- "Too Much Love-making":Anne of Green Gables on Television
"Ruby Gillis . . . put too much love-making into her stories and you know too much is worse than too little."—(Chapter 26)
Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables has been a popular book since it first appeared in 1908. Generations of girls have followed Anne's misadventures with love and sympathy, recognizing beneath the regional colour and the particular details the aspirations and periods of loneliness which are part of all growing up. It is one of the few books still commonly read that emerged from the nineteenth-century tradition of "orphan" books: Pollyanna is perhaps the only other example, and even she, after her reincarnation in Walt Disney's film, has faded again from view. Although Anne's appeal has been more enduring, it has been limited by its reputation as a girl's book. It is a rare boy who identifies with the dreamy, excitable, bookish, romantic Anne. However, Kevin Sullivan's translation of Anne to the small screen in his 1985 film version for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has finally made Anne known to a wider audience, not just outside Canada, but also beyond its female readership.
Curiously, the television version both brings the story to life and distances it. On the screen we see the places and the costumes which help make the story seem more real: the fabrics and the furnishings, the buildings and the landscape bring the past reassuringly before our eyes. But at the same time as the setting becomes vivid, the immediacy is lost. It is all there, but it is outside us. It is a convincing Green Gables, but it is not ours. We are visitors to this world, not co-creators of it. The same distancing affects our response to Anne. The reader's Anne is seen from the inside out; the reader identifies with her, and participates in her adventures. Though the identification is not complete—the narrative is not first-person, for example, and from time to time the reader shares the perspective of other characters, or even the occasionally ironic stance of the narrator—it is closer than is possible on the screen. Those images are seen from the outside; however sympathetic the camera, its eye settles on exteriors. Intimacy and identification [End Page 63] are replaced by interpretation: we watch actions and expressions, we listen to words, but we remain outside.
Despite this distancing, however, the television version of Anne of Green Gables was a tremendous success—an Oscar is popular proof of that. Perversely, however, the success has been achieved only by sacrifice. Beautiful and moving as it is, the film Anne is yet a lesser accomplishment. It succeeds by reducing to predictability the leisurely complexities of character development and the gradual accommodation of individual and community that are the deeper patterns of Montgomery's original.
Admittedly, television is a special medium and its story-telling functions under certain constraints. For one thing the usual pattern of a television film is that of an extended viewing period, uninterrupted except perhaps by commercials. Even a mini-series, spread out over several days, is viewed in large chunks. The episodic quality of the novel is at odds with this pattern. The novel requires that the reader meet and accept Anne; then it proceeds in a leisurely way through a score of episodic incidents. Many a chapter is self-contained, and the book lends itself, after the initial half-dozen introductory chapters, to interruption and resumption. That is not to deny the book's unity, but only to say that its unity is chiefly on the level of theme and character, rather than plot. The expectation is, however, that television productions must compel attention for the duration of the broadcast, and it is plot that must compel. The episodic structure will not serve, and so the viewer who knows the novel will notice some major structural changes.
In fact, the story line is broken into two sub-stories, which we can briefly identify as "The Trial" and "The Love Story." "The Trial" is the story of Anne's adoption: will she or won...