Anne on Screen: A Legacy of Scandals and Romance
Laura M. Robinson
L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables hit the big screen only 11 years after the novel was published and has been adapted for television and film many times since. The stories behind the scenes of the Anne adaptations are sometimes as fascinating a story as Anne might script herself. They are definitely as romantic as Anne would tell, since many or most of the screen adaptations focus sharply on the blossoming love between Anne and Gilbert, rather than on Anne’s growing independence and interdependence.
Anne on the Big Screen
First on the scene was the 1919 silent film directed by William Desmond Taylor and written by Frances Marion, a notable woman screenwriter.1 The film starred Mary Miles Minter. Unfortunately, no copies of this film have survived,2 but Jack and Linda Hutton of Bala, Ontario compiled the surviving stills from the film, and the original sheet music, to create their own version of what the film might have been like.3 Montgomery saw the original in 1920 and wrote in her journal: “It was a pretty little play well photographed but I think if I hadn’t already known it was from my book, that I would never have recognized it.”4 Not only was the setting unlike her P.E.I., but the American flag flew in Avonlea, Anne brandished a gun, and the film ends with Anne and Gilbert marrying.
Fifteen years later, in 1934, a “talkie” version of Anne of Green Gables hit the big screen, directed by George Nicholls, Jr. and written by Sam Mintz for RKO Radio Pictures. Montgomery also watched this film and stated: “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.”5 Intriguingly, the starring actress, Dawn O’Day, was so smitten by the character of Anne that she changed her stage name to Anne Shirley.
Anne on the Small Screen
In the 1950s, Anne made waves on the small screen; however, likely due to how television was transmitted live to audiences and not simultaneously recorded, none of those television adaptations exist today. In 1952, the BBC created a six-part black-and-white mini-series, each episode 30 minutes, which was adapted for television and produced by Pamela Brown. In 1956 and 1958, the CBC produced a live movie of Anne of Green Gables—The MusicalTM, written by Don Harron with the music by Norman Campbell. In 1972, the BBC produced another five-part mini-series which has also been lost. This version was created by a female team: director Joan Craft with an adaptation written by Julia Jones. Joan Craft made a name for herself, in part, by directing many adaptations for television, such as Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre.
Several television versions of Anne have appeared in languages other than English. In the ‘50s several live non-English television versions were broadcast. In 1957, Radio-Canada aired Anne de Green Gables, a French-language black-and-white movie directed by Jacques Gauthier and written by Jean Hamelin. In 1958, a black-and-white Polish version, Ania z Zielonego Wzgórza, was directed by Bohdan Radkowski, written by Andrzej Konic, and transmitted to audiences live as part of a larger production called Television Theatre.
A Japanese-language anime version of Anne, Akage no An first aired on Japanese television in 1979. This 50-episode animated series, directed and written by Isao Takahata for Nippon Animation, has been translated into multiple languages, including English, German, Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Perhaps a version of Anne that is the most faithful to the original, the 50 episodes of Akage no An reproduce the events that unfold over the course of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Launched in 2007, a Sri Lankan 28-episode television series, Anne, was adapted by Nalaka Swarnathilaka from Shanika Dulani Kumanayake's translation of Montgomery’s novel. In the series, Anne is adopted by distant relatives, “Matthew” and “Manila.”
CBC aired Sullivan Entertainment’s two-part mini-series in 1985 to critical and audience acclaim. Followed by Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel in 1987, these mini-series were both directed by Kevin Sullivan, with the first written by Sullivan and Joe Wiesenfeld, and the second by Sullivan alone. With sweeping epic visions of Prince Edward Island, although much of the production was shot in Ontario, and a stunning evocative soundtrack by Hagood Hardy, Sullivan struck a chord in his viewing audience, and the first mini-series garnered 12 awards, including an Emmy, and six other nominations.
Scholar Susan Drain cites Montgomery’s own words from Anne of Green Gables when she addresses the film’s emphasis on “too much love-making.” Drain concludes that the screenwriters’ changes to the original storyline creates a “more old-fashioned” narrative.6 While the first mini-series was largely faithful to Montgomery’s novel, the second strayed quite significantly from her sequels, and in Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story in 2000 and Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (2008), a prequel to Green Gables, Sullivan Entertainment veers almost entirely away from Montgomery’s story and timelines. Sullivan Entertainment also released Anne of Green Gables: The Animated Series in 2000-01 for PBS and funded by Barbie.com. This 26-episode series is very loosely based on Montgomery’s novel and rather strangely fuses into the narrative characters from Sullivan’s other loosely Montgomery-based productions, such as the television show, Road to Avonlea.
A New Era of Anne
Next on the scene, Breakthrough Entertainment partnered with the Heirs of L.M. Montgomery, Inc. to produce L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, a television movie which aired on YTV in Canada in 2016 and on PBS in the United States. Written by Susan Coyne and directed by John Kent Harrison, this version follows a familiar nostalgic approach to interpreting the novel. The films were conceived as a trilogy, and part two and three, The Good Stars and Fire and Dew, debuted in 2017. This adaptation boasts such star power as Martin Sheen playing Matthew, whose characterization of the awkward man seems to miss the mark. Perhaps this trilogy did not receive the accolades it might have had CBC/Netflix not also created a series that overlapped with the broadcasting of the second and third parts of this production.
With a dramatically different twist on Montgomery’s novel from almost everything that had gone before, Emmy-award winning writer Moira Walley-Beckett created a series for CBC/Netflix that aired in 2017. At first titled Anne in Canada and Anne with an E in the United States, it is now universally referred to as Anne with an E (AWAE), this series ran for three seasons with 27 episodes in total. The CBC and Netflix decision to cancel the show came as a surprise not only to the creators but also to the fans. Ardent devotees of the show ran a massive campaign to renew it through social media and by renting billboards in Times Square in New York City and in Dundas Square in Toronto. Walley-Beckett’s vision of Montgomery’s Avonlea was a dark, gritty one rather than the more familiar golden-hued nostalgia. Walley-Beckett (known as the producer for Breaking Bad) created an Anne that confronted such issues as bullying, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and Canada’s horrific residential school system.
The show received a lot of media coverage as Walley-Beckett’s Anne presents no sweet world of girlhood innocence, and arguably, this version might more accurately reflect the dark undercurrents that run throughout Montgomery’s novel. It is, after all, a tale about an unwanted orphan who has been a child-labourer and who has witnessed alcoholism, domestic violence, and abuse. That said, AWAE departs in startling and often bewildering ways from Montgomery’s original storyline, even if the spirit of Montgomery’s novel remains intact. Despite this series’ tackling of serious social issues, season three ends rather traditionally with the long-anticipated kiss between Anne and Gilbert.
Legacy on Screen
The many screen adaptations of Anne are testament to the resilience of Montgomery’s novel as well as her heroine. That generation after generation keeps looking into the pages of Montgomery’s delightful novel and adapting her words to the concerns and cares of their times surely speaks volumes for the legacy Montgomery created. While we wait for the next creative interpretation of Montgomery’s feisty heroine, perhaps we can return to her original novels and imagine, as Anne might, what kind of different form they will take on next.