Marilla of Green Gables

So, my mom made me promise I’d wait until I was home for Christmas to watch the Gilmore Girls reboot with her, so instead I’ve been watching PBS’s new L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I am the only Anne girl of my generation who’s neutral at best on the Megan Follows Anne but I know the book almost by heart, and I love West Wing-era Martin Sheen devotedly so I had high hopes.

And I thought this version was…ok. I didn’t love the casting of the girl playing Anne and I thought the whole production was a little rushed and saccharine. I’d show it to Pippin, I guess, but found myself bristling at cheesy additions like pig-chasing and thin ice drama.

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But I think that’s because the original novel works simply because of Marilla. Anne is wonderful, but she can be a little hard to swallow. (Could many actors deliver those lovely lines in a way that isn’t completely sickly sweet?) A careful reading of the novel, though, reveals that much of the humor comes from Marilla’s perspective.

The new movie gets some of this right, shuffling plot lines with wild abandon to make Marilla’s realization of her love for Anne the central conflict, but I don’t think we get enough of early Marilla, prickly but prone to unholy laughter, to make the victory truly sweet. It’s like a romantic comedy where you want the delightful heroine to get her 2D hero just because that’s what she wants.

I love that the new movie includes a noncanonical reference to Marilla being short for “Amaryllis” — an allusion perhaps to hidden depths of feeling and beauty in practical Marilla Cuthbert that only Anne can draw out. But it feels like a wasted opportunity. While I never loved the old Canadian Anne movies (and stuanchly refuse to watch the weird WWI installment), that version got the casting for Marilla right: exasperated, amused despite herself, completely unaware she is falling in love with this strange little girl.

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I propose that it is the story of Marilla, transformed by (untraditional) motherhood that makes Anne of Green Gables so much stronger than its sequels, when Anne leaves the safety of Green Gables and Marilla’s wry and watchful eye and heads out into the world. Anne Shirley (or later Anne Blythe), undiluted by the contrast of Marilla’s pragmatism, is all fancies and rainbows and ultimately too light, and bright, and sparkling. It’s a difficult feat in a film to capture Marilla’s perspective, but ultimately in the new L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, no amount of breathtaking island vistas and homey fiddle score can make up for its absence.

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