Why Anne Of Green Gables Remains A Global Sensation

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Photography: Barrett &Mackay and CBC/Northwood Entertainment

Anne of Green Gables gets a 21st-century treatment for television, adding to the character’s enduring legacy. Nathalie Atkinson reflects on her own childhood obsession with the red-headed heroine and explores why she remains a global sensation.

When Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote what she described to a friend as “a juvenilish story, ostensibly for girls,” she couldn’t have known that her Anne would become a Canadian icon, let alone one who is, with the possible exception of Céline Dion, the most enduring and recognizable cultural export we have.

Yet hers is a cultural importance that we often take for granted. At the one extreme, there are the scholarly confabs that routinely gather (like around Anne’s recent 100th) to celebrate and analyze what often feels theoretical, at a remove. At the other, there’s the intended audience of children who continue to read the bestselling books. And in the middle, there is a juggernaut of licensing and the marketing of souvenir vials of raspberry cordial and White Way of Delight-scented candles.

No rescue mission is required to free Anne from memes and pop culture cliché (they’re a sign she’s arrived!), but she does seem a classic relegated to the category of retro comfort food. Charming but hardly relevant.

Yet returning to the books again as an adult, there’s something new and resonant to be found each time. The book series that follows an 11-year-old orphan girl after she’s mistakenly sent to elderly siblings up through adulthood, marriage and motherhood is formative, even if you don’t realize it until much, much later. I hadn’t noticed just how much Anne had burrowed her way into my life until I revisited her again recently.

Growing up in francophone communities and attending French Catholic school, Anne was among the few English books I read as a child (yes, I missed Seuss and Judy Blume entirely). Like most Canadians, I don’t go looking for life lessons in a book most of us read back in elementary school—I go many years without thinking about the books, but she does resurface every so often offering entertainment, empathy and different forms of encouragement in equal measure.

Being the patron saint of misfits and outsiders is how Anne initially registers in middle school, with the literal coming-of-age storyline of her mishaps and rambunctiousness that is easy for children to relate to—the insecurity, teasing and established cliques, the appealing rebellion against authority.

Anne of Green Gables, the first book that introduces the character in the series, resonated in my happy but peripatetic upbringing as my family moved to a new province and small community every few years, and I was perennially the new kid at school. An anglophone surname (Thanks, Dad!) also meant that my given name was often incorrectly anglicized as well, and the (to my mind) crucial H left out. Every misspelling felt like a slight, and I could relate to her whimsical yet vehement insistence: “But if you call me Anne, please call me Anne spelled with an ‘e’ because it’s the difference between dreadful and distinguished.”

Canadian actress Rachel McAdams narrates the new audiobook, and she, too, says it remains one of her most beloved childhood novels. “I wanted to be Anne as a little girl,” McAdams explained in the press preview. “She’s a really strong female character but not in a typical way.” It’s that same spirit that moved a 10-year-old Christina Hendricks (forever Joan Holloway of Mad Men fame) who in interviews often mentions her childhood obsession with Anne as the reason she still wears her naturally blond hair in its now-trademark red.

Next: She has set the tone for other films…

Meghan Follows in the 1985 miniseries.

To the Anne-loving tweens (and their parents) who, like me, eschewed Disney princess fare in favour of anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, it will in retrospect make perfect sense to discover that Ghibli’s co-founders created their influential animation film studio shortly after spending several years crafting the 50-episode Japanese adaptation of Anne. She seems to have set the tone for most of their films, from Princess Mononoke and Academy Award-winning Spirited Away to the many others that follow Anne-like girls of integrity and strong character on adventures, no charming prince required. Anne is never simpering and lovestruck either: her relationship with Gilbert Blythe may eventually end in a wedding, but it is primarily about friendship and rather deliciously academic rivalry.

