To say I was into Anne of Green Gables as a kid would be like saying the Pope had a passing interest in Catholicism or Amy Winehouse enjoyed the odd glass of wine. I was a little girl obsessed to the point of weirdness (more on this affliction in a moment).
It was not without curiosity, then, that I read this week that the granddaughter of Lucy Maud herself, Kate MacDonald Butler, has inked a deal with Toronto-based Breakthrough Entertainment to make a new Anne series for television. She wasn’t able to do so previously because of a prolonged legal battle she and her family had been waging against Sullivan Productions, the production company headed by Kevin Sullivan that originally brought Canada’s favourite Victorian orphan to the screen. As she recently told the media, “I was bound by other contractual arrangements and couldn’t really move forward (with the new project). But those arrangements have now been terminated.”
The story is this: First MacDonald Butler and her family publicly accused Sullivan of not paying her family the royalties they were due. Sullivan, in turn, sued them for defamation. The case crept through the courts, garnering headlines for years.
The story rights are back with the family and MacDonald Butler is cashing in on her legacy. A 13-part series is said to be in “early pre-production” despite the absence of a network deal. According to MacDonald Butler and her partners, who announced the project this week at the Banff TV Festival, it’s going to be a “contemporized” version of the original. While the adaptation will remain set in the 1870s, it will focus on darker themes, such as Shirley’s backstory as an orphan and foster kid. “There’s so many little nuggets along the way to tell that are not all sunshine,” MacDonald Butler said. “Some of it’s very dark. Breakthrough wants to tell a more honest story, the real story. I think it’s a fantastic idea – a little less sugary and a little more honest.”
As a former Anne Super Fan, I’m finding it difficult to get my head around the idea of a remake of my favourite childhood novel that delves deeply into early (albeit fictional) childhood traumas which I’d rather not imagine. I know we’re living in the post-Freudian age, but the idea of plucky, forward-looking Anne as an abused foster child suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is kind of harshing my childhood nostalgia.
My reasons for being dubious are themselves a little dark. My parents split up when I was eight, and for the rest of my pre-adolescence, Anne Shirley became a kind of alter-ego I assumed in order to cheer myself up. She was the last person I thought about when I went to sleep at night, and the first person I thought about when I woke up. I obsessively read and re-read every novel in the Lucy Maud Montgomery series, including the tedious later books in which Anne becomes schoolteacher, and then (yawn) a dutiful wife and mother. I saved up my allowance for a box of Clairol Nice ’n Easy Light Golden Red dye, which I persuaded my younger sister to apply in the bathtub. I wore gingham sack dresses and vintage combat boots to school. And when the cool kids made fun of me, I’d lift my chin and say, “How dare you mock me!” and “One day I shall find my kindred spirit and then you’ll all be sorry!” which did not, admittedly, have quite the effect I was hoping for.
The point is, I was the perfect target audience in 1985 when CBC aired Sullivan Productions’ TV movie adaptation of Anne of Green Gables starring Megan Follows and her upturned nose. I recorded it on the VCR and watched over and over again until the tape actually wore out.
Viewing clips of Sullivan’s Anne on YouTube today, I can see how treacley and naïve the whole thing looks – in part the result of the never-ending Avonlea franchise that pumped out sentimental TV for the Disney Channel for years afterward .
MacDonald Butler has publicly described herself as guardian of Anne, but as such I can’t help but wonder: Did she ever consider simply leaving well enough alone? Surely the publishing and merchandising royalties alone must be considerable. Must she really allow poor Anne to be saddled with childhood trauma in order to create further drama (and profits)?
My inner child outgrew Sullivan’s petticoat drama long ago, but it doesn’t mean I greet the idea of an edgier Anne as some kind of cultural catharsis. Nor, I suspect, will the rest of the country. This is not to say there isn’t darkness in the source material – often the romantic stories of our youth prove much more bleak and complex on adult re-reading (think of The Great Gatsby or Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But that’s not because the material changes – it’s a function of the reader growing up.
Here in Britain, classics such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and have been remade for film and TV so often that their characters now seem hackneyed cultural clichés. The only good thing about the Anne of Green Gables legal saga is that my old friend Anne has, for the past decade or so, more or less been left alone.
Now it seems that’s all over and the skinny little foundling is about to be thrust back out in the spotlight to sing for her supper. Golly, it’s atrocious. Not sure about you, but I’m certain Marilla would not approve.