Adaptations of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ Are Proliferating - The New York Times

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Essay

Suddenly, remakes and adaptations of L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” series are proliferating.

Credit...M. A. and W. A. J. Claus

Published Nov. 4, 2022Updated Nov. 5, 2022

If I’ve been acting a little “extra” these days, chalk it up to recent quality time with “Anne of Green Gables,” the classic 1908 novel by L.M. Montgomery about a spirited red-haired orphan with a flair for melodrama. “I cannot tie myself down to anything so unromantic as dishwashing at this thrilling moment,” I declared one evening after forcing my family to admire a particularly pretty sunset. Another day, as I skimmed the class notes in my alumni magazine, I told my husband, “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” And after my neighbor kindly offered to check my mail while I was away, I nearly blurted, “You are a bosom friend.”

Like millions of readers — the original book has sold more than 50 million copies and remained continuously in print — I was captivated as a child by “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels. The plight and possibilities of orphanhood, the hearty meals and daunting chores of farm life, the catastrophic debacles with things like green hair dye all made a lively impression on me, a Korean American girl growing up on 1980s Long Island. Later, my fandom was solidified by the CBC’s popular mini-series, memorable for the breathtaking beauty of Prince Edward Island and for Marilla Cuthbert’s merciless hair bun.

Anne’s story has never really left us. There have been picture book and board book adaptations, an anime version and the Netflix series “Anne With an E,” which explored the darker intimations of Montgomery’s novel: post-traumatic stress, bullying, male privilege. This year, children’s publishers are offering three new books reimagining “Anne.” They include two middle grade graphic novels (one set in West Philadelphia and one in a suburban apartment building called the Avon-Lea) and a Y.A. version where the protagonist is a queer Japanese American who loves disco. On the horizon, we can expect a fantasy remix and a graphic novel following a teenager named Dan who lives with his grandparents in Tennessee. (Yes, it’s titled “Dan of Green Gables.”)

Even in a publishing landscape flush with remakes, that’s a lot of Anne. The swell of appreciation for the book cannot be owed simply to the current vogue for homemade cakes, backyard chicken coops and frilly dresses. Anne is a classic underdog who makes waves in her conventional community, eventually winning everybody’s hearts. Spunky and outspoken, she’s a proto-feminist who wonders aloud why women can’t be ministers, expresses zero interest in marriage and seems to be the only one of her chums immune to the “roguish hazel eyes” of Gilbert Blythe. It’s easy to imagine yourself as Anne. She doesn’t have to be white, straight, Protestant or even a girl. And all of the episodes central to the Anne liturgy — mouthing off to the busybody Rachel Lynde, finding a bosom friend in Diana Barry, breaking a slate over Gilbert’s head, nearly drowning in a pond while re-enacting a Tennyson poem — can be readily updated for modern life.

Or can they?

The first adaptation I read was ANNE OF WEST PHILLY (Little, Brown, 256 pp., paperback, $12.99, ages 8 to 12), written by Ivy Noelle Weir and illustrated by Myisha Haynes, in which Anne is a brown-skinned eighth grader who finds a home with the siblings Matthew and Marilla in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. I appreciated the nod to the White Way of Delight (the flowery canopy of “snowy fragrant bloom” that captivates Anne in Avonlea), reimagined here as an unexpectedly beautiful graffiti-embellished alleyway. I was less impressed by the way Anne aids Diana’s little sister by icing her mildly sprained ankle — in the original, Anne heroically nurses Minnie through a near-fatal attack of croup — and by the treatment of the slate-breaking scene, now a single anticlimactic slap. Still, despite references to Instagram and quinoa, and robotics competitions instead of poetry recitations, “Anne of West Philly” is a dutiful tribute. It reminded me of a gluten-free, nondairy, keto version of an old-fashioned recipe. I didn’t miss white Anne, but I did miss wacky Anne.