That 1979 Japanese miniseries was also the milestone that cemented Anne’s popularity and gave rise to Prince Edward Island tourism’s Anne Industrial Complex. A phenomenon not lost on Canadian children, I might add. The first time I experienced the Anne-dustry myself was as a tween in that mid-’80s boom, in the Maritimes when, over several summers, my extended family rented a cottage near Cavendish. No doubt fuelled by Kevin Sullivan’s landmark 1985 television adaptation, I am among the thousands who have seen Anne of Green Gables: The Musical at the Charlottetown Festival each year (now the world’s longest-running annual musical production, in production since 1965) and begged for souvenir straw hat, pinafore and braids.

The second, very different one came a decade later through the popular Charlottetown sketch show Annekenstein, which had a cult following for most of the 1990s. I was a Halifax university student at the time and, with my Islander then-boyfriend, saw it more than once. In Anne’s birthplace, locals have a love-hate relationship with their most famous creation, simply because there is no escaping her. More than 125,000 people a year make the pilgrimage to the house that inspired Green Gables. There are few national heritage sites dedicated to a fictional character who blurs real and imaginary worlds—Anne’s farm is in the rarified company of 221B Baker Street.

This was the era when popular culture began to be steeped in irony and one approached sincerity with nonchalance, a reaction that of itself confirms Anne’s icon status. Annekenstein‘s barbed parody played to cultural familiarity with sketches like Win a Waif (placing Anne alongside other iconic urchins Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist). In hindsight, the show’s Sid and Annecy sketch (written by well-known Canadian actor Rick Roberts) anticipated today’s remix and mash-up culture—think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Comedian and show writer Rob MacDonald played the titular monster as a lumbering figure in a pigtailed fright wig. “You’re not a true celebrity until you are made fun of by The Simpsons,” MacDonald recently told me, with a laugh. By that measure, Anne truly earned her pop culture wings after a winking cameo: glimpsed as the book the similarly precocious Lisa Simpson is reading in the aptly named 2015 episode “Lisa With an S.”

I realized none of this as I read Anne as a bookish nine-year-old, when I immersed myself in Avonlea and Ingleside before moving on to Narnia, Middle Earth and Pemberley. Or in my 20s, when after Annekenstein, I picked the series up again, and the strangeness wasn’t in being an adult reading a childhood classic but the reverse: I wondered what my middle-school self could have found appealing in the ups and downs of middle-aged Anne’s career, marriage and motherhood.

It would take another return to Avonlea, during these politically tumultuous times when human and especially women’s rights are under assault yet again to bring the themes of otherness, sacrifice and acceptance into sharp relief.

Next: Visiting the set of Anne

Green Gables in Prince Edward Island.

The occasion was a recent set visit to the upcoming eight-episode adaptation simply called Anne. An original CBC-Netflix co-production, after it debuts on the CBC on March 19, 2017, it will stream in 190 countries around the world, so it’s something of a broadcasting coup; the powerhouse subscription streaming network is giving the Canadian icon the same slick “major global event” treatment as the award-winning Peter Morgan series The Crown. And it has a similarly ambitious large ensemble cast, layered storytelling and documentary-level of realism. It also capitalizes on how Anne’s story has entry points for young and old—what publishers dub young adult crossover or, in adaptation, what today’s film and television executives call co-viewing.

But it’s Anne’s childhood nemesis who is championing her the loudest for a 21st-century audience. A former actress, Anne executive producer Miranda de Pencier played Josie Pye to Megan Follows’ heroine in the beloved Sullivan series. (There are those who feel as fervently about Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables as legions do about BBC’s landmark 1995 Pride & Prejudice miniseries. But British television and film, de Pencier rightly points out, continuously revisit and reinvent their literary classics, from Dickens and Conan Doyle to Brontë and Austen, and since Anne is our only icon of that stature, so should we.)

I meet de Pencier at the Anne production offices in late November, in the wake of the American election. Empowerment, hope and dignity are on both our minds more than ever. “Anne is an accidental feminist. She’s an outsider. She speaks her mind. She’s smart. She reads books, she’s proud of that. She finds beautiful things where everyone else sees dim and dismal tragedy,” de Pencier rhymes off. “We need more heroines like that in our medium and in our media for young women. I think she’s such a great icon for that.”

