Originally published: Sommet Dame Magazine
Adaptations are hard to get right. There’s a reason the adage “the book is always better than the movie” now haunts the film industry. The stakes are always high, but they are even higher when the source material is beloved, and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables definitely fits that description. The 1908 classic has been essential childhood reading for generations, its characters and settings brought to life time and time again, each reader reimagining them ever so slightly differently.
It would be impossible for any adaptation of the novel to do justice to the thousands of imagined Avonleas readers have called home over the years, so it is a good job that Anne With An E has largely moved beyond adaptation. Though the first season closely followed the exploits of the red-headed orphan Anne as they transpired on the page, watching as she adjusted to a life with friends, family, school and etiquette, the second season has broadened its gaze. Anne’s favorite phrase in the world is “scope for the imagination” and the show’s new direction has that spades, telling stories that either existed in the narrative’s periphery or didn’t exist at all.
The show’s whimsy and unbridled optimism makes clear we are still looking through Anne’s eyes, but we are no longer locked into her head. We are free to roam further than the show’s 14-year-old protagonist realistically could, whether that’s onto steamships heading across the Atlantic or to the sweltering markets of Trinidad. People are allowed to be more than just characters in Anne’s story. They have storylines in their own right which broaden the kind of issues the show can tackle. The book may have been pastoral and idyllic, but the show has Anne’s inquisitive spirit, and it isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions.
We follow the residents of Avonlea as they struggle to adapt to the changes that their island borders have kept at bay, whether that’s newly freed former slaves finding their place in the community or the town’s first female teacher finding her way to class. Something as simple as a discussion of electricity causes ripples in the community that cannot be contained, while something as innocuous as a homemade motorcycle is enough to make waves. Those attempting in some small way to change the status quo are often inadvertently faced with gossip, small-mindedness, and sometimes even prejudice, but it is never long before Anne’s stubborn refusal to judge forces the rest of the town to change pace.
Is it unrealistic? Perhaps, but Anne has never been overly enchanted with realism, and the show has the same tendency to prize heart over pragmatism. Her determination to see the best in every person and situation permeates the narrative itself, allowing it to be earnest and hopeful without ever seeming pithy or untethered from reality. The people in Avonlea may be traditionalists, but they also have a great capacity for love, and Anne ensures that our eyes are opened to the ways in which that love can pull them forward.
This isn’t just true of problems grounded in the past either. Anne’s open spirit allows the show to explore contemporary issues with the same gentleness and curiosity. Just as her intuition allows her to unravel a grifter’s plot that the adults are blind to, it allows her to see the truth in others that the grown-ups in her life are conditioned to look away from. When she discovers that her adopted great-aunt shared not just a house but a bed with her close female friend, she accepts it with the starry-eyed delight of a child in love with the idea of love. When her friend’s feminine tendencies put him in the cross-hairs of both his classmates and his family, she invites him into the world she has built to protect herself from that same callousness, opening up her sacred storytelling space to include his art as well as hers.
The ease with which these characters conquer their hardships may seem naive considering the show’s late-1800s setting, but only if we assume the show is set in the real world. In fact, each episode goes to great lengths to show us that we are not in our reality, but in Anne’s. When she imagines a demon inhabiting the bare trees around her house, they shriek and pull at her in a way that cannot be natural. When she imagines a beautiful lady inhabits the pretty blooms of those same trees in spring, they curtsy gracefully as she passes. In a world where these things are commonplace, a world where kindred spirits can be found behind a glass cabinet door just as easily as in a lonely Jewish peddler or a girl her own age, who’s to say acceptance has to be hard, or conditional, or solemn?
Given the tragedy of the life before Avonlea we are given glimpses of, it is no surprise that Anne’s focus is always on bringing lightness into the lives who need it most. The show functions in a similar way. The wonder it exudes may be childlike, but its audience is almost wholly adult. It serves to invite people back into the world of their childhoods, to help them shed some of their cynicism and embrace Anne’s unbridled enthusiasm for life. We might not live in a world where trees can come to life and talk, or in one where dandies host raucous parties complete with recitals of Jane Eyre, or even one comprised of quaint little farms and errant farm boys. We do, however, live in a world where the power of imagination is real, and many could benefit from a widening outlook. Anne with An E show’s not just the power, but the beauty, that outlook can have.