I was prepared for more of the same with Kathleen Gros’s graphic novel ANNE: An Adaptation of “Anne of Green Gables” (Sort Of) (Quill Tree, 304 pp., paperback, $13.99, ages 8 to 12). Like Weir, Gros incorporates the classic moments: Anne confronts Rachel, falls into a river, breaks a board over Gilbert’s head. But it’s a looser interpretation, focused less on plot than self-discovery. The book’s emotional core rests on two big realizations: Anne is an artist (as she learns by joining the school’s zine club), and she likes girls.

Gird your loins, traditionalists, because the queerification of Anne is in full flower. Much has been written about repressed desire in the series at least since 2000, when Laura Robinson’s paper “Bosom Friends: Lesbian Desire in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Books” sparked a mini-furor at an academic conference. It’s no stretch: Even casual fans have to raise an eyebrow at Anne’s flamboyant passion for Diana and her scornful attitude toward marriage. “I love Diana so, Marilla,” Anne declares. “I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me. And oh, what shall I do? I hate her husband — I just hate him furiously.”

In “Anne of West Philly,” Weir tiptoes so lightly around this theme, young readers could well miss it. Gros, by contrast, puts the gay stuff front and center: Anne gets a butch haircut, holds hands with Diana at a concert and asks her diary, “What does it mean when your best friend (who you kind of think you have a crush on) says she turned down the boy who asked her to the dance???” The story culminates with the girls kissing.

If Gros’s is among the gayer adaptations out there, so is the Y.A. novel ANNE OF GREENVILLE (Melissa de la Cruz Studio, 294 pp., $18.99, ages 14 to 18), by Mariko Tamaki — more a playful riff than a retelling — in which Anne is the half-Japanese, disco-loving, “deliriously queer” adopted daughter of two moms. After the family moves to the conservative small town of Greenville, Anne encounters a scary nativist clique and a thorny love triangle involving two girls, Berry (as in Diana Barry) and Gilly. Tamaki’s nods to the original have a postmodern flair. When Gilly calls Anne “Carrots” (an unforgivable insult in Montgomery’s version), Anne responds: “Carrots? … That’s what you got?”

Still, “Anne of Greenville” was missing something for me that became clear only after I’d read Heather Fawcett’s novel THE GRACE OF WILD THINGS (Balzer + Bray, 361 pp., $17.99, ages 8 to 12), coming in February.

The least obvious Anne reboot of all, this middle-grade fantasy is about a hotheaded young sorceress named Grace who persuades a terrifying child-eating witch to take her in as an apprentice. The touchstone scenes are all here. But the truest homage it pays is in conveying a child’s intense connection to home. Montgomery’s florid descriptions of seemingly every shrub, rosebud and piece of furniture at Green Gables (which used to make my eyes glaze over) communicate this deep attachment. “I love this little room so dearly,” Anne says of her gabled room, with its “white-painted bookcase filled with books, a cushioned wicker rocker, a toilet table befrilled with white muslin.” Similarly, Grace, when she first encounters the witch’s home, is enraptured by its scent of raisin bread and date pudding, its “beautiful wallpaper, patterned with dark green leaves.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m middle-aged with a mortgage and an addiction to decorating blogs that I respond most to Anne’s very real fear that her home will be lost (a fear echoed in “The Grace of Wild Things”). And perhaps this is why, reading “Anne” this time around, I found myself less mad about the ending.

As readers will recall, at the novel’s close Anne forfeits her hard-won college scholarship to stay home and keep Green Gables from being sold — a sacrifice that even most Avonlea residents consider “foolish.” As a young person I remember thinking her decision was unfathomable and retrograde. She had studied so hard! But now it doesn’t seem quite so crazy after all. Anne’s truest, deepest love is for her home, which has given her everything. “Nothing could be worse than giving up Green Gables,” she declares.

I could say the same about the novel itself.


Catherine Hong posts about classic children’s books on Instagram @mrslittlebooks.

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