For this, the splashiest of the new adaptations—over at YTV, there are two family-friendly television films that follow the character into adulthood—de Pencier brought Vancouver-born screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett, the three-time Emmy-winning writer and producer of Breaking Bad, on board as writer and showrunner. Walley-Beckett looked at the socio-cultural context provided by The Annotated Anne, “where you get to really dig into the period and see what was going on at that time,” de Pencier says. And while the books were the main source of inspiration, the two also talked a lot about how her challenges are relevant today and fleshed out peripheral characters to broaden the scope. Walley-Beckett thinks Anne’s issues “are contemporary issues: feminism, prejudice, bullying and a desire to belong. The stakes are high, and her emotional journey is tumultuous.” If the result isn’t exactly Walter White’s world, it’s definitely not your grandmother’s cosy Avonlea either.

I dipped into a few of the drier academic texts like The Annotated Anne but found the most inspiration in a book the L.M. Montgomery Institute at UPEI published on her centenary: an annotated folio reproduction of Montgomery’s fragile personal scrapbooks. Beginning in her girlhood, Montgomery added to them on the Island later as she was writing the books, and they contain pressed flowers, bits of ribbon and the latest fashion plates glued in alongside poems, dance cards, news clippings and matriculation results. There are also images of mischievous Titian-haired model Evelyn Nesbit, the model for the Gibson girl and later the focus of a scandalous New York murder trial, who shaped Montgomery’s image of Anne (the Nesbit portrait by illustrator George Gibbs adorns the 1908 first edition).

In the wake of pundits on CNN and Fox being dismissive of Teen Vogue‘s astute, pointed and, frankly, often bolder political commentary and openly sneering at its source, Montgomery’s equal interests in education, poetry, flowers and fashion refreshingly reinforces how girls contain multitudes. Actually, never mind girls—so do women. From The Good Wife to discussion of former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, the prevailing bias today is still that any interest in beauty and style is incompatible with seriousness of purpose, and Anne’s appreciation of beauty in the natural world, her excellence at school and her longing for puffed sleeves are the rebuttal.

So is her tenacity in the ambition to become a female intellectual, written by Montgomery at a time before women’s right to vote. It’s just one of the many permissions Anne bestows by example. Chief among these is an important and, I think, formative detail whose full force only strikes me decades after my initial reading. While Anne is (as Mark Twain famously called her) a “most lovable heroine,” she is not always a likeable one. It’s Anne who comes to mind now when I see complicated characters, like the one in Claire Messud’s book The Woman Upstairs. (When it was published, the author had to swat down the suggestion that readers should want to be friends with literary protagonists.) Or as American feminist Roxane Gay writes in her novel An Untamed State: “I am not easy to love but I am well loved.”

Back on the Anne set, it’s not lost on me that a troika of women is in charge of this project and that episode directors include Patricia Rozema and Helen Shaver. I later commiserate with the Anne pilot’s director Niki Caro about how relatively few female heroines there are of a certain age. Caro has an affinity with girl characters and their spiritedness—the filmmaker’s own Whale Rider is in the same vein, about a Maori girl challenging a patrilineal society. Caro had no cultural baggage about the character because, growing up in New Zealand, she had not been aware of the books. “What resonates for me as an adult female is that desire for a home,” Caro says, “the desire to be loved, to be seen, to be heard. The right to be educated and to have a voice.” She’s speaking generally because while preparing her film The Zookeeper’s Wife, the true story of the Polish zookeepers’ role in sheltering Jews during the Holocaust, Caro was surprised to discover Anne was also an inspiring text for the Warsaw Uprising.

These aren’t the sorts of connections about Anne’s appeal that children necessarily make at the time, but they jump out when I revisit the proto-feminist Miss Anne Shirley now. She gives a voice to what others think but daren’t say out loud, balances a desire to fit in even as she yearns for independence, and sees the beauty and possibility in people and in the world. Were she on Twitter today, the headstrong, dissonant girl of that first book who challenges norms and assumptions might hashtag herself a #nastywoman. And she’d wear it as a badge of honour.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2017 issue with the headline, “Girl Power,” p. 46-50.