L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables TV movie review

anne-of-green-gables-movie-posterLet’s start with what Breakthrough Entertainment’s L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables does right. This adaptation, which first aired in Canada back in February but was released stateside over Thanksgiving weekend, does hit a lot of favorite moments from the book, particularly its early chapters. Anne (Ella Ballentine) arrives in Avonlea the way she’s supposed to — the orphanage sends a girl rather than a boy by mistake, but it’s a mistake that was meant to be. The eleven-year-old still has a large vocabulary and an even larger imagination, complete with a penchant for fanciful names (she’d like to be Cordelia, or at least Anne spelled with an e). She still flies into a rage at Rachel Lynde, still becomes “bosom friends” with Diana, still accidentally gets Diana drunk on what she thinks is raspberry cordial.

I will also add, on the positive-ish side, that the trailer instilled fears in me that were not quite realized. Anne, though it has many comic moments, is not a pratfall comedy. The trailer was so full of slapstick moments, some (a certain slate-shattering moment) with roots in the book, some (a crash through the ice) without, that I worried the movie would waste all its time on this sort of thing. It doesn’t. There’s one totally unnecessary crash-landing into the mud, but overall, the movie, like the book, is character-centered.

I’m just not certain the two are working with quite the same characters.

This conception of Anne is a little too cute and perky, with a penchant for going into a breathy, dreamy voice whenever she says something imaginative. I can understand the temptation to portray her that way. But book-Anne frequently bemoans (and is teased by others about) her appearance, and she tells us enough — or implies enough — about her past that we know her life hasn’t been all Lakes of Shining Waters. The movie had to rely on flashbacks to tell us the same thing.

A few other characters in the film aren’t quite the way I imagined them, though that’s bound to happen in any adaptation. Marilla (Sara Botsford) is maybe a little too sassy. We barely see Gilbert (Drew Haytaoglu), and the glimpses we get of this smarmy version make Anne’s prolonged cold shoulder seem a lot more reasonable than it does in the book. Rachel Lynde (Kate Hennig) is a shadow of her busybody book-self. But the real change is in Matthew.

Martin Sheen is wonderful in many ways. He’s especially wonderful as the imposing yet empathetic President Bartlet on The West Wing. But painfully shy Matthew isn’t necessarily a role for a headliner, especially a vaguely presidential headliner. In Sheen’s hands, Matthew is still a comforting presence, but he’s also too strong a presence.

This adaptation conflates a few events, and changes the novel’s structure a bit — with the result that it’s a little unclear exactly what’s happened. What’s included is basically a reordered first half of the novel, and there are two sequels coming. But are the sequels based on the later books in the series? On later events in the first book? Both? That one of the actors seems to think [end-of-the-first-book spoiler redacted] happens in the third book makes me wonder how fast-and-loose the movies play with chronology. Not a cardinal sin (pacing is probably the greatest weakness of my beloved Anne books), but it would be a more forgivable one in an adaptation that better preserved the spirit of the original.

Not every adaptation — of Anne or anything else — has to follow the source material down to the last detail. But as other adaptations have shown, it’s possible to make changes, even big ones, and remain faithful to the essence of the original. I wish this one did a better job of that.

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She has served on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award committees.

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