The imaginative and endearingly melodramatic Anne Shirley first appeared in the classic 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and her story has been adapted countless times since. Still, this latest entry finds a way to make the tale new again by leaning into its previously untapped — and perhaps nonexistent — darkness. When 13-year-old Anne (Amybeth McNulty) is mistakenly sent to restrained, middle-aged adult siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson and Geraldine James), she must persuade them to keep her even though they’d requested a boy to help on the farm.
Unlike in the book, though, Anne‘s problems stretch far beyond church picnics and schoolhouse antics: She’s haunted by flashbacks of abuse from her previous homes. In one, the mistress of a house overflowing with dirty children Anne is forced to care for literally throws her into the mud; in another, that woman’s drunken husband beats Anne over a tree stump, then dies in the process. In the book, Anne’s pre-Green Gables loneliness leads to quirks that are sad but somehow still charming: She makes friends with her own reflection because she has no real ones. But in the show, another flashback depicts a group of teens taunting Anne by dangling a dead mouse over her lips. Even in the present, in her new home, things are different: Whereas Anne in the book easily made friends with the other girls in her class, the show sees practically the whole town — save for her bosom friend, Diana (Dalila Bela) — whispering cruelly about her and teasing her. The original Anne’s relentless optimism is funny and sweet, but given the invented hardships of this adaptation, her positivity seems delusional.
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This isn’t the pleasant Avonlea many grew up with, and it’s hard to discern who showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad) sees as Anne’s audience: It’s certainly not the young women who might be paging through L.M. Montgomery’s books at the local library. Still, putting the source material aside, it’s a fine show on its own: The Cuthberts are well cast as simple, reticent folks whose hearts slowly warm in Anne’s presence, and McNulty’s wide eyes channel Anne’s swinging emotions beautifully. And it’s worth noting that Anne’s gritty realism is, of course, much closer to what life actually would have been like for a turn-of-the-century orphan. Given the heaviness of shows dominating the conversation these days — from Game of Thrones to 13 Reasons Why to This Is Us — inventing a dark side might help Anne With an E fit into today’s TV landscape. If only it didn’t come as such a betrayal to a beloved book. B
Anne With an E is now streaming on Netflix.