Anne Shirley’s Little House of Horrors

Anne With An E, Netflix’s new release of CBC’s Anne of Green Gables adaptation, wastes no time establishing itself as a spiritual successor to the Brontes’ Gothic dramas. “I just love Jane Eyre, don’t you?” sighs Anne to her AnnewithanEcompanion on the train to the Cuthberts. “I don’t know, I’ve never met her,” responds puzzled Mrs. Spencer with Mariah Carey indifference. This isn’t the last time Charlotte Bronte’s heroine is referenced in the new, darker, grittier Green Gables. As Anne recovers from the Dickensian misery of her orphan life, new dangers and trials await at every turn.

Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett’s vision is a sharp departure from Kevin Sullivan’s classic 1985 Anne of Green Gables film. His Avonlea was a quaint haven like Gilmore Girls‘ Stars Hollow; a close, quirky community full of seasonal festivals where a bookish girl could mature into a young woman. In this world, Sullivan crafted a comedy of manners more Austen than Bronte. Megan Follows’ Anne isn’t Jane Eyre; her literary ancestor is Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey. A Gothic romance superfan, the heroine of Jane Austen’s underrated first novel gets into awkward scrapes with her runaway imagination. Eventually she matures past visions of dark, foreboding suitors, and learns to temper her fantasies with a well-rounded reality.

Gothic melodrama follows the new Anne Shirley at every turn, making the viewer feel like a protective caregiver rather than a chummy peer. Vivid flashbacks to her harrowing past put her flights of fancy in a new light. These aren’t just quirks, they are coping mechanisms for child who has never known love or security. “Window friend” Katie Maurice is downright ominous; Anne seems on the verge of a psychotic break when she whispers to her reflection in a pane of glass.

There’s a lot to like about the materiality of this harsh realism. Sweeping landscape shots are breathtaking, but also unrelenting. Waves crash against cliffs, sunsets fade into total darkness, and cherry blossoms give way to frigid snow-covered fields. In domestic and school scenes we see the practical demands of everyday life at the turn of the twentieth century. Water must be pumped and carried, stove fires must be stoked, and evening conversations are barely lit by candles and oil lamps. This isn’t a naive, romantic view of Victorian life. In of the series’ best innovations, Anne gets her first period and naturally assumes she is dying of a tragic ailment until Marilla steps in to teach her to pin rags to her undergarments.

The actors are also excellent. Anne and her schoolmates look and sound like real kids, not adults masquerading as tweens. The Cuthberts, Anne’s spinster caregivers are also perfectly cast. Matthew is as quietly steadfast as you would hope, and Marilla strikes the perfect balance of exasperation and bemusement with Anne’s “nonsense.” The series plumbs her psychological depths too, exploring past heartbreak and the isolation of her childless spinster identity.

Sadly, this refreshing realism is often missing in the script. Conversation relies on too much on jarring modern slang like “How’s it going?” and “No worries.” Despite trusting viewers with emotional complexity, Walley-Beckett’s writing condescendingly blares out key themes like an after-school special. Anne isn’t just an outsider; practically every person in town openly mocks her whenever she leaves the house. It’s not enough for the complex female characters to have ambitions and build supportive relationships; they must contend with outright caricatures of the patriarchy. Mrs. Andrews solemnly pronounces: “Feminism. What an incredible word!” in case you’re too dense to infer These Changing Times. Such scenes are more pandering than empowering, and cartoonish villains belie how insidious sexism really is.

For all its progressive virtue signalling, Anne With An E‘s narrative ultimately feels like a throwback to television of past decades. Episodes fall into a tidy arc: a crisis hits; Anne musters her moxie; everyone has a good cry and learns a lesson. Disasters like house fires and treacherous ferry journeys span an episode and are rarely mentioned again.

The 1970s Little House on the Prairie series took the same approach, dragging out a literary coming-of-age story into nine seasons. Michael Landon padded the source material with a deluge of calamities and serious social issues. It’s a miracle the TV Ingalls family didn’t have more PTSD after witnessing countless fires, epidemics, deaths, scams, and financial losses. Treasured possessions, like Charles’ fiddle or Laura’s beloved horse bunny, were often the handy MacGuffins for crises and their resolutions.

Anne With an E also relies heavily on the tired “We can’t have nice things” plot device. No good comes of the Cuthberts’ formal parlor; its decorative furniture hosts deception, prejudice, and mortal danger. Cities likewise take on Biblical levels of malevolence. Any outing to a center of commerce brings bodily harm, not fun sightseeing.

A scene in the final episode of pawning treasures in economic desperation is the straw that broke this camel’s back. After probing the psyche of a neglected girl thirsting for beauty, it is cruel to heap more deprivations on her. Anne With an E deliberately builds a strong visual vocabulary, starting with the animated credits sequence dipping in symbolic cues. Plot twists that dispose of meaningful objects for the sake of drama are jarring contradictions to the show’s otherwise thoughtful world building. Emotionally manipulative material culture is the kind of lazy storytelling that makes “family entertainment” moralistic and tiresome.

Sullivan’s Anne was an empowering icon for girls of the 80s and 90s in large part because her story was a safe haven. She offered a place where it was ok to be smart, creative, confident and ambitious. Watching her survive overwrought fears or cringe-worthy gaffes taught me how to get past my own worries and embarrassments.

It’s not entirely clear what Walley-Beckett’s darker universe offers viewers besides empathy for orphans and gratitude for modern comforts. Anne With an E is too sincere for campy melodrama, yet takes too many cheap shots to be a nuanced character study. Even Jane Eyre got to have some quiet domestic respites between tragedies; here’s hoping season 2 lets her kindred spirit Anne do the same.