Moira Walley-Beckett’s modern adaptation of Anne of Green Gables was ahead by a century.
Cancelled after three seasons on the CBC and Netflix, award-winning Anne with an E was a charming update to the classic novels first published by Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908, inspired by her upbringing in a farmhouse on the Eastern Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
Anne’s story of being adopted by siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert after an orphanage mix-up was great from the pilot: endearing, smart, thoughtful and beautifully-shot on the breathtaking Canadian landscape during all seasons.
But the third and final season following her transition into young adulthood was especially enjoyable. As imaginative and headstrong Anne Shirley-Cuthbert found her confidence and developed her outlook on life, so did the delightful show – finding its stride alongside its protagonist as a modern and socially-relevant series that was not only appropriate for kids, but important for them to see.
It seamlessly tackled timely topics within the framework of its narrative. Gender inequality, racism, the plight of indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community are just a few issues encountered by Anne and the citizens of her adopted town of Avonlea. Walley-Beckett and more talented writers treated these not like “issues,” but people, with stories, whose perspectives aren’t portrayed often enough onscreen.
The best vehicle to learn a lesson is a story, and Anne with an E taught plenty of them in its 27 episodes – but it doesn’t quite feel like enough, as nearly 800,000 signatures on a petition to renew the show can attest, with the description: “Anne would want us to fight.”
Anne and the show grew up together. Though both began their journeys with confidence and a clear identity from the start, the character-driven drama was gracefully expanding its circle to include an entire community – Avonlea with an e. The time period and small-town setting became characters themselves.
The show subscribed to the truth that our circles expand as we get older. Later additions to the cast became as essential to the story as the Cuthberts: like farm-owner Bash and new teacher Miss Stacy. Even nosy Mrs. Lynde