Following the 1985 Anne of Green Gables mini series (starring Megan Follows) was always going to be difficult for this new film version. Still, Anne’s story continues to delight readers and it seems that, over 30 years later, we might be due for a new interpretation. Even after reading the summary (which states that the film ends–instead of beginning with– the decision to keep Anne) I thought I would give it a chance. But this is one of the most painful films I have ever watched.
Presumably casual viewers might not find this film as awful as I did. But, being a lifelong fan of Anne of Green Gables, I almost gave up seven minutes in. (Spoilers for the film and the book follow for the rest of the review.) The film opens with a dismal train scene. It’s dark, the passengers are off-putting, and Anne is remembering her past abuse. I actually appreciate that the film does not gloss over Anne’s sad past, but the dark colors seem wrong for the film. The makers must have agreed as the film abruptly cuts off to green grass and a sweeping view of the sea. The grittiness is over, aside from a few more flashbacks to past abuse. The vibrant tone of the majority of the film makes it seem like a completely different film has been slapped onto the start.
After the train scene, we switch to Matthew Cuthbert, seen chasing a pig while yelling. I repeat: Matthew Cuthbert is yelling. He then falls into a mud puddle for laughs. Even if we ignore that this a cliche joke and not very funny anyway, it’s hard to accept a film that uses shy, awkward, and endearing Matthew Cuthbert for physical humor. He then yells at Marilla, yells an almost flirtatious greeting to Mrs. Rachel (“I doozy up pretty good, don’t you think?”), and has a normal conversation with Anne. We also find out later that this Matthew actually went a-courting in the past, but he was too poor for anyone to have him. The character resembles Matthew Cuthbert so little that the film should probably have given him a different name.
The film improves a little from here, but perhaps the experience is still far from pleasant. Anne’s actress is unconvincing. The actor who plays Gilbert has slicked back hair and almost comes across as smarmy. Worse of all (for book fans), the Anne/Gilbert subplot is almost nonexistent, presumably because only about half the book is adapted. It’s admittedly difficult to play up the Anne/Gilbert controversy without a way to resolve it at the end, since this Anne does not age into a young woman. Still the film nods to a possible reconciliation when Gilbert hands Anne a decoration for the school and she smiles. That’s the last we see of Gilbert and it’s unclear how Anne feels about him or why she seems to have softened towards him since the infamous “Carrots” incident. Gilbert receives so little attention from the film that his character might as well have been cut.
The film condenses a lot of the action to ensure a short viewing time. This means that plot points like the loss of Marilla’s brooch, Anne’s desire to leave school, and Anne’s separation from Diana are resolved almost immediately. But through such condensation leaves a little extra room, the film does not use the extra time to fit in the iconic scenes like Anne’s fall off the roof, her hair dye experiment, or Anne’s rescue on the lake. Instead the film adds a different lake scene–Anne walks on a frozen lake and then falls in when the ice cracks (another overused plot point, I might add). She then screams relentlessly for help, chastising Matthew for not being faster because she’s soooo cold and who cares if the man is doing his best and can’t go faster unless he wants to fall in, too? So instead of being treated to favorite moments from the book, viewers are subjected to a whiny Anne in a cliche scenario.
Then we have to consider that the premise of the entire film is a bit ridiculous. Marilla and Matthew are going to keep Anne for a year and then just send her away? They’re going to make her love their home and her life and then as soon as they can clean their hands of her, just pretend her feelings (and theirs) don’t matter? (Note that this Marilla has been giving Anne soft looks since the start and clearly loves her, but we’re supposed to buy that she’s willing to let go of Anne at the end.) It’s a strange plan. It also fundamentally changes Matthew’s character since he’s supposed to be startling everyone by firmly refusing to let go of Anne. Here he doesn’t do anything. Anne can stay, Anne can leave. Whatever. Matthew will do what Marilla says. It doesn’t really make you want to connect with either Matthew or Marilla on an emotional level.
Finally, many of the decisions of the film just do not make any sense. For instance, the film repeatedly shows us that Matthew has heart trouble in foreshadowing. But Matthew doesn’t die in this version. So he’s just randomly having heart trouble and I guess…it’s…part of his character? It doesn’t seem to affect him much except in random scenes. Yes, we all always wanted a story where Matthew lives, but in that case, cut the scenes of him having spells. In another scene, we learn that Marilla once was courted but her mother did not approve. This change ruins the parallels between Anne’s relationship with Gilbert and Marilla’s relationship with Gilbert’s father. But I suppose since Gilbert’s barely a character in this story, the creators did not think it mattered. Which also raises the question of why we needed such a line in the first place. Presumably it’s meant to humanize Marilla, but this Marilla is a big ole softy anyway.
When I think back on what I liked about this film, I liked most of the music (though it was often used in a rather heavy-handed manner to indicate that a mood change is happening!). And Julie LaLonde gives a fair performance as Diana, who is not so dull in this version but shares excitedly in Anne’s flights of fancy. Other than that, well…. If you’re an Anne fan, I would recommend returning to the 1985 mini series. That one never disappoints.