If only television treated all its teenage girls with the same respect “Anne with an E” affords its whip-smart, scrappy protagonist.
The eight-part Netflix series, which debuts Friday, re-imagines the red-headed Canadian orphan from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel, “Anne of Green Gables,” as a temperamental, outspoken and stubborn 13 year-old.
And in this series, as with the book, those are admirable traits.
That has rarely been the case when Montgomery’s Anne has been brought to life on screen. Even worthy adaptations such as the 1985 Canadian miniseries or a recent PBS production found the need to temper Anne’s moxie with a little too much sweetness, and make up for her edge with a redemptive dose of humility.
Though it is a period drama, “Anne with an E” also challenges that formula from its title onward. This girl, played wonderfully by the charismatic Amybeth McNulty, is different.
Written by “Breaking Bad’s” Moira Walley-Beckett and made as a collaboration between Netflix and the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the skinny, freckled orphan of “Anne with an E” is a mixed bag of anger and dreaminess, dramatic poetry musings and unromantic pragmatism. Add the “e” to my name, she insists. Ann is too plain.
As in the book, she’s delivered from the orphan asylum to the farm of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, older adult siblings played by R.H. Thomson and Geraldine James. They asked to adopt a farm hand, but there’s been a mistake. They specifically requested a boy. And so Anne’s emotional quest to win their hearts — and a permanent home — begins.
In “Anne with an E,” however, the orphan who’s come to symbolize escapism and the wild depths of the creative mind, has a dark backstory.
Flashbacks to an abusive former foster home and the cruel treatment of the eccentric Anne by the other orphans at the asylum explain why she prefers “imagining better than remembering.”
Those glimpses into darkness also make it easier to believe moments that might otherwise sound like self-conscious attempts to shoehorn 21st century feminism into a story that takes place more than a century ago.
Anne has learned to fight for herself, a skill not often afforded to many teenage girls on the big or small screen unless they’re in cheerleading uniforms, plotting each other’s demise in the quad (“13 Reasons Why,” “Mean Girls,” every episode of “Glee”).
When the stoic Marilla explains to the newly arrived orphan that there has been a mistake and they must send her back, Anne doesn’t take it sitting down.
“Why couldn’t I be me,” she grills Marilla. “I’m as strong as a boy and I prefer to be outdoors instead of cooped up in a kitchen. I don’t understand the conundrum. … It doesn’t make sense when girls can do anything a boy can do, and more. Do you consider yourself to be delicate and incapable, because I certainly don’t?”
Her longing to become part of the family is challenged by her own pride — she won’t admit she’s wrong when she’s absolutely right! — and the fact that Marilla is equally stubborn. The kind and quiet Matthew helps the two connect.
Anne’s story unfolds against the lush backdrop of Prince Edward Island: green meadows, budding white cherry trees, sparkling seascapes and dramatic cliff edges. The surroundings add beauty to a story that is, at times, intentionally bleak, and the stunning landscape is a constant source of inspiration for Anne.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely to be a blossom?,” says a disheveled, tomboy-ish Anne dreamily to the prim, no-nonsense Marilla.
“Yesterday you wanted to be a seagull,” replies Marilla, almost cracking an amused smile.
It’s hard to resist such high-flying fancy in such a feisty little package.
‘Anne with an E’
When: Any time, Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)