scenery; every sunset and dawning has a glow of wonder. That glow extends to Matthew, who is much more of a character in “Anne With an E” than he is in the books. In the second episode, following a chain of events that does not occur in “Anne of Green Gables,” Matthew even has a solo adventure. The show has taken far fewer liberties with Marilla (Geraldine James), whose Victorian severity and prickly affection bring the book’s descriptions to life. Marilla is neither quirky nor reticent, and as the sterner of the two siblings, she’s often pitted against Anne’s strong will. James interprets her gradual unbending quite beautifully. Her friend and neighbor Rachel Lynde (Corrine Koslo) is similarly well-conceived, and the two very different women are able to suggest a longstanding friendship without saying much at all.

“Anne With an E” has made a few perplexing choices in how it is adapting “Anne of Green Gables.” But when it comes to bringing Avonlea’s atmosphere to life, and adding depth to a relatively simple story, it succeeds admirably. It’s an adaptation that looks back on a childhood story with adult eyes, to interpret more than just the lines on the page. And fortunately, it is taking its time. The first three hours of the show cover just about the first 10 chapters of “Anne of Green Gables,” which runs for 38 chapters — and is succeeded by eight more books, dozens of short stories about the town of Avonlea, and several other novels set on Prince Edward Island. There’s plenty of story here, and much atmosphere to create. Like many of the good residents of Avonlea — and Anne herself — “Anne With an E” seems content to take the lovelier scenic route through this world.

All seven episodes of “Anne With an E” will be available for streaming on Netflix Friday, May 12.

TV Review: ‘Anne With an E,’ Based on the Book ‘Anne of Green Gables’

Drama, 8 episodes (2 reviewed): Netflix, Fri. May 12. 60 min. (120 min. premiere.)

Crew

Executive producers, Moira Walley-Beckett, Miranda de Pencier, Elizabeth Bradley, Alex Sapot, Sally Catto, Debra Hayward, Alison Owen

Cast

Amybeth McNulty, Geraldine James, R.H. Thompson, Dalila Bela, Lucas Jade Zumann, Aymeric Jett Montaz

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  1. Raela Stander says:

    I read and re-read the books as a precocious ten year old. I loved them for their innocence and Anne’s exuberance. I saw the title on Netflix without having read our heard anything about the show and started it for an hour of tv while I knit. Seven hours later, I feel like a wrung out dish cloth and I made no progress on my shawl. I am completely hooked. This show is everything real that the original books lacked. It is transformed in to a gothic feast for the senses.

  2. chaotiklord says:

    I just don’t know about this new series. On the one hand, they do a good job of making the scenery come alive, of really bringing the setting of Avonlea off the screen, but the stupid inserts of modern language and modern psychology really detract from the real masterpiece. I hope they rein in the changes and allow the original work to lead the production. It’s so heavy-handed…the weird menstruation episode was just terrible. “Why does it have to be unmentionable?” Because we aren’t charmed by a bloody sink and weird schoolgirl conversation on this topic.

    I’ve read these books countless times, even as an adult, until the covers have fallen off and the pages are loose. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed all of the Follows performances. I would LOVE to see them take on not just the first book and selected stories from later volumes, but really give us a year-by-year series that takes us through Redmond and Queens and all of the gradually more adult adventures of Anne. I think the magical innocence of Anne and the way she moves through the world even as it changes is lost to the showrunner’s own axe to grind. Boo.

  3. Donna says:

    I am absolutely loving this series!

  4. Krissy says:

    This series already is by far captivating in every angle imaginable. Speaking of imagination, it is just that from Anne that instantly forces you to adore an orphan for who she is, and hardly judged by looks as the others in the series do. It end with you on edge with the thirst for more as season 1 ends.
    Sadly, I’d not known I thrusted myself into a series where season 1 had just begun. Now I’m sad, and frustrated at having to wait. I’m so used to being behind on any new series by years, that this realization of waiting a full year to see season 2. I suppose I’ll forget as time passes, and it will arive faster than time would tell, leaving irrelevancy to time on my side for once.
    However, now I must buy the books to occupy some time to pass by faster. I look forward spending my days reading, then finally see it in action after my imagination follows the words of the author. I expect differences since it’s “based” on the novel, straying to what they wanted to change, which is better. It’s like watching twice through different eyes. I hope neither leave me disappointed. Either way, I expect happy, and sad tears.
    Relating your own life in parts, I believe, is what makes it more than just another story. It’s refreshing to see a new show that doesn’t mimic other films closely, as performing arts has been doing far too long.

