There are many opinions online about how Breakthrough Entertainment should have adapted Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery’s classic novel about how Anne Shirley, an orphaned girl sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert by mistake, wins everyone over with her imagination, cleverness and intelligence. These opinions range from those who are so loyal to Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 miniseries starring Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Farnsworth and Jonathan Crombie that they cannot imagine a world where any other adaptation might exist. Others, like myself, grew up as fans of the miniseries (and the first two movies—we don’t talk about The Continuing Story, nor A New Beginning) and are hoping that after thirty years there is finally a new (and good) interpretation of our favourite novel.
And, why not? Not including the many stage adaptations, before 1985 there had been at least four movies or miniseries. There’s the one from 1919 with Mary Miles Milner as Anne Shirley involving a “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm-inspired” chicken moment, a pitchfork mob and a star-crossed romance. (Sadly, the film has been mostly destroyed and what I have seen is due to the efforts of Jack and Linda Hutton, who have been slowly putting it back together piece by piece.) There is also the 1934 version starring Anne Shirley (actress Dawn Evelyeen Paris changed her name because she adored playing the character so much!) and the 1940 sequel, Anne of Windy Poplars. (While the first movie is on DVD, I have only been able to catch scenes from the sequel on YouTube.) In this version, “Marilla of the Big Eyebrows” is quite against Anne and Gilbert’s relationship and the movie turns into (yet another) star-crossed romance.
The BBC also did two miniseries in the 1970s, (staring Kim Braden as Anne, Barbara Hamilton and Marilla, and Christopher Blake as Gilbert). Although the first movie was damaged in a fire (do we see a theme emerging?), the sequel is one of the few opportunities we can see the next two books in the Anne series, Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island, in their entirety on screen.
What is consistent throughout these miniseries and adaptations (besides the film being mysteriously damaged) is how the actresses playing Anne are significantly older than the character is at the beginning of the novel (11), and the central plot tends to focus on Anne and Gilbert. After Anne is accepted into Marilla and Matthew’s home, the romance plot takes over and, although I love a good romance and have crushed on Gilbert Blythe since I was 12, it is only one aspect of Anne of Green Gables. In fact, some people (like Margaret Atwood) suggest that it is about Anne and Marilla’s relationship and that Marilla is the character that has the most profound emotional shift.
This new movie, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, stars Ella Ballentine (as Anne), Sara Botsford (as Marilla) and Martin Sheen (as Matthew), and is written by Susan Coyne (Slings and Arrows). Coyne’s script shifts the focus onto Anne and Marilla’s relationship, with the arc involving whether or not Anne will stay at Green Gables. As Anne wins Matthew over pretty quickly, it is really Marilla who has the most difficulty understanding this dreamy and creative young girl. “There’s something about her I don’t understand,” she tells Matthew that first evening as they debate keeping her.
Coyne also keeps true to one of the strongest elements of Montgomery’s fiction: Avonlea’s strong matriarchal community. From the woman who runs the general store, to the one who works in children’s services, these women are integral to the town’s daily life. Marilla, Mrs. Rachel Lynde (Kate Hennig), and Mrs. Barry (Linda Kash) represent the resilient Presbyterian community connection of friendship, duty, and church. Anne, Diana Barry (Julia Lalonde) and Josie Pye (Stefani Kimber)—even though the latter is the mean girl—are the younger generation.
Diana and Anne quickly make their vow of friendship and Diana stands up for Anne against Josie. As well, Coyne gives Diana some of the qualities that Anne would admire, such as reading and interest in the fairy world. As there isn’t that much time for Anne and Diana to bond in a 90-minute movie, these things give the girls the connection they need to form a believable quick and loyal bond. This mirrors the long-time friendship of Marilla and Mrs. Lynde. The latter character tends to be traditionally played as a gossip and meddler, and though Hennig’s take has these qualities, they are downplayed and what emerges is a deep respect between these two strong women.
Also, the men are few. Mr. Philips (Kyle Gatehouse), a teacher so vain that he checks his beard and moustache before ringing the bell, is clearly no match for Anne. And poor Gilbert (Drew Haytaoglu) cannot even get her to even look his way, hence calling her “Carrots” in a scene that plays out exactly as you hoped it would. It is only Matthew who, with his willingness to listen and engage with Anne, gets her respect and attention.
But it is the dynamic between Ballentine and Botsford that is the heart of this movie. Botsford says that she didn’t wish to play the cliché of the older spinster taking care of her brother, and this respect for the character shows, as Botsford holds her own with Sheen, while also being a foil for Ballentine’s authentic emotional reactions. The sincerity between them, particularly in scenes where Marilla has inadvertently hurt Anne’s feelings, or Anne has said something that surprises Marilla, are deeply moving. And it is Marilla’s growth that brings Anne home to stay.
Also interesting? In almost every scene, Anne and Marilla are working together, and not just indoors in the traditional domestic sphere, but outside, as they’re doing physical chores. While Matthew spends much of his time alone, it is Anne and Marilla who have the opportunity to build the working relationship together, slowly creating trust.
As well, Ballentine’s performance gives Anne a strong fierceness, while also being dreamy and a bit vain. When Matthew’s driving Anne home to Green Gables for the first time, Ballentine takes on a dreamy expression and then—in the most perfect “Anne-moment”—snaps out of it and says, “Oh sorry, sometimes I dream when I’m wide awake.” Also, being 13, Ballentine is closer to Anne’s age at the beginning of the novel, keeping the tone of the movie a bit younger, but also showing the universality of this story. Anne comes from tragedy, but she won’t let it define her, and Ballentine’s willingness to show this balance of emotion and strength is something that younger girls watching will really appreciate.
While the movie is aimed at a younger audience, airing on YTV at 6 p.m. on February 15, like most things for kids, there is a deeper wisdom at play. It’s about the strong bonds of friendship and the love that can surprise you when we stop living how we are told and embrace what we are given. This is something that can be found in much of Montgomery’s fiction and, hopefully, this movie will inspire a new generation to seek it out.
Image courtesy of Corus Entertainment.