Once Netflix decided to change the title of its “Anne of Green Gables” reboot from plain old “Anne” (ugh!) to “Anne with an E,” it proved itself to be a true “kindred spirit” to the poor literary orphan girl.
The beloved character from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Canadian children’s novel “Anne of Green Gables,” on which the series is based, insists upon that particular spelling of her name because of its elegance. That insistence is also indicative of Anne Shirley’s boisterous personality, which demands that she be heard, that people pay attention, that she is special. Fortunately, Netflix listened and along with settling on a fitting title, the streaming service has also crafted a unique adaptation that is simultaneously faithful to the source material in appearance and story, while expanding the story to comment upon the ills of 1900s rural Canadian society. Showrunner/writer Moira Walley-Beckett (“Breaking Bad,” “Flesh and Bone”) had promised a darker adaptation than we’ve seen previously, and this series certainly doesn’t shy away from the shadowy side of human nature, to an alarming degree at times.
The majority of the extra-long pilot directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) takes its time to build and is cinematic in scope, setting the tone for the rest of the series. It’s also almost scene-for-scene verbatim from the novel, in which orphan Anne Shirley (Amybeth McNulty) arrives at Green Gables by mistake after the elderly siblings Marilla (Geraldine James) and Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson) seek to adopt an orphan boy to help with farm chores. Instead, they get a scrawny redheaded chatterbox who has a chronic case of imagination and melodrama.
The ways that Anne grows into her precocious mind and finally finds a home in the insular community of Avonlea are all still part of her enchanting original journey. The explicit horrors that we see Anne experience in PTSD flashbacks are not. Neither is the nasty treatment that she receives from the class-conscious members of Avonlea who see orphans as either chattel, parasites, servants or worse, criminals in the making.
While these scenes of prejudice and abuse may not be canon in the fictional world of Avonlea, they’re probably more historically accurate than Montgomery’s rosier depiction. Rather than ruining the series, they give the context for why Anne would be filled with gratitude for the beauties of nature, basic human decency and having a family to call her own. Montgomery had based much of Anne’s need for escape into imagination on her own lonely childhood, and her stories have always had an underlying poignancy that made them all the sweeter.
That bittersweet beauty has been perfectly captured in the series’ main title sequence, which is the second aspect that Netflix got exactly right beyond the title. From the sentimental lyrics “Ahead by a Century” to the fact that it’s a song from The Tragically Hip (the most Canadian of bands, which itself has had recent heartbreak), merely listening to the opening sequence evokes all the pathos necessary for the series. Couple that musical punch with the stunning visuals — which combine photo-real collage work, sylvan images of foxes and leaves, closeups of Anne and her freckles and her iconic quotes carved out on tree limbs — and you get a polychromatic poem worthy of Anne herself. Watch the CBC cut of the main titles to experience a thrill similar to Matthew’s when he sees white grubs:
1) A relative unknown as the lead: Amybeth McNulty gives us just the fresh take that’s needed for this update and hasn’t had any other significant performances to interfere with our picturing her as the heroine. While most fans view Megan Follows from the 1980s miniseries as the ultimate Anne Shirley, there’s no denying that McNulty has all the necessary qualifications: she’s a skinny and freckled redhead, has a ridiculously infectious smile, speaks pleasantly with excellent diction (all the better for her penchant for speeches), and may possibly know how to descend into the depths of despair even better than Follows did.
Wishlist status: Achieved.
2) Prince Edward Island landscapes: It’s easy to see why Anne, who is so in tune with nature, finds that Avonlea and Green Gables offer so much “scope for the imagination.” From verdant countryside and shady groves to sparkling lakes and seaside cliffs, the series takes every opportunity to provide lingering, therapeutic looks at the natural scenery.
Wishlist status: Achieved.
3) Smoldering chemistry: In the first two episodes, Anne hasn’t met her future beau that we know from the books, but she does run into a new character, who could spell trouble (or is it fun?) for her in the future.
Wishlist status: Not yet.