Anne With An E: scope for the imagination in Netflix’s reworking of LM Montgomery classic

Diversity and acceptance are major themes in this 2017 adaptation of the story of the big-hearted orphan girl in a small Canadian town

• Anne With An E is streaming on Netflix in Australia. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

I assumed I didn’t need to watch Netflix’s Anne with an E. After all, I already know the story. Doesn’t everyone? Anne of Green Gables, the story of the orphan girl mistakenly sent instead of a boy to live with two middle-aged siblings on Prince Edward Island off the east coast of Canada, was written by Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908 and has been the subject of numerous adaptations in film, TV, radio and stage over the last century.

The recent Canadian series, however, made especially for Netflix and first screening between 2017 and 2019, successfully blends updated old and entirely new characters and plotlines. The premise of the story is the same: loquacious, highly imaginative and decidedly red-haired Anne Shirley, played to perfection by Amybeth McNulty, turns up at the small town of Avonlea to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert – siblings seeking farm help but also, unbeknown to themselves, in need of someone to love.

The story might be over a century old but the themes and ideas are timeless and, despite the protagonist ageing from 11 to 16, the characters span the full range of ages. Anne loves stories and big words, can turn anything into adventure, and revels in the friendship and love she so desperately deserves. Marilla and Matthew, compellingly portrayed by Geraldine James and RH Thomson, are heartfelt portraits of people thrown into dramatic new roles later in life.

Diversity and acceptance of difference are major themes in this adaptation. The series aims high and wide, covering gender equality, sexual orientation, racism and wealth disparity. The series remains set in the late 1800s, making its new storylines perhaps too progressive for strict historical accuracy, but they work nevertheless, and serve as reminder that current struggles for equality are not unique to our generation. Despite Anne’s perpetual quest to ensure her life is as “romantical” as possible, the series echoes the books in avoiding the trope of romantic love being portrayed as more worthy than friendship or familial love.

1Anne with an E
Anne, Marilla and Matthew (Amybeth McNulty, Geraldine James and RH Thomson) in Anne With An E. Photograph: Ken Woroner/Netflix

After immersing myself in the three seasons, I’m mourning the fact that a planned fourth season was cancelled. Fortunately, some storylines were sufficiently resolved in the final episode. But others remained unresolved, including the exquisitely painful one of Ka’kwet, a Mi’kmaq First Nation girl played by now 15-year old Kiawentiio, a Mohawk artist, singer-songwriter and actor and who will play Katara in Netflix’s soon to start production live action version of Avatar: the Last Airbender.

I’m compensating the loss of a fourth season by finding solace in the original books. Prior to this series, my main exposure to Anne Shirley, her sworn BFF Diana Barry and Gilbert Blythe (the boy Anne famously thumps over the head with her school slate after he calls her “carrots”, and later on is her love interest) was through my younger sister who watched the 1985 miniseries adaptation over and over and over again on VHS in the 80s. As an older and more cynical teenager, I would laugh at her crying every single time she watched it – but I confess now I shed more than a few tears while watching Anne with an E on Netflix.

Its creator, Moira Walley-Beckett, who was a writer/producer for Breaking Bad and Flesh and Bone, clearly saw (to paraphrase Anne Shirley herself) a “lot of scope for the imagination” in the century-old novels. The result is a broad retelling that fits perfectly with another of Anne’s most delightful pronouncements: “When you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.”

Vivienne Pearson

The GuardianTramp

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