An ‘Anne’ of grey fables

A disclaimer: I have never read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, nor have I seen the Charlottetown festival’s long-running musical version.

Now that some of you have already begun the arrangements for my deportation from Canada (or at the very least, the Maritimes), I’ll go a step further: I didn’t see the beloved 1985 CBC-TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables until mid-2015.

Mind you, that experience in itself was a reminder of Montgomery’s lasting impact, not to mention that of Megan Follows, who played Anne Shirley twice in the ‘80s and revisited the role for CBC in 2000.

We had a family of house guests visiting us two summers ago, including one of Cathy’s best friends, her husband and their two children. The oldest child, an 11-year-old girl, begged us to pop her copy of the original TV-movie into our DVD player. So we obliged her, and somehow it felt just right to finally take in the tale that had enchanted Cathy, my younger sister Colleen, and so many others over the years.

Up until that point, my limited exposure to Anne came through her omnipresence in Prince Edward Island’s tourism and culture industry. Even if you don’t make it to Green Gables Heritage Place – which I’ve visited, twice, as a child and as an adult – you’ll see the freckle-faced redhead pretty much anywhere on “The Gentle Island,” whether you’re looking for her or not. (She’s even on the label of my favourite island beverage, bottled raspberry cordial from Cows’ Creamery.)

The success of CBC’s adaptations also earned the verbose orphan some attention from Canada’s comedians. A three-part CBC Radio series from The Frantics featured fictional New Brunswick Premier Buddy Wentworth concocting a rival heroine, “Fran of the Fundy,” to lure tourists away from PEI (or, as the faux-Premier described it, “Dirt Island”). Shortly afterwards, the Newfoundland satirical group Codco told the tale of “Anne of Green Gut,” casting Mary Walsh as the plucky heroine who develops a rougher edge after her relocation to an East Coast fishing community.

Even Megan Follows herself got into the act, sending up her career-defining role as Anne Shirley with a guest shot on CBC’s TV-industry spoof series Made In Canada. The fictional production company in the Rick Mercer-helmed comedy had made a killing off the syndicated series Beaver Creek, a thinly-disguised spoof of Road To Avonlea. Follows, playing the actress who had originated the beloved character “Adele,” refused to reprise the role until the production company green-lighted her (apparently-awful) screenplay, simply titled “Water.”

All of these memories, and my recent acquaintance with the actual Anne of Green Gables storyline, came flooding back when CBC announced that it had partnered with Netflix to produce an eight-part series based on Montgomery’s original books.

Titled Anne in the Canadian broadcasts (and, oddly, Anne With An E for Netflix customers), the new version promised to explore the darker corners of Anne Shirley’s back-story. CBC’s promotional material loudly trumpeted that the series was scripted by Moira Walley-Beckett, who wrote five episodes of a series nobody will ever mistake for a children’s story, Breaking Bad.

Being a little leery of the phrase “gritty reboot,” Cathy and I approached the re-launch of Green Gables’ favourite daughter with some trepidation.

We were pleasantly surprised.

Yes, there are a few new storylines – most notably, a series of flashbacks to Anne’s troubled past at her previous life in a Halifax orphanage, and the suggestion that she suffers post-traumatic stress disorder or a similar condition as a result. There’s also an episode dealing with a long-lost love of Anne’s mother figure, Marilla Cuthbert.

The 2017 edition of Anne also has a darker overall tone, as the sprightly Hagood Hardy theme music, sunny skies and bountiful PEI farmland of the 1985 version are all out the window. (For clarification: This version, unlike Road To Avonlea, was partly shot in PEI, albeit mostly filmed in Ontario.)

And yet there is still joy and brightness to be found here. Irish-Canadian actress Amybeth McNulty may have launched a long and fruitful career with her earnest, emotional portrayal of Anne, capable of delivering self-absorbed giddiness, sober empathy and gut-wrenching sadness all within the same hour-long episode. And her supporting cast, including Road To Avonlea alumnus R.H. Thomson as Matthew Cuthbert, more than delivers the goods for these classic stories.

This won’t be the only Anne of Green Gables adaptation you’ll see on TV this year (YTV’s Fire and Dew, the third in its own series of Anne-based TV-movies, airs on Canada Day) but it may have become my new favourite.

Now, off to find me a raspberry cordial…

Previous articleThank God for Strait Area Transit
Next articleElection survival guide
Adam Cooke has been a staff writer and columnist for The Reporter since 1999. A native of L’Ardoise, Adam lives in Port Hawkesbury with his wife Cathy.