  5. Shelly says:

    I was reticent about watching this reboot as both the books and the original screen adaptation are long-standing favorites of my childhood. While I was willing to accept the flashback scenes in the first episode as artistic licence to expand our understanding of the actuality the characters life before Avonlea, episode 2 has completely disenchanted me. Beyond the regular process in which adaptations edit out scenes, change dialogue or consolidating characters, this entire episode is a completely different story and in no way remotely resembles the book nor does it reflect the idea the author was trying to convey.
    There are lots of other details about the actors/characters and dark portrayal of this classic that can be debated but I honestly can’t bring myself to care or even watch further when 1/7 of the story is already so warped from the original. What a shame and a what a lost opportunity.

  6. Mimsy says:

    I didn’t mind the flashbacks and the honesty about what Anne’s past as an orphan might have been. I didn’t even mind the idea that the people of the town would be suspicious of her. But it was all so heavy handed that it stopped being something I wanted to keep watching. What the showrunner may have inadvertently done was promote sales of the 1985 version. I just ordered it to wash the taste of bullies and pedophelia from my mouth.

  7. Kick Ass says:

    After watching the beginning episodes of Anne with an E I found myself having to have plenty of tissues on hand. Very emotional and i love the way she talks both intelligently and with a poetic ring to it. Those who think there is too much negativity , i can say having watched Oliver twist as a teen it was just as heart wrenching.

    That said based on many of the comments i have read and having started watching already , my experience with Netflix series in general is that they have a strong propensity for morbid tragic and often tragically ending material. Like the series OA which i found there to be scenes i just could not watch. Many ask why can’t the character Anne be a little more light. But Netflix for some reason has a niche in the morbid depressing make you supper depressed type of material. It is as though Netflix picks producers who have had their own personal tragedies who can personally relate to their material.

  8. Michael Wuertz says:

    As I go watch more and more and read the comments I come to realise this is not Anne of green gables. This is all about us as a community and how we treat people who are different from ourselves although it is based on Anne of green gables it is by no mean Anne of green gables. It is Anne with an E. Here are some of my observations. The red hair and the freckles (hijab and buqua) the mention of global warming which is the other controversial issue of our times. The home she came from where she was subjected to beating and sex ( Syria) Her dreams of a better life and her determination to hang on to her imagination (God). I may be narcissistic in saying so but this is all about us.

  9. Right in the middle of the series at this time. I lived and breathed these books as a 12 year old, and have a fondness for them in my middle age. At first I liked seeing her vulnerabilities, but as time goes on, I’m realizing It’s hard seeing her so human. What I liked in the books and some movie adaptations was how she stayed above it all, untouched because of her fantasy world and continued optimism. Now, she seems wounded. I don’t know. Maybe people that weren’t so in love with her from the books or the highly romanticized past movies will find this series better. I want to like it, and there are some great elements, but I’m starting to feel sad, let down, the further I watch it. The life lover Anne always was with the twinkle in her eyes is not here. And the “suck it up” attitude that I love about Marilla is now troubled and doubting who she is. Just not used to it, but others may feel differently. I’m attached in a different, nostalgic way.

    • Randy says:

      I agree with Kristin. I think the show lacks the whimsical feel of Anne, which is what made her stand out in the books. Despite her hardships, she was larger than life with her imagination and joy for life, yet simple all at once, and it made you feel good, and want to have the same enthusiasm for life…Even though the show lacks that feel, it does pack an emotion filled punch in its own way, and took the story in another route. It displays Anne as probably how she would be in real life. She would be a little more rougher on the edges in many ways, and be very traumatized by her experiences; And her imaginative expressions and dreams are just ways for her to escape, and cope with all the loss, etc….

