Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Breaking Bad swallows Anne

I belong to an online discussion group focused on the work of a particular British writer. Membership is almost entirely female.

It's generally a friendly chatty group. Suddenly, outrage burst forth in a stream of strongly expressed emails. I had no idea what was going on. Finally, I worked out that the ire was directed at a new Netflix version of Anne of Green Gables, Anne with an E.

For those who don't know the book, Anne of Green Gables was written by the Canadian author L M (Lucy Maud) Montgomery. It tells the story of  Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan girl, who is mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who had intended to adopt a boy to help them on their farm in the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. The novel recounts how Anne makes her way with the Cuthberts, in school, and within the town.

First published in 1908, the book has been translated into twenty languages, sold more than 50 million copies.and has never been out of print.It has been translated into multiple films, TV series and stage shows.

As a very young child, I watched a re-release of the !934 black and white film at the local cinema. I remember being quite frightened at the early part.

I read the book much later, decided I really liked it and then read the whole Anne series. I also watched two of the later TV series and liked them too.

Making a new version of (or based around) a classic  is always difficult because you are dealing with an audience that has its own already formed views. Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, the fourth and final film in Sullivan Entertainment's Anne of Green Gables series, was a completely new story. Anne, now a middle aged woman who has lost Gilbert during the Second World War (something not in the books), begins a search into her past life before she came to Green Gables.This has far reaching effects on her own life.

The film effectively bombed, in part because it was just too far outside audience expectations to gain acceptance. Reactions within the discussion group to the new Anne (CBC) or Anne with an E (Netflix) series were much the same. Those who had seen the first episodes said they would not watch anymore. Those who had not but had been planning too decided not to watch.

The new series  was adapted by Emmy-winning showrunner, director, and writer, Moira Walley-Beckett of “Breaking Bad” fame.

According to the New Yorker,  she told the CBC that she wanted it to “look like a Jane Campion film, and it does.” But she wanted more:
 “I wanted to ground it in the foundation of some of the story and some of the plot that’s already there but not fully explored,” she said. “So it’s like I sort of open up the spine of the book, reach in between the lines of the pages, and chart some new territory.”  
While Anne of Green Gables is now classified as children's book, Montgomery thought of it as a book for all ages. There are dark even melodramatic elements in the book, it could easily be done as a Victorian melodrama, but these are submerged in the text by Anne's character. To open up the spine of the book and (I think) to meet perceived modern sensibilities, new material has been added and the weighting changed.

Critical reaction has been mixed but generally negative. The New York Time's Neil Genzlinger (Review: ‘Anne With an E’ Is a Rewarding Return to Green Gables") liked it: :"You say darker, I say richer", he wrote, although adding "Watch this series with young children and you’d best be prepared to annotate it on the fly. But do feel free to watch it with young children." .

Willa Paskin in The Melbourne Age (Anne of Green Gables gets the Breaking Bad Treatment) has a long interview with Moira Walley-Beckett in which she explains her motivation for the approach she has taken, the re-weighting she has made. Slate's  Marissa Martinelli summarised her reaction this way: "Netflix’s dark, gritty reboot of Anne of Green Gables has all the subtlety of a chalkboard smashed over your head." .
To Sarah Larson in the New Yorker, this is a case of 'how not to adapt "Green Gables"'. To TV Guide's Kat Rosenfield "Anne of Green Gables Fans Are Totally Traumatized By Netflix's Adaptation" In the Jesuit review America, Haley Stewart reports '“Anne of Green Gables” becomes a gothic nightmare in Netflix's “Anne With an E”" And so the reviews go on, many with very funny lines to make their point.

There was universal praise for the production values, while episode one also attracted praise, but then the criticism mounted. Twitter reaction was deeply divided, with some support. But overall, it would appear that the reaction of my on-line discussion group was not far out, that the changes had gone just too far outside acceptable bounds for those to whom Anne was a much loved character.  


Anonymous said...

Is the discussion group related to DES?

Jim Belshaw said...

Well spotted Sue. It is indeed the Dessie discussion group