It’s been well over a century since L.M. Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables, but the titular headstrong, articulate Anne has proven to be an indelible part of popular culture, with three feature films and nearly countless television adaptations in the decades since. And while each of the retellings have varied in their faithfulness to the original novel in their casting and characterization (Megan Follows’ brashly confident ’85 performance is perhaps the most iconic of the bunch), we’ve never been quite ready to let go of Anne, a young and vivacious protagonist whose refusal to accept the status quo still seems quietly revolutionary to this day.
Anne With an E is Breaking Bad writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett‘s gritty take on the source material, which retells the classic story with a decidedly dark narrative tack. Focusing both on Anne’s life with reluctant adoptive caretakers Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, Walley-Beckett kicks up the stakes of Anne’s stay at Green Gables by devoting significant screen-time to her time as an orphan, shuffled along amongst various unfit owners, with abuse at the hand of her prior guardians. It’s a gutsy choice to punctuate a series known for its capricious charm and unadulterated genuine heart with such darkness, but it’s one that Walley-Beckett felt was inevitable, citing the darkness at the center of the Anne’s life as inextricably linked with the source material. “I first read the book, I think, when I was about twelve and really identified with Anne. Then I read it again a year ago in anticipation of writing this and adapting this and had a whole other experience with it,” recalled the producer during a recent chat.
“[A]ll I know is that Anne’s backstory is built into the book. L.M. Montgomery talks about her abuse at the hands of strangers and in the homes of where she worked, and Anne talks about it expositionally in the books, so I thought it was important to dramatize it. I strongly wanted to represent it on the screen because backstory is backstory, it’s important to character. If we don’t fully understand who Anne is, where she came from, what her obstacles are, how can we invest as deeply in who she is now, what she’s overcoming, what she wants and needs?”
The darkness of the series will no doubt be divisive for some viewers, particularly those comparing the show to its prior incarnations, as our own Allison Keene found its new tonal cast strangely distancing and a bit puzzling given the exuberance of the character herself, but it seems equally likely that the decision to characterize Anne so comprehensively will help to charm audiences back. It’s a fascinating time for Anne back to return to the public conversation. Pop culture isn’t quite as starved for empowered female characters as it was in the mid-’80s, but it’s also an era in which women still find their rights heavily contested, and their “strong female characters” often sexualized, or simply defined by physical prowess.
Anne, of course, is none of those things. A scrappy pre-teen with tangerine hair (oh, if it were only auburn!) and an iron will, she seems either unaware or uninterested in the expectations of others who (perhaps unwittingly) becomes the conduit for so many of the issues we’re facing right now. As Walley-Beckett explains,
“My producing partner, Miranda de Pencier, was the first one who thought this is exactly the right time and the right climate for Anne, and so we started talking about it and how if we did it what it would be, what it would look like, how we would contemporize it. We realized in talking about it that all the conversations in the world right now are inherent and built into the existing L.M. Montgomery stories, the conversations in the world that pertain to Anne, I should say. Conversations like feminism, bullying, and gender parity and equality and prejudice against those who come from away, and it felt incredibly timely. So that’s what sort of got us excited about it. Anne was kind of an accidental feminist.”
Still an aspirational ideal of confidence, immense love and soft-heartedness, Walley-Beckett aims to ensure Anne With an E also helps to refocus these complex issues into slightly simpler terms, approaching them with the same matter-of-fact clarity that Anne herself would, even as the series wiles away its time on a secluded isle in Edwardian Canada. It’s that same modernity that drew star AmyBeth McNulty to the role, who first read the book at nine-years-old, at the behest of her mother.
I think it’s interesting because, for my generation, it’s kind of nice to see that there’s a bunch of feminist characters just in any kind of shows or movies or books right now. It’s really heartening to know that that’s becoming more and more popular, and it’s relatable to 2017. I know me and my friends relate to Anne a lot. There was definitely a sense of me relating to her and we had a lot in common, so it was less playing a character than just letting her side just come out in me, playing her.
And for all the ways that Anne With an E deviates from more classic expectations, it also takes care to make its titular character’s revolutionary side all the more potent, priming her for a fresh audience. McNulty seems keenly aware that for many young viewers, her Anne is the first one they’ll meet – at once an immense pressure and an enthusiastic opportunity. It’s no wonder then that the search for Walley-Beckett’s perfect Anne was an extensive one (she describes seeing nearly two thousand girls for the part), probing for both professional and unprofessional actors and placing priority on improvised auditions, allowing the actresses some all-too rare agency even in the preparatory stages. Along with director Niki Caro, Walley-Beckett sorted through countless choices until “it became abundantly clear that Amybeth was our girl”.
McNulty enthusiastically described the impov-heavy audition with the kind of exuberance that makes it easy to see how she snagged the precocious part.
“I was invited to Toronto as you said, and they brought me to this mansion, and I was talking to flowers, orchestrating some sort of play with the flowers, talking to trees, building a throne out of twigs and just doing a lot of improvisation and ballet in the middle of the garden. It was the most interesting audition I’ve ever done in the best way. I thought I did a terrible job, I thought I’d never get the role because I was like, ‘No, I didn’t do as well as I thought I could’ve,’ and then I got the part and I was so shocked!”
In keeping with the show’s more modern timbre, Anne with an E boasts a uniquely greyed color palette, eschewing the classic, romantic golden-hour look for a more earth-bound aesthetic, a decision made both by Walley-Beckett and Caro, who directs Walley Beckett’s personal favorite episode.
“She was our collaborator out of the gate. Together with her, we determined the style that we wanted to go for and that we wanted it to be cinematic, that we wanted it to look like a Jane Campion feature, and that we wanted it to have a documentary-level of real. It just had to be natural, so it had to feel like it was occurring. We didn’t want it to be a museum piece… [I thought about] the way that Joe Wright shot Pride and Prejudice, where the mud was muddy and the rain was wet and pigs walked through the house, we loved that visceral aspect, so yeah, that’s what we were going for. We just wanted it to be elemental and exist in the world the way it was and have it be palpable.”
For any of its flaws, Anne with an E perhaps differentiates itself most clearly amongst handfuls of gritty shows with interestingly wrought female characters in its decision to stay with the immensely sharp, often infuriating and always uncompromising Anne every step of the way. “We really wanted it to be Anne’s point of view, we wanted to experience the way she experiences emotion, the way she experiences feeling alone or afraid, we wanted to be right inside her point of view.” It’s about time.
The first season of Anne With an E is currently streaming on Netflix.