Anne With an E just hit Netflix and the reviews are not good. I haven’t seen watched so won’t comment by way of a proper review, but the remark that the series is, “a gloomy series with grim, life-or-death stakes draped over the bones of something beloved, warm-hearted, and familiar,” by Joanna Robinson over at Vanity Fair, and the comment by Lauren Hanson at The Federalist that this version of Anne is, “Less romantic dreamer and more PTSD survivor on the verge of a mental break,” haven’t exactly got me fired up for a viewing.
Now for the counterpoint. Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times thinks that, because it is “darker” it is “richer.” He writes, “In Anne we have…one who, helped by her ability to use her imagination as a defense mechanism, remains generally upbeat despite the abuse in her past and the callousness of many of the grown-ups in her present. Yes, this rewarding series says, be sunny and positive. But don’t assume those around you will be.”
I’m not sure I follow. How exactly is this version is richer than the original? Written by Moira Walley-Becket of Breaking Bad* fame, Anne may or may not be richer but it is certainly darker. At least, every review title I’ve seen uses the word “dark” and/or “gritty.” Dark and Gritty isn’t necessarily bad, but it gets a bit much when we insist on pulling down the nightshade on every single classic. Let’s just go the Jane Austen Zombie/Abe Lincoln Vampire route with everything and be done with it already (and oddly, at the same time, those monsters have had their mythology redefined and are far less terrifying creatures now. Someone please, please write a graduate paper comparing and contrasting Nosferatu the Vampyre by Herzog with, say, Twilight).
I suppose my question is – Do we really live in such a dark, vicious world? And if we do, is our artistic engagement with it limited to a shrug of the shoulders and the advice to retreat into a fantasy world of imagination?
This darkening of the classics to achieve modern relevance is an ongoing problem (I’m looking at you, Brideshead Revisited) because it seems as though our storytelling has lost confidence in the fact that there is actual goodness to be found in the world, actual, real-life goodness buried deep in the marrow of creation. Instead, we must pretend to our own, individual versions of it and tell our own stories. Life of Pi, for instance, comes right out and demands that we do so.
I suspect it’s because the human soul is too complex, gorgeous, catastrophically other, and glorious to be captured by the insipid post-modern philosophical assumptions (admittedly of the pop-culture variety) that govern modern life. If you are denied participation in The Story, that great, overarching narrative into which we all fit, whether that be living in light of the Beatific Vision or simply seeking The Virtuous Good, then how in the world are you going to craft a story worth telling?
The best you can do is get dark. Like, really, really dark. In the darkness we can wallow in pseudo-intellectual bliss because it’s too shadowy to see that our heroes aren’t all that compelling anymore.*** We need melodrama! We need transgressive backstories! Lesbian aunts! Pedophilia! The classics can get dark, too. Anne of Green Gables does. Dostoyevsky does. Cormac McCarthy does. But they don’t wallow there. Redemption is hard to describe if you don’t believe in it, but the conflict of a tortured soul who does evil but hates himself for it is an easy substitute for depth. Anne may be a difficult character to depict on screen because she’s so complicated and whimsical and and real, but if you can’t do that you can take a shortcut by inserting some graphic child abuse and bullying and wham! Profundity.
Evelyn Waugh saw this problem coming a long time ago, which is why he refused to let Hollywood screenwriters make a film of Brideshead Revisited. In true Waughian fashion, he lashed out at the “Californian savages” not only with the satirical novel The Loved One, but also wrote essays for the Daily Telegraph entitled, “Why Hollywood is a term of disparagement,” and “What Hollywood touches it banalizes.” He later commented, “in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which, to me, means only one thing, man in his relation to God.” In other words, same diagnosis – modern storytelling of the Hollywood variety lacks the ability to describe the human soul. For Waugh, this is in part because of a total lack of understanding when it comes to religion. How in the world can you tell a compelling story about the human soul if you don’t know what the human soul is for? Waugh, sadly, was proven right when Brideshead was later turned into a soap opera and, predictably, crashed and burned (let us never speak of that movie again).
Anne Carlson Kennedy offers a similar take over at Patheos, writing about Anne, “Montgomery invented a world where grace for the frailty of the human person, kindness and forgiveness, and love of beauty breathe out of every page. Because they are so Christian in posture, it’s as if they are incomprehensible to the people trying to make a buck off them. The modern Hollywood/Netflix executive can’t even see what’s on the page.”
So, why the need to butcher classics? Obviously, a story as venerable as Anne of Green Gables offers a good head start to a director who wants to appear deeply thoughtful. It’s a story that has touched the hearts of many and it offers instant artistic credibility of the sort that most Hollywood films are unable to generate on their own. But these re-writes entirely miss the reason why the original was a classic in the first place, so the updated modern version succeeds only in pulling a classic story into a sort of martyrdom to modern emptiness. We have nothing left to say, but if we dress our banality in the robes of a classic it might seem profound?
The result is boring, as any artwork is bound to be that lacks meaningful interaction with the human soul. Haley Stewart make this point in a piece at America, “We must trade in the innocent, beautiful and hopeful for the dark, broken and edgy (just think of what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit). A world in which an orphan finds the beauty of home—where [Anne] undertakes hilarious re-enactments of Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, takes her first taste of ice cream and mistakenly dyes her hair green—is sadly considered unworthy of our attention. But if you cannot enjoy the simple delight of Avonlea or the triumph of a fairy tale, then, in the words of Anne herself, ‘how much you miss.’”
Storytelling that looks beyond the way in which beauty is fixed into the world like stars in a night sky and chases after shocking plot twists, dark melodrama, and exciting special effects ironically ends up being boring, because it must rely on gimmicks that are tired and predictable. The human soul, in its infinite variations, even the soul of an orphan child who lives a quiet life of growing maturity in a small town, well, this is fascinating. It’s the stuff of romance and virtues and human relationships.
Is there any way to recover the power of storytelling? Sure. First, though, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the human soul, with God, and with the concept of an actual, real overarching narrative to the universe in which we might hope to participate.
*How about this for a sizzling hot take: Breaking Bad is average at best
**Check out the David Foster Wallace essay “F/X Porn,” described as “A fascinating reflection on the inverse relationship between the amount of special effects used in a film and the quality of the story.”
***I mean, we get it, he breaks bad.