A TALE MOST TRAGICAL by Joy Margetts

 



Last month I had a week where I felt decidedly ‘under the weather’. I had no energy or capacity to write, or to do much else, so I turned to binge watching on Netflix. I wanted to watch something that was comforting and reassuring and just ‘nice’, and found myself drawn to Netflix’s dramatization of Anne of Green Gables: ‘Anne with an E’. It is beautifully shot and the lead actors are well cast, especially Geraldine James as Marilla Cuthbert, and for the first episode I smiled with contentment as the story unfolded in line with my memory of the book, introducing us to the feisty, imaginative, and irritatingly verbose red -haired heroine.

Soon, however, I was dismayed to find characters being introduced that I had no memory of, themes and storylines being woven in that were definitely not consistent with the period and tone of the original book. For example, Gilbert Blythe has a year out (age 16!) to travel the world employed as a stoker on a steam boat, where he meets, befriends and brings home an ex -slave from Trinidad, who later becomes a central character. Anne's friend, Cole, is artistically gifted, and disappears off into the woods to make scultures, to escape the school bullies. He struggles with his sexuality and we see him even considering suicide. Then we are introduced to the native Indian family and the role of the now vilified Canadian school system in abusing their child.

Whilst all these were interesting storylines and made for good dramatic watching, they were so inconsistent with the feel, values and intent of the original stories that for me they just jarred. I suppose the screen writers were looking to make the series attractive and relevant to a modern audience, and may well have been successful in this (apparently 13 million complaints were made when Netflix announced the final series)*. But for me, this rehashing of Anne of Green Gables, was in Anne’s own words, ‘tragical’.


Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874 -1942) like most writers, based her books on the things she knew, observed and experienced. Her own mother died when she was 21 months old, and she was abandoned by her fortune- seeking father to the care of her grandparents, who lived a simple life on Canada’s idyllic Prince Edward Island. Her stories were  semi-autobiographical – she knew what it meant to be an lonely child brought up by an elderly couple, strict in their beliefs. She also had Anne’s vivid imagination, love of nature, oversensitivity, and recklessness. I can fully imagine some of the scrapes that Anne gets herself into as being based on real life episodes. But Maud (as Lucy was known) also loved Prince Edward Island, her community and her home; Avonlea and Green Gables were based on these



Silver Bush, her childhood home

Cavendish, her home village, had a good school, and her grandparents kept an extensive library, so Maud read veraciously as a child and began to write from a very young age. She also had a spell teaching in community schools before marrying a Presbyterian Minister. She published Anne of Green Gables in 1908 and it was an immediate bestseller. She went on to write more than 20 books, only one of which was not based on her beloved Prince Edward Island. She wrote what she knew. Her life and values underpinned her writing, and her stories of simple late Victorian life in rural Canada became hugely successful. For what they were.

I wonder if Montgomery ever considered the audience she was writing for when she wrote her books? Certainly it seems her publisher tried to dictate, wanting more and more ‘Anne’ books, when Montgomery herself had exhausted the character. Later in her life she also had to endure criticism from the literary establishment that her books were naïve and overly sentimental  - her readers, however, disagreed, as sales continued to flourish.

Screen writers I guess, have no choice but to consider their audience, and commercial interests dictate that they write what people want to watch. One positive thing that watching ‘Anne with an E’ did was to inspire me to go back to the original and read the books again. I have been touched once more by the gentle storytelling, believable characterisation, and imaginative description of her work. She takes you right back to the time she was writing in, and you feel every emotion. It is just delightful, and does not need any added ‘drama’ to be utterly compelling.

L M Montgomery stayed true to herself in her writing, but what about us? Our style, our storytelling, our values, might not appeal to everyone, but surely our honesty to ourselves in how and what we write is paramount? Would you drastically change your writing because a publisher asked you too? Would you add characters and storylines inconsistent with your own beliefs and experiences just to appeal more widely? What if you ever got to see your work dramatized on screen? How would you feel if it were ‘adapted’ so much as to be almost unrecognisable from the original?

I don’t know how Lucy Maud would have felt if she had sat by me watching ‘Anne with an E’. I’m sure like Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, and indeed many of the greats whose works have been adapted for screen with varying success, she might have squirmed. Perhaps, however, Montgomery would have been happy to see ‘Anne with an E’ successfully introduce her work to a whole new generation. Let’s hope it has driven some, at least, to go and read her writing in it’s original state – and hopefully not be too disappointed!

 

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/montgomery_lucy_maud_17E.html

https://lmmontgomery.ca/about/lmm/her-life

*https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/anne-with-an-e-show-cancelled-angry-fans


Joy Margetts is a newly published writer of Christian Historical Fiction. You can find out more here  www.joymargetts.com 




Comments

Ruth Leigh said…
One of my all-time favourite writers and books! I read Anne of Green Gables when I was around 8 and was hooked. I still have all my original books. Funny, believable and still as fresh as paint today. I have avoided Anne with an E because I couldn't bear to see such superb books butchered (just my opinion). Yes, by all means adapt, but don't shoehorn in completely inappropriate stuff. What will I do when the BBC come knocking to adapt Isabella? Not sure, but I certainly will stick to my principles. At least I hope I will. Great blog, Joy.
Joy Margetts said…
Thanks Ruth. It's been a joy to reread the books to be honest, so I am glad I watched it. Although I found myself getting more and more frustrated as the series (all 3!) went on! I know any adaptation of Isabella won't be half as good as it is in my head!
Fran Hill said…
Fortunately, it had been so long since I'd read Anne of Green Gables, and I really don't have a good memory for plots, that I didn't know whether the storylines were original or not, although some I suspected had been altered for modern viewing, as you say. It's such an interesting discussion, though - to what extent, once you've written a book, does it 'belong' to you? Adaptations are inevitable for a screenplay based on a novel so I think you'd have to accept them to a certain extent. But it seems wise to think ahead - what would be my sticking point?
Philippa Linton said…
The question of film adaptation raises the 'author is dead' literary theory. Which I'm not a big fan of, because I think an author's beliefs and motivations should be respected re: their own literary creation. It's quite something to let your baby out into the wide world for readers to engage with and interpret for themselves.

Jo Rowling and Neil Gaiman both have a relaxed attitude towards their respective fanbases when it comes to fanfic. Some fanfic is terrible. But not all of it. At best, it's a huge compliment to an author, that people want to engage with their creation at such an intense level.

Peter Leyland said…
Stick to the books, I always say. I read her in my boyhood and learned something about gurls. When I went to Canada I stayed on Prince Edward Island, visited her house and bought her memoir The Alpine Path.

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