So much scope for the imagination!

by Anne Moore

I was extremely wary going into Anne with an E, the new Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Reviews called it “darker,” and I had a hard time imagining how that would be possible, given the almost relentlessness sunniness of the source material. Anne is a classic “plucky orphan,” and my memory of the book is of her being welcomed in by the town in a pretty uncomplicated way—the same qualities that made my social life unbearable day to day (an overactive imagination; endless, uncontrollable emotional reactions; a deep knack for saying the wrong thing; preciousness) seemed to reap only rewards for Anne, and the world of Avonlea felt generous and good. I was so closely identified with Anne that in the sixth grade, in a classic Anne Shirley move, I changed the spelling of my name to include an E. I was Anne, but my weirdness never won me her social acclaim, and I didn’t have a Matthew and Marilla with whom I could start anew. It’s the perfect stuff of fantasy projection: she’s like me, but everything’s a little dreamier.

The thing that distinguishes Anne with an E from the book and from the previous adaptation is its willingness to take Anne’s backstory as an orphan seriously, and to give it space and energy in the text itself rather than leaving her trauma between the lines, in the un-narratable background. Anne is explicitly positioned as suffering from PTSD, and all her central qualities—her imagination, her garrulousness, her embrace of affectations—are posited as coping mechanisms, not just general charms. Until the show veers off into melodrama, its depiction of Avonlea builds on the insights about trauma that form the unspoken foundation of the novel.

As a viewer, this causes an unexpected break with my childhood experience of the text, and maybe demonstrates one of the things that a successful adaptation can accomplish. Instead of wanting to be Anne, I want to protect her. Texts about trauma serve different purposes for us, depending on our position vis-à-vis that trauma. As a kid, I needed fictional worlds I could reside in: Anne of Green Gables offered me a vision of what might be possible if a provincial community made a decision to open itself up to a needy weirdo. As an adult, though, what I need from stories about trauma isn’t a way out—time and years of therapy have provided that—what I’m looking for is a way to see my former self with perspective and compassion.

In the first few episodes of the season, we see the people of Avonlea attempt to reconcile themselves to this girl who doesn’t follow or understand the social rulebook. Ultimately, they get to a place of generosity and open-heartedness, but it doesn’t come automatically or even easily. Her weirdness and her socially outré background has the effect it so often does in real life: the girls at school mock her, parents forbid their children from befriending her, she remains lonely and shut out. Anne is eventually welcomed into the community, but it feels earned.

This early commitment to realism is part of what makes the second half of the season’s foray into high melodrama feel disappointing. In the book, the action is resolutely located in the domestic and the everyday: Anne falls off a roof playing with friends, she bakes a cake using medicine instead of vanilla, she dyes her hair green. These small-scale, feminine conflicts don’t seem exciting enough for the adaptation. Instead, everything has to have more explicitly life-or-death stakes: it’s not enough for Anne to be barred from going to the church picnic, she has to be sent back to the orphanage and nearly abducted by a child molester. Matthew and Marilla get tragic backstories, and the story goes truly off the rails when Matthew threatens suicide.

While this does build on the Gothic undercurrents that the books have always had (Anne’s House of Dreams is particularly bananas, with its dead babies and secret twins), I feel like the shift here isn’t so much about embracing the Gothic as it is about rejecting the domestic as too boring to motivate narrative action. Puffed sleeves, in and of themselves, aren’t interesting enough for the breakneck pace of contemporary TV narrative, it seems. We still get the story where Matthew sneaks away and buys Anne an expensive dress, but then he also has to meet a former love interest, and then sells the dress back when the fate of Green Gables hangs in the balance. The emotional pitch of Avonlea matches Anne’s overactive imagination, rather than being outpaced by it.

Ultimately, I find the shift of focus away from the “small” concerns of the domestic sphere to be frustrating because it loses sight of one of the central experiences of trauma: its location in the mundane. There’s this great phrase in Alanon, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” which captures the weird delayed timing of trauma, and also how much the ongoing effects of trauma are felt in unexpected, boring places. One of the central facts about trauma, especially early trauma, is how it breaks down our ability to make meaning. We think we understand how the world is supposed to work, but then something happens which breaks down that understanding: home is not safe, our bodies stop working, protector becomes threat, etc. Signification gets slippery. And as a result, spaces or things that are dangerous feel safe and vice versa; everything’s either imbued with too much meaning or not enough. The way that the puffed sleeves work in the book is a great example of this: the object itself (the dress) is insignificant, but it gains the hysterical energy that Anne imbues it with because it’s a physical sign of the social acceptance Anne craves, and then for the care Matthew offers her. It’s funny because it’s just a dress, but the truth underlying it all is that when it comes to trauma nothing is “just” anything.

When the show veers into melodrama, then, that slippage stops: the drama isn’t heightened—it hardly needs to be, with all the house fires and suicidality. It’s fun, and it does seem like a story that Anne herself would like, but the explicitness of the drama means (here, anyway) that it no longer highlights the connection between Anne’s “scope for the imagination” and her own internal struggles. At the end of the day, that feels like a missed opportunity.