Anne Don’t Call Me Shirley

Fair warning before you dive into this review, as it contains significant spoilers! As some of you may know, CBC recently released the first two episodes of an Anne of Green Gables reboot in collaboration with the almighty Netflix. Having grown up in the Maritimes, my parents read the books to us as kids, and my sister and I spent our summers on Prince Edward Island, roaming Cavendish in the classic straw hats with red braids that can be found in every grocery store and tourist shop on the island. To say I’m an avid fan would be an understatement.

When I heard of this new take on the original, I was skeptical at first. It’s hard to imagine that anything could come close to the 1985 mini-series starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie as Anne and Gilbert (although that was notably also a CBC special). The thing I was most concerned about upon hearing about this series was the one thing that seemed to capture the interest of others online: the series was to be adapted by prominent Breaking Bad writer, Moira Walley-Beckett. I was concerned that, having worked on more popular big-budget productions, Beckett would botch this project by overreaching for the aspects that draw people to the original story in the first place – it’s not about the drama and the action, it’s about the subtle interplay between the characters and their respective personalities.

Once the premier rolled around, I’ll admit that I was pleasantly surprised. I laughed, I cried, and I felt a generally unexpected sense of nostalgia. Episode two of the series, however, was a complete and utter disappointment, unfortunately proving that my gut-instinct was right on the money. I understand the inclination for Beckett to veer off-script from time to time (after all, she has eight episodes to fill – although, arguably, there’s more than enough original material to do that). But overall, I felt like FAR too many dramatic liberties were taken in this episode, which subtracted from the things I love about the original story rather than complimenting them. So far, I’ve been watching the series with a complete newcomer to the story, who was also hooked by the first episode and then disappointed by the second; and he doesn’t even have a point of comparison.

As previously mentioned, I didn’t come to this show seeking a Hollywood drama. I came as a life-long Montgomery fan, English major, fellow Nova Scotian redhead, and feminist. I came hoping for an updated but authentic-feeling retelling of one of my favourite literary heroines of all time, but sadly, this series already feels like a major sell-out. Rather than pandering to a new generation of potential Anne fans, I wish it had maintained its original integrity, as the majority of the audience, I’m sure, are faithful fans already. Personally, I left the last episode feeling slightly hoodwinked. I had been somewhat nervously anticipating this series for months, but I was drawn in by the beautiful pilot episode, which I will admit, was the perfect balance of old and new. However after that phenomenal introduction, I spent a week salivating for the next instalment only for the writer to flip the switch completely. To put it in plain terms, episode two felt like a cheap Montgomery fan-fiction. Every single character was out of character, the plot line was tedious and convoluted, and Beckett was just too darn heavy-handed with the changes.

Firstly, Anne’s incessant crying is vexing, to say the least. While I appreciate that Beckett wants to include more of Anne’s back-story as having come from an abusive orphanage situation, the Anne I know and love is optimistic and cheerful in the face of adversity, and her unbreakable spirit affects everybody she meets. This new PTSD version of Anne is so distrustful and emotionally disturbed that it almost contradicts the glimpses of original, cheerful-Anne that are peppered throughout in a lame attempt to maintain some vague connection with the story’s roots.

Furthermore, episode two almost entirely revolves around an excruciatingly long waiting period in which both Anne and Matthew make an entire round trip to and from Halifax, which I’m sure would have taken MUCH longer in the early 1900’s than was depicted on the show. This bizarre addition to the story comes as a result of Marilla having sent Anne away after losing her broach; an extreme reaction that is not true to the original plot line and feels very uncharacteristic of Montgomery’s writing for any long-time fans who might be watching. During this strange misadventure, not only does Matthew get hit by a moving carriage (a completely unnecessary and dramatic addition) but Marilla spends the whole episode sobbing, only to return to her cold, unemotional self the moment Anne arrives home in one piece. To add insult to injury, Marilla doesn’t even apologize or admit that it was all her fault that Anne was mistakenly sent away until nearly the end of the episode, and only because she feels bad that Anne doesn’t trust her anymore. This comes as starkly uncharacteristic for Marilla, who despite her cold outward appearance, is normally the first to admit her wrongdoings.

Another point of particular annoyance was the bullying scene at the church picnic near the conclusion of the episode, in which Anne arrives at her first social event only for the town children to circle her, merrily singing something along the lines of ‘haha, you have no parents.’ This scene was not only entirely ridiculous and unrealistic, but COME ON Beckett, we get it; Anne’s annoying, she’s an orphan, and nobody likes her, now stop shoving it down our throats.

Finally, I would like to address the nauseatingly sappy ‘happy family’ scene at the very end of the episode in which Matthew and Marilla convince Anne to change her last name to Cuthbert, also contrary to the original story. This choice of ending essentially drove the last nail into the coffin in terms of my continued commitment to this series. The entire reason that Anne appeals to me as a literary heroine is her inner strength and independence as a young female character, who manages to break through the tough exterior of the men and women around her, changing them for the better. I feel strongly that choosing to have her sign her identity away is somehow in violation of this, as she’s meant to prove herself, not conform to the expectations of others.

All in all, I may watch episode three just to confirm whether Beckett chose to continue in this way of altering the story or whether, like the pilot, she does, in fact, revert to a more authentic interpretation. But, to quote Anne directly, “Mrs. Lynde says, ‘Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”