Anne With an E is a classic story reimagined
One of Canada’s greatest literary exports is the story of a plucky, freckled young redhead girl, who has been winning hearts around the globe since the publication in 1908 of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
The coming-of-age story of Anne Shirley, an orphan mistakenly sent to live with elderly spinster Marilla Cuthbert and her brother, Matthew – who wanted a boy to help them take care of their farm on Prince Edward Island – has sold more than 50 million copies in 36 languages.
It is required reading in schools around the world and has inspired dozens of radio dramas, films, TV movies, animated and live-action series, musicals, stage productions and webcasts.
The Japanese have especially embraced Anne, through anime and manga adaptations, and celebrate her almost as a national heroine, one of their own.
In Hokkaido, they have gone so far as to create a replica of the fabled Green Gables farmhouse, right down to the forest-green shutters, at the Canadian World theme park. Each year, about 3,500 Japanese fans make the 9,500-kilometre pilgrimage to Cavendish on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, to visit the real-life Green Gables. Some even dye their hair red and get married there.
Yes, with two ginger braids hanging from her straw hat, the fictional Anne may be the most iconic, recognisable redhead in popular culture – but there is a seismic shift coming in how her timeless story is told, thanks to a new eight-part television adaptation, Anne with an E, which is available now to stream on Netflix.
A co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, it chooses to portray Anne as more of a budding feminist survivor rather than a goody-two shoes, updating the story by darkening the atmosphere in the fictional town of Avonlea.
And who knows better what darkness lurks in the souls of men – and perhaps even a put-upon 13-year-old orphan girl – than screenwriter and showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett? She won one of her three Emmys for her writing on AMC’s Breaking Bad, specifically the mesmerising fifth-season episode Ozymandias, in which Walter White was brought to his knees and his brother-in-law Hank faced a final showdown in the desert. It is widely regarded as one of the finest hours of television drama.
“I wanted to tell the [Anne of Green Gables] story in a different way, in a way important to a new generation,” Walley-Beckett told The Globe and Mail during filming on the set in Toronto.
“I read between the lines, to mine what isn’t there but has been there all along.
“Themes of identity, gender boundary issues, bullying, prejudice, being an outsider, being unaccepted, what it takes to belong – through the eyes of this accidental feminist, who has no boundaries for herself.”
Finding the perfect Anne was no easy task, with 1,889 girls from around the globe auditioning before producers settled on 15-year-old Irish-Canadian Amybeth McNulty, who was raised in Donegal, Ireland.
“Anne was an accidental feminist,” McNulty says. “I am a feminist by choice.”
Never afraid to speak her mind, albeit respectfully, her Anne is hardly a wallflower.
“[She] shows women around the world that we do not have to conform to a society’s standards of our gender,” McNulty adds. “You can be strong, fierce and an empowered human being, just like boys [can]. We are equal.”
An actor since the age of 6, McNulty previously appeared in the feature film Morgan, opposite Kate Mara, and the Sky TV series Agatha Raisin, as well as in a starring role in the acclaimed Regent’s Park stage production of The Sound of Music in London’s West End.
“Amybeth is a wonderful and sensitive actress who embodies all of Anne’s qualities,” Walley-Beckett says. “She’s soulful and inquisitive, mercurial and passionate. Her ability to convey pain and joy is breathtaking. Amybeth is Anne for a new generation.”
Starring as the strict Marilla and reserved, kind-hearted Matthew Cuthbert are British actor Geraldine James and veteran Canadian stage and television star R H Thomson. This is not the latter’s first foray into Anne’s world – he co-starred in the CBC series Avonlea 20 years ago.
“At its heart, Anne... is a coming-of-age story about an outsider who, against all odds and numerous challenges, fights for acceptance, for her place in the world and for love,” Walley-Beckett says. “The stakes are high and her emotional journey is tumultuous. I’m thrilled to delve deeply into this resonant story, push the boundaries and give it new life.”
• Anne With an E is on Netflix now.