      I enjoy both versions, and can appreciate the ‘raw’ version that the new show portrays. …but as Kristin mentioned, the show does dwell more of the sad parts of Anne’s life, and it seems like every episode makes you feel sad by each tragic moment that progresses. A funny moment will happen, but its fleeting because you start bracing yourself for the bad part that’s going to happen next, or because of it, rather than looking forward to how the highly imaginative Anne is going to make amends this time…even though there were some sad parts in the original story, it left you uplifted instead of down in the end. (in my opinion) ..I just hope they don’t drag the show on, season after season, (one is good enough for me) and leave it ending tragic. or add too much that isn’t in the stories. so far they have kept many main scenes and lines the same, but added filler moments for world building, and lots of flashbacks that I don’t recall reading. its been awhile. lol..but the ‘simple’ story is what I remembered and enjoyed best.

      I’m enjoying the show! and I wish the show makers good luck. I personally would have taken on another project, being this one is a classic, and has been done many times before. …there are so many great stories out there that are new and untouched by the possibilities of film adaptation.

  10. P. Chato says:

    Don’t understand the naysayers. Thoroughly enjoyed the ‘new’ Anne. You need to take your finger out of your assumptions and loosen up. The person who did not like the slow pacing needs to watch fewer Michael Bay movies.

  11. Juliette Fortinier says:

    Very disappointing. If the producers’ intent was to stray as far from the original as possible, yet throw a few bones to existing fans, then they succeeded, much to my dismay. Lucy M’s characters are timeless and ours for posterity. Giving them a modern flare is an epic fail. C’mon…Billy Andrews goading Gilbert with the words, “what’s your problem, bud?” Seriously? The modern colloquialism holds no place in an Avonlea script, nor does the ‘dark edginess’ force fed into the story line. People who have never opened the books or saw the original (which stayed as close to the story as written) will never appreciate the beauty of what was written AS it was written. Shame. As for me, I hope the series is as big a flop with critics and the powers that be as it was for me.

    • Jenny says:

      The term “buddy” is an American word that comes from the mid 19th century. It’s not a modern word.

  12. C. Burke says:

    I’m not sure if the reviewer and I watched the same show… I only made it through the first episode, to be honest, because I just couldn’t take any more.

    The pacing is glacial, the dialog is stilted, and I’m having a hard time understanding why anyone would be in any way taken with Anne (her unique trait as a character is supposed to be that people can’t help but like her, even when they don’t want to), whom they have basically characterized as having PTSD, and who comes across as a terrified rabbit of a girl, who actually expects the worst from life, and whose imagination isn’t something she revels in, or uses to help make her circumstances more bearable, but something she desperately clings to as a psychological life raft.

    In fact, there’s nothing to like about any of the characters so far (well, given that we’ve only met Anne, Matthew, Marilla, and Rachel… And a reminder: WE’RE AN HOUR IN), not even Matthew, who is basically a blank slate. There’s “quiet, shy, reserved,” and then there’s “absolutely nothing there.” Richard Farnsworth gave far more life to that character, while saying just as few words.

    Bottom Line: Utterly charmless.

  13. Joan Sutton says:

    Absolutely loved it. Marilla was also an especially moving portrayal. but all the actors were great and of course most outstandingly, the wonderful Anne.

  14. Alicia says:

    This review was clearly not written by someone who has read the books or watched more than the first episode of the television series. Seems a shame they were nevertheless forced to write this article.

  15. Michael Wuertz says:

    Did we really need the pun about global warming. I mean REALLY no more pleasssse

  16. Iain says:

    Kind of an ‘”Anne” for our times’ eh? Which is another way of saying, not an “Anne” for all time.

    So. Ya no. Sticking with the Sullivan film.

  17. cherivey says:

    Casting of this production is very disappointing . While the Cuthbert characters were performed extremely well , the lack of acting skills of the main character left me detached from the character Anne and the actress would be better suited for stage work . Over acting overshadows Anne’s character development . Too bad this one is a miss. There was wonderful scenery and a couple of good performances , just not enough to keep my interest .

    • Michael Wuertz says:

      I think Amybeth was like a spring time rain I thoroughly enjoyed her performance.

    • Ophelia says:

      I completely agree, I felt the actress playing Anne was trying to hard. I’ll stick with the original.

      • Jackie hall says:

        I love, love Anne with an E. The characters are wonderful. I love especially Amy Manulty, the Maine character. This is my favorite of all of the adaptations of Anne of Green Gables

      • Ray says:

        I agree, it feels like I’m watching a middle school performance. It doesn’t seem natural. This new Anne hasn’t won me over.

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