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HAGER: 'Anne with an E': Remaking a classic

• Jul 26, 2018 at 4:00 PM

Last year, Netflix released a remake of a much-beloved classic that starred Megan Follows, “Anne of Green Gables.” Netflix rebranded the show, calling it “Anne with an E,” and giving the show a catchy little theme song. The show is rated PG, and so I watched a few episodes with my daughters and watched the entire show myself.

The backstory of Anne is fleshed out in a dramatic, drunken and abusive way. Anne comes to Green Gables not the romantic orphan but as a child who has been seriously damaged by foster families and orphanages. What is already a stretch for the border-line elderly Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert becomes an entirely new problem in this new version; Anne is less prone to flights of fancy and more prone to suffering PTSD.

Anne, of course, meets Diana Barry, her bosom friend, and the rest of the characters fall into line as well with many of the familiar scenes. Diana and Anne drinking cordial thinking it’s juice, Anne cracking Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate — the feminist, creative themes of the original story still ring true.

I recently read a story on a social media site. I read it because I was curious about the few comments I could see. They expressed a level of rage and vitriol I wouldn’t have associated with the show. The story was brief and basically said that “Anne with an E” is a hijacked version (by left-wing liberals, of course) of the “Anne of Green Gables” story Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote because it introduces an LGBTQ agenda. The story encourages parents not to expose their children to “this filth,” to not “desensitize” our children to this worldly and sinful lifestyle.

What is amazing to me, after having viewed both seasons available on Netflix, is the idea that the introduction of a gay character would ruin the show. The show was already different in the very first episode, in the very graphic and hard-to-watch abuse of a child, complete with screaming and poverty and alcoholism.

So many small things have changed alongside many large and very serious ones. Cole is a friend to Anne and welcomed into her group. It was apparent to me from the introduction of his character that Cole is gay, but the story takes time to play that out, so much time in fact that my 10-year-old never noticed.

The coming-out of Aunt Josephine’s character and beautifully shot party scene provides a necessary backdrop for Cole’s story, because Josephine is in a rare and unique position to support Cole, telling him that he has a “life of such joy” before him. “Anne with an E” traverses this with nary a gasp, providing an example of the way love and friendship can welcome any person, thanking Cole for trusting her enough to be his true self with her.

In a similar plot change, Marilla begins to suffer debilitating headaches. Matthew strives to take care of her, burning toast and dropping eggs to make her breakfast as their new backstory is fleshed out. This isn’t a storyline that is familiar, but is one that feels real and helps explain the brusque and not affectionate way the brother and sister have always dealt with each other. Walls are broken down and a new understanding is reached simply through love and a desire to understand.

This isn’t hijacking the show for a liberal agenda — this is a real and visceral rendering of an old story, a version that is more true and raw. Just as Marilla and Matthew are given the new backstory of a mother who died of a broken heart, a story that shapes them both into the characters they are as adults, the abuse Anne suffers and Cole’s coming out render “Anne with an E” a tender and true tale, with ideas fleshed out in a way they simply couldn’t have been when the story was written originally.

Anne says, “I think I learned some things about love, too. It doesn’t look the same for everyone, it can come in so many forms. And how can there be anything wrong with a life spent with a person you love?”

Anne’s coming of age mirrors a reality our own children face, a moral minefield of preconceived ideas (that, like it or not, we are giving them) about who deserves to be loved and accepted.

Anne proves again that there is no litmus test. An orphaned and horribly abused girl finds an unlikely family, the hearts and minds of Avonlea are changed, and all of this comes from a place of love.

Love is a slippery thing, hard to grab hold of, harder still to put into practice. It can be so much easier to live with the ideas we’ve always had, to leave out the people who have always been left out, to follow a preacher or a denomination that tells you exactly what you already knew. But this is a false life, a false love, a love that demands change of the recipient, that demands a reckoning or accounting, not a love that is freely given; a love that demands nothing of us because it does not change us.

We are capable of so much more, and the brave new story of a red-haired orphan proves this. We can be people of radical welcome and fearless love. We must be.

— By Alicia Hager, Tribune community columnist

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