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.
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