How To Do a Beloved Classic Today: Anne with an E, Season 2

Thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas‘ smart and enthusiastic tweets for  Anne with an E, Season 2  I moved it up in my to-view pile. Now I’ve finished it and agree with Ebony wholeheartedly. This, to my mind, is a great model on how to expand, consider, interrogate, and so forth a beloved classic.

For those who aren’t aware, “Anne with an E” is a Netflix series based on L. M. Montgomery’s beloved book series Anne of Green Gables. I first read them a few decades ago when the books were popular among my then-fourth grade students. I haven’t seen any kids reading the books in many years, but they are still adored by those now-long-grown-up young readers from then. Add in an earlier also beloved television adaptation and it is understandable that a new one is going to have a tough road ahead.

The first season of “Anne with an E,” to the best of my knowledge, while adding in some backstories here and there, did not veer drastically from the books. This second season however — new characters, new places, new themes bring the larger world into insular Avonlea. One character heads off to find himself by working on a ship and befriends a black Trinidadian who shows him his homeland and takes the story into significant places of race, racism, and more in that time and place. Several other story lines address gender identity and the varying responses to that — some predictably horrid and others remarkably okay. To my mind, Anne’s character is maintained throughout and lends itself to considering different ways of living.

Now I’ve seen some dreadful changes with classics, but this isn’t the only one that I feel works. Another is Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It, a clever updating of the now very problematic original, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.  Problematic because of racism, stereotyping, and more. I loved the original for many reasons, but am a fan of Wilson’s updating too. (ETA I was remiss when first writing this post in not mentioning Kate Saunders’ outstanding Five Children on the Western Front which justifiably won the 2015 Costa Award. My review is here.)

I’d love to see more of this. Maybe Doctor Dolittle? (Let’s forget about the awful Eddie Murphy movie which has nothing to do with the original book other than a vet as the main character and a bunch of talking animal friends.) Be so interesting to see the good doctor called out on his racism. (Here’s an interesting article on the history of the controversy of the book.) How about changing Prince Bumpo (from The Story of Doctor Dolittle) into something other than the sap Lofting makes him? In one edition a few decades back, that story line was completely rewritten by Patricia and Fred Mckissack, but I’d love to see someone do something even more drastic along the lines of the new Anne with an E.  Perhaps by making Bumpo far more an active agent in the story along the lines of Bash?  Hmmm…. what about doing what Matt Johnson did to Poe so wonderfully in Pym: A Novel

Anyway, if you are a fan from childhood and too much away from fidelity to the original will distress you, this isn’t the adaptation for you. But if you are someone with both a childhood love for them and an openness to opening up the world in these books, I recommend the Netflix series highly.

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3 responses to “How To Do a Beloved Classic Today: Anne with an E, Season 2

  1. Freda Wesleyan

    I’m wondering if we owe a dead writer any right to her (or his) intellectual property. Certainly it is good to have stories that venture into significant questions about race, racism, and gender identity, but it doesn’t seem to me that L. M. Montgomery was at all preoccupied with these questions. She was a provincial; loving Canada, detesting “Huns”, and a little prejudiced even towards us “Yanks”. Her heroines are sheltered and virginal; and while one of her books, THE BLUE CASTLE, suggests that it might a good thing to be charitable towards an unwed mother, she was not ahead of her time on sexual issues.

    If a bigoted production company took charge of Montgomery’s works and wrote a series about “Anne” that portrayed her as a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, or a stickler for heterosexual marriage, we’d be up in arms. We’d say that the production company was superimposing political ideas on Montgomery’s story, and that this is a violation of her spirit and her work.

    It seems to me that it’s one thing to omit or correct stereotypes in an author’s work, and another to create entirely new storylines for the point of promoting a political point of view, even a humanitarian one. By all means, write the stories–but don’t call it “Anne”, either with an e, or without one.

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  2. Totally agree with you! As long as the additions aren’t completely anachronistic, I love changes like this. It reminds me of the Hobbit and LOTR remakes; the books were almost completely devoid of women (not even “almost” completely in the Hobbit), so the additional female characters and the expanded roles of preexisting female characters was a much needed change. Another change to a classic novel I loved was the mid-90s version of A Little Princess which cast Becky as a black servant girl in America. In the end, Becky doesn’t “serve” Sara as she does in the book, but remains as her cherished friend.

    Seriously, we need more adaptations like this. And it’s even sadder when people come up with original material like Game of Thrones (which, btw, I’m still a huge fan of) and OPT to create worlds filled to the brim with sexism, homophobia, and racism.

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  3. Judy

    Thank you for your warning to those of us who prefer literature to remain pure. I’ll gladly stay away from Netflix. I can’t imagine taking the Mona Lisa and rendering it in different colors or depicting Michelangelo’s David in wood or bronze, or playing around with a new version of the Gettysburg Address. Look what happened when a wonderful (in my opinion) book, Thirteen Reasons Why, was hijacked (with the author’s permission, I believe) and embellished beyond belief.

    To me, alterations of books indicate a desire to ride on the coattails of an original idea and are just plain stealing. I think the only person appropriate to alter words in a book is the person who wrote them! Classics are classics because the people who originally embraced the book valued the writing enough to pass it down to the next generation. Ideas about the appropriateness of thoughts and behavior change with the times, We embrace such changes as progress, but I believe we do not have the right to judge and disrespect those from earlier times by newer standards.

    Write stories, make movies, alter any plot features, characters, settings, etc. Call them anything you wish except the original title and be sure to include “inspired by”( the original title). Soon we will have a movie based on the rescue of several young boys and a soccer coach in Thailand. I would prefer the facts rather than something embellished to make the story more action-packed, suspenseful, etc. I can imagine someone suggesting some of the rescuers be portrayed by women, the addition of an international conflict or a romantic relationship to spice things up. No thank you.

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