If you’ve noticed that Anne of Green Gables is seeing a resurgence in pop-culture popularity of late, you’re not alone. With at least two production companies working on adaptations of L.M. Montgomery’s classic novels, everyone’s favourite redhead seems to be everywhere. Montgomery expert Melanie Fishbane is not new to this party: her novel based on the author’s teen years, Maud, will publish with Penguin Teen Canada in May. Below, Fishbane gives us the lowdown on screen adaptions of Anne, from the great to the less-so:
I was thrilled when Kate Macdonald Butler announced she was going to be executive producing a new adaptation of her grandmother, L.M. Montgomery’s, classic Anne of Green Gables. It had been almost 30 years since Kevin Sullivan’s miniseries first aired, and while there is a special place in my heart for at least the first two movies, the later movies go so far off text they might as well not exist (and for me they don’t). It was time for something new.
Fans, however, of the “original” Sullivan production were horrified: nothing could compare to Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth – oh, and Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe. But here’s the secret … Sullivan’s production isn’t the original.
In December 1919, Montgomery received a letter from her cousin, Clara, who had recently watched a movie based on Anne of Green Gables, reporting, “she did not like the film at all and everyone else was disappointed.” Montgomery hadn’t seen it yet and writes (as cited in The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume 2) she thought the actress who played Anne, Mary Miles Minter “is very dainty, very pretty and utterly unlike my gingerly Anne.” And having seen the parsed-together 1919 version of this movie by Jack and Linda Hutton (the original was destroyed), complete with a pet chicken, an angry mob, and a star-crossed romance with Gilbert, one can see Clara and Montgomery had a point.
Montgomery was kinder to the 1934 version, which starred Anne Shirley (actress Dawn Evelyeen Paris changed her name): “On the whole it is not a bad picture. At least the first two thirds. The last third is a silly sentimental commonplace end tacked on for the sake of rounding it up as a love story” (Selected Journals, Volume 3). In this adaptation, “Marilla of the Big Eyebrows” is opposed to Anne and Gilbert’s romantic relationship, so it evolves into a star-crossed romance.
The closest adaptations are the first Canadian television productions, made in 1956 and 1958 for the CBC by Norman Campbell and Don Harron, which were developed into the longest running Canadian musical. The 1970s-era BBC series were also faithful to the books, but the first one was destroyed in a fire.
Butler’s adaptation, written by Susan Coyne and directed by John Kent Harrison, stars Ella Ballentine as Anne, Sara Botsford as Marilla, and Martin Sheen as Matthew. The first instalment aired on PBS this past American Thanksgiving weekend after premiering in Canada on YTV last winter, with two more movies scheduled for release in 2017 and 2018. Aimed at a much younger audience, the response has been mixed, thanks to constant comparison to Sullivan’s version.
While the novel spans four years, beginning with Anne’s arrival and ending when she decides to stay at Green Gables after Matthew’s death, the new movie covers only about the first third of the story, centering on the question of whether the Cuthberts will agree to keep Anne. Some scenes that have been added – such as when Matthew saves Anne from drowning in an icy lake after she is dared to walk across it by Josie Pye – are inspired by what happens in the novel, while the timeline has also been played with somewhat regarding other scenes.
The biggest difference, however, between this adaptation and the others, is the focus on the relationship between Anne and Matthew and Marilla, rather than on the romance between Anne and Gilbert. With more movies coming, it will be interesting to see how Coyne treats the elements she originally omitted and can now introduce, and what else she will add.
Also of interest is how fans of Montgomery (and Sullivan) will respond to the CBC/Netflix series airing next year. Starring Amybeth McNutly and R.H. Thompson, the co-production is being written by Moira Walley-Beckett, who has admitted to going “off-book.”
I’m just excited to see how differently these productions treat the same source material, which will hopefully inspire a new generation of viewers to pick up Montgomery’s novels and see why we fell in love with these characters in the first place.
Melanie J. Fishbane is the author of the upcoming YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery (Penguin Teen Canada).