For more than a hundred years, Anne of Green Gables has charmed and delighted young readers, but the Anne that will be at the center of the new Netflix original series debuting May 12th will be virtually unrecognizable to fans of this classic children’s book.
When production was announced last August, The New York Times reported that “the series, Anne, may prove to be an edgier incarnation than any of the many previous editions.” A prediction made all the more certain by the announcement that Moira Walley-Beckett, former show runner for AMC’s Breaking Bad – the show about a high school chemistry teacher-turned meth dealer – is the writer and producer of Netflix’s Anne.
Indeed, Smithsonian magazine reports, “This Anne endures abuse and gets her period, and the show’s theme song is by The Tragically Hip.” A post-modern Anne. But Walley-Beckett isn’t just making Anne timely, edgy, and hip; she’s Breaking Anne.
In the books, we catch glimpses of Anne’s difficult upbringing at the hands of people who neither loved her nor particularly wanted her around, but nowhere is it suggested that she was sexualized. Walley-Beckett’s Anne apparently got a fragmentary understanding of the facts of life in the Hammond home, and feels compelled to share this knowledge with her friends.
One piece of video footage from the new series that has been leaked online has Anne explaining to Diana that if a man and woman are touching they are having “intimate relations,” and are making a baby. She goes on to explain, “It seems to me a lot of husbands have a pet mouse…. So I expect Mr. Phillips has one too, in his front pants pocket. I expect Prissy Andrews has made its acquaintance. Mrs. Hammond, she’s a lady I used to work for, she said she always had twins after she pet Mr. Hammond’s mouse.” According to other sources, Anne talks to the girls in school about Mrs. Hammond always having to pet his mouse when he is drunk and Anne overhearing everything, and saying that it sometimes sounded to Anne like it was fun and other times sounded like he was murdering Mrs. Hammond.
When the girls’ parents find out what Anne has been telling their daughters, they shun her and don’t want their children to have anything to do with her.
There is in this, a tacit acknowledgement from Walley-Beckett of the dangers of sexualizing children. Anne’s exposure to this behavior in the Hammond’s home is part of the dark, troubled history that makes Anne long to stay at Green Gables. So Walley-Beckett clearly recognizes the harm early exposure to sexual behavior can have on an impressionable child – but then she turns around and exposes the children who would be the natural audience for a screen adaptation of a classic children’s book – to those very same influences by including this fabricated plot device that is not rooted at all in the source material.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. In recent years there have been enough examples of children’s stories or cartoon or comic book characters getting a Hollywood makeover that it can be definitely labeled a trend.
Last year ABC brought the Muppets out of retirement, only to turn them into boozy, drug-using, foul-mouthed creatures that no parent would want their child anywhere near. ADHD, the late night cartoon block that aired on Fox for a little over a season, routinely reimagined iconic children’s cartoon characters, like the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider Man, My Little Pony, and Duck Tales, as gruesomely violent or disturbingly sexualized. This season ABC took the wonderful Oz stories and added layers of unnecessary sexuality and violence. Even the clean-cut, boy-next-door Archie comic book character is sleeping with his teacher in the new CW series.
Anne of Green Gables was an important part of my childhood. I found in Anne a “kindred spirit,” and I wanted more than anything to be like her. I admired her feistiness, her eye for beauty and her romantic soul, her vivid imagination, her love of poetry and literature, her naïve innocence, her fierce loyalty, her determination. Anne informed my development and character in a way no other book up to that point, had.
That’s the power of great literature. If the right book lands in the hands of the right child at the right time, it can be transformative. And this is the effect Anne has had on generations of readers.
What Walley-Beckett and the others hope to accomplish by debasing Anne of Green Gables – or any character beloved by children — is a mystery. It is a virtual certainty they will only succeed in driving away the natural audience – those who know and love the characters as they were originally created, and it is doubtful that adding layers of violence, vulgarity, and sexuality will attract new audiences.
Anne of Green Gables has lasted for over 100 years because the truths and life lessons that are revealed to the reader transcend the circumstances of the times in which it was written. In striving to make Anne relevant for the times in which we live, Walley-Beckett has succeeded only in destroying its relevance for all time.
Melissa Henson is the program director for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment (www.ParentsTV.org), and resides in Falls Church, Va.