Bear in mind that I have only seen the first season (and haven’t heard anything about the others that particularly persuades me to continue) and am not trying to insult any fans. It’s a well-acted series with excellent production values. But I am discussing why it didn’t work for me.
I can understand making changes to an adaptation as long as the essential story, characters, and themes are in place. Anne with an E struck me as less interested in adapting Montgomery’s story than in rewriting it to be the story she should have told, as if it were a flaw of the book not to be dark and concentrated on social issues (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just not the point of the novel) and, frankly, kind of cynical.
The Anne of the novel is indeed a girl who has had an extremely difficult past and has been raised by people who were unkind to her. Nevertheless, she is determinedly hopeful, and while her retreat into imagination is to an extent a coping mechanism, it’s also inherent to her nature. She has suffered but it has not consumed her. The Anne of the TV series is not quite the same character. She’s harsher, downright deliberately rude at times (the way she speaks to Jerry after meeting him really bothered me; he’s done nothing to deserve such treatment, and it felt out of character for her to be so vindictive without a cause), and seems to simmer with an underlying bitter anger–not the quick but fleeting temper of her novel counterpart, but a sort of…I don’t know, almost belligerence toward life?
The series justifies this as a result of her past–implying she has PTSD, an interesting concept but not one that the text adequately supports, I think–which, through flashbacks, is revealed to be rather exaggeratedly horrific. It’s as if almost everyone in Anne’s life is consumingly dedicated to singling her–and only her–out for torment. I mean, they seem to care a lot about making this random orphan girl miserable. It seems more likely that her past would be full of neglect, being ignored, not cared for or about, treated like an object; that other orphans would maybe taunt her vocabulary and roll their eyes and walk away instead of taking the trouble to catch and handle a mouse just to shove it in her mouth (???). Is that not traumatic and hurtful enough, especially for someone like Anne? The series is trying extra hard to establish her as a Victim, and it really isn’t necessary. You should be able to feel for her and root for her without this level of effort.
The result is a dark tone not in keeping with that of the novel, which may not always be bright and cheery–Matthew’s death is devastating–but has a pervading optimism and sense of humor that I don’t recall getting from the series. Montgomery treats the foibles of her characters with a light satirical touch, and more of them are harmlessly silly or self-important than truly bad people. But the series uses most of the inhabitants of Avonlea as a means to convey its insistence that most people of the past were despicably small-minded and hateful. The truth is far more complicated–Montgomery’s novel, written in the actual past by someone who lived then, does not present such a black and white picture at all–but the series does not treat the complex issue with the nuance and subtlety it requires.
Instead, Anne’s worldview takes anachronistic cues from the present day, and the only alternative is exaggerated bigotry. The “kindred spirit” Reverend Allan of the novel is replaced by a minister who spouts misogynistic views on women’s education that are absent from the book. If I recall correctly, Anne in the books encounters little if any opposition to her academic pursuits–and quite a lot of support. Why was it necessary to make the people around her more sexist than they were written to be in 1908? Can’t an author who lived through the era she wrote about be trusted to portray her world as she knew it? The result was a rather forced, heavy-handed treatment of the issue. This “century ahead” interpretation of Anne seems to come from an idea that a character from another time cannot be unconventional, unique, or relatable without conforming to the standards of our day. This is not only unrealistic but rather self-congratulatory. (Just imagine a TV series being made a century from now portraying all of us as hive-mindedly horrible jerks without human complexity or widely varying views!)
On another note, I was very uncomfortable with the scene in which Anne reveals to her classmates what she knows about her previous guardians’ sex life. That Mrs. Hammond would discuss so thoroughly such a topic, even in veiled terms (Anne doesn’t seem to fully understand the implications of what she’s repeating), with a child does not seem likely for a housewife of that era. Any questions Anne might have had about that topic would more probably have met with curt dismissal. The scene felt out of place for me, and seemed perhaps a deliberate snub at / subversion of the innocence of the novel. There’s realism and then there’s cynicism, and for me, Anne with an E leans more toward the latter. And that’s just not a reading of the story that appeals to me.