The title sequence of Netflix’s Anne With an E is not what you’d expect from a period piece set in 1870s Prince Edward Island. As a collage of the show’s freckled heroine in all four of the seasons of the year whizzes past, it is soundtracked by “Ahead by a Century,” the 1996 single from Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, making the opening credits feel more like a pastiche of alt-rock music videos than the opener to a miniseries based on a beloved, early-20th-century children’s novel. It’s also a heavy-handed way to announce what to expect from the series that follows it: that this not your mother’s (or your grandmother’s, or your great-grandmother’s) Anne of Green Gables.
To be fair, it’s no easy task bringing Anne of Green Gables to the screen in 2017, and the series has good reason to want to set itself apart from the get-go. Anne With an E has to compete not only with its source material, the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery, but also with the many adaptations that have come before it, including a beloved 1985 TV movie starring Megan Follows. But where most versions of the coming-of-age story—which follows the titular orphan as she is adopted by an aging brother and sister and then endears herself to the surrounding community with her imagination and optimism—are sweet, bordering on sentimental, Anne With an E has proudly aligned itself with the 2010s trend of the gritty reboot.
All seven episodes of Anne With an E are penned by a screenwriter who knows from darkness, Breaking Bad’s Moira Walley-Beckett. Walley-Beckett has said that she set out from the beginning to explore the gloomier side of its seemingly sunny protagonist. “I wanted to dramatize it and I wanted it to feel visceral,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I wanted you to know exactly what her origin story was so that we could really understand her original wounding and the stakes that were at play for her.”
The very phrase “gritty Anne of Green Gables reboot” could dim the expectations of even the most hopeful redhead, but that is exactly what Anne With an E delivers. While the show still checks all the more lighthearted boxes essential for any Anne of Green Gables adaptation—Anne’s slate-shattering response to a teasing schoolboy, the mix-up with the raspberry cordial, and plenty of wistful talk of puffed sleeves—Walley-Beckett also reads between the lines of Montgomery’s novel to give us flashbacks to Anne’s (Amybeth McNulty) abusive past. Some of these show us Anne’s treatment at the hands of the Hammonds, the family for whom she worked as a servant and babysitter and who are alluded to in the book, while others are invented purely for the series, like the incident where Anne’s peers at the orphanage torment her with a mouse in a scene so disturbing that I was certain they were going to force her to eat it, Orange Is the New Black–style.
But even outside of those flashbacks, Anne With an E delves into some pretty bleak territory, to the point where some moments seem designed specifically to shock us out of the twee mindset conjured up by those iconic red braids. As Anne arrives unsupervised at a train station, a stranger offers her “sweets” to lure her into his carriage (the windowless white van has not yet been invented), and the adaptation digs deeper into the profound discomfort of an inappropriate relationship between Avonlea’s schoolteacher, Mr. Phillips, and one of his pupils, Prissy Andrews—a relationship that is played for laughs in the 1985 version.
There will be detractors who object to Walley-Beckett’s decision to tamper with a text as sacred as Anne of Green Gables, but delving into Anne’s trauma, which is always lingering in the background of Montgomery’s novel, isn’t such a terrible way to make the story feel refreshed.
And not every new addition is joyless. Walley-Beckett’s best new scene is one in which Anne’s no-nonsense guardian Marilla (Geraldine James) is baffled to find her young charge in the middle of the night scrubbing blood from her bedsheets and imploring her guardian to plant pink roses on her grave. She’s not dying; she just got her first period. McNulty is similarly pitch-perfect as she wails, “But I’m not ready to be a woman!”
The deviations from the source material are not, in and of themselves, where this defiantly grim version goes wrong. Instead, Anne With an E falters in presenting all of this without an ounce of subtlety, as if its own screenplay had been penned by its feverishly imaginative heroine, who idolizes the gothic and the macabre. In this version, it’s not enough for Anne to simply be an outsider in Avonlea who must overcome misunderstandings and prejudices. Instead, she is openly mocked, shunned, and even physically threatened from the very beginning.
The show’s lack of nuance is especially evident while trying to assert its modern sensibilities. Walley-Beckett’s adaptation of Anne is so worried about announcing itself as feminist that it forgets that its source material already was. The original Anne of Green Gables sees its protagonist win over her naysayers through her hard work and intelligence, and even the novel’s love story is rooted in a fierce academic rivalry. But the 2017 version is not content to simply let Anne triumph despite societal expectations. Instead, we get painfully on-the-nose dialogue with lines like, “Girls can do anything boys can do, and more!” and bullies who literally tell girls to get back in the kitchen. It feels at any moment as though McNulty is going to plop a pink pussyhat over her iconic braids and wink at the camera.
There’s a lot to like about this adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, including the stark beauty of the scenery and the performances by McNulty, James, and R.H. Thomson as Anne’s reticent but kindly father figure Matthew. Purists will probably take umbrage at the new material, especially the series’ final episode, which inserts two more “dark” twists into the storyline. But it’s not the added angst or even the show’s insistence on making Anne such a transparently 21st-century heroine that prevent Anne With an E from becoming the definitive Anne adaptation. It’s its lack of trust in its audience to understand why those two aspects suit the story. As that Tragically Hip title sequence repeats, the last line of “Ahead by a Century” begins to feel all too apt: “And disappointing you is getting me down.”