A Progressive Reimagining Whose Heroine Epitomises Empathy – Why ‘Anne with an E’ Deserves to be Saved

In an age where we expect more from what we watch, this Canadian period drama expands its scope to deliver the touching tales of many more minorities.


‘Tis the season where Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is thriving amidst a host of controversial blockbusters. It would seem that despite the ongoing saturation of feminist classics – this year alone sees new literary iterations from Emma and The Secret Garden – audiences are still eager for new ideas to satisfy their nostalgia. In that case, may I humbly suggest another canonical heroine: Anne of Green Gables, who pranced onto the small screen a few years ago in Moira Walley-Beckett’s television series Anne with an E.

Inspired by L. M. Montgomery’s novel of 1908, the first few chapters are almost verbatim. The story is as follows: Matthew (R. H. Thomson) and Marilla Cuthbert (Geraldine James), two hardworking Christian folks at the Canadian farm of Green Gables, send for a boy to be adopted. In a twist of fate, a girl is sent instead – the titular Anne (Amybeth McNulty). Endlessly astonished by the racing thought processes of a child only thirteen, the pair realize her approach to life, though improper, is imaginative and optimistic.

Having grown up in difficult circumstances, it’s no wonder Anne’s imagination has spun out of control to cope with these harsh realities. Continuously adopted as a servant in various abusive households, her new home allows her to finally revel in her childhood. Through the glorious cinematography, we the viewers are invited into the vivid world she describes with her fantastical vocabulary – bathed in light and adorned with flowers. Like another literary protagonist, Dafne Keen’s Lyra in the recent BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials, Anne contains multitudes; like a daemon, her adolescent personality is unfixed, constantly evolving. With directors varying from episode to episode, the visuals do shift after Niki Caro’s pilot, but it’s achieved in a way that feels authentic and respectfully serves the whims of Anne’s ever-changing perspective.

Just as viewers learn to love Anne’s uncompromising flamboyance, the conservative town of Avonlea likewise adjust to this red-haired orphan across the show’s first season. Though they have to move past their prejudice and love her for who she is, she is no wrongly accused saint: she makes her own mistakes, and through her endless empathy, she learns of her own privileges. We witness her epiphanies in real-time, as she appreciates her ability to go back to school – something the farmhand Jerry (Aymeric Jett Montaz), who has to provide for his family, cannot. Putting herself in the shoes of Gilbert (Lucas Jade Zumann), who loses his father, she begins to comprehend how deep-seated his grief is compared to her own. Becoming humble and less self-centered, she has as much to learn as anyone else, despite her disadvantages.

It’s this growth that lies at the core of the show, and a modern social awareness is easily applied to its everyday domesticity. The usually reserved Cuthberts find themselves in uncharted territory with Anne’s arrival, but the challenge brings out the best of their good nature. Marilla finds herself balancing her strict, no-nonsense attitude with her compassion, while Matthew overcomes his shyness and is revealed to be a pensive and respectful voice of wisdom for Anne. Through continuing cycles of ugly crying and open-hearted conversations, the life of this new family shows itself to carry perennial messages about teenagehood and communication, not unlike Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

“I reckon every new idea was modern once, ‘til it wasn’t.” – Matthew Cuthbert

Unschooled but world-weary, Anne finds herself at odds with more domestic situations but eerily well-equipped in emergencies. This may seem too twee a synopsis, but the journey itself is anything but. As the titles proclaim, she is “ahead by a century,” and Walley-Beckett’s modernity provides an emotional depth beyond the delightful source text.

Though the novel is relatively short, the show spans over 3 seasons by adding more characters in and around the storyline. It’s certainly a risk, but fortunately, it’s one that works; in the tradition of embellishing stories, I don’t think our main character would mind the additions to her own. There is, as Anne would put it, so much “scope for the imagination” that it allows for the highs and lows of season finales and premieres and, more importantly, a story told from even more vantage points. 

Now that conversations about race, gender, sexuality, and class are more open in the public discourse, there’s ample opportunity for realism that adheres perfectly to Anne’s empathy as a once-outsider. While being poor and red-headed was a struggle at the time, in retrospect, there were others in Anne’s time who had far more to contend with – a realization shared with the 2014 adaptation of the musical Annie. In season 2, we meet Bash (Dalmar Abuzeid), a freed slave working with Gilbert, and Cole (Cory Grüter-Andrew), a school kid from a large family who struggles with his masculinity and sexuality. Aunt Josephine (Deborah Grover), meanwhile, lived with her “best friend” for her whole life, showing that even the upper-class feel forced to hide their relationships. The upcoming third season is no different, with the introduction of Ka’kwet an indigenous girl of the Mi’kmaq people addressing Canada’s dark history of oppression, especially in the light of its continuing ignorance of Native communities. 

Hindsight is so important; issues with identity span centuries and aren’t a new phenomenon like some may claim. Family shows are the best way to tell these stories, prompting discussion by portraying real-life struggles through fiction and providing a gateway to open-mindedness.

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world.” – Anne Shirley-Cuthbert

Books have connected women to one another across time, and just as we connect to Anne, she connects to Jane Eyre. Episodes are carefully named to punctuate with this thread: quotes from Brontë apply to Anne, and in turn, relate to our own lived experiences. The show’s third episode, for instance (“But What Is So Headstrong as Youth?”) speaks as much to Little Women or Pride & Prejudice as it does to, say, Booksmart or Lady Bird. In season 2, the episode titles quote Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) – an author recommended by Josephine, who also had to hide her identity – while titles in the third season reference the Queen of Gothic, Mary Shelley. (Everyone has their emo phase, right?). Words hold power, and Anne’s eloquence and female friendship are accompanied by the legacy of the women who paved the way for her, and I just think that’s beautiful.

For all its picturesque Canadian landscapes, there’s a darkness to Anne with an E as it seeks to tackle heavy subject matter – but the beauty emphasizes the life that brims in every moment. In what could easily feel overwhelming, even irritating, it’s really such a charming series, thanks in no small part to the soulful performances from all involved (but especially McNulty, James and Thomson as the Cuthberts). Anne is truly a gem of a show, one that has earned its right to keep telling her story and sharing its wisdom with the world. It’s a show that helps you value what matters and examine the facets of humanity in us all – as good fiction should.

Anne with an E has returned to Netflix for its third and final season this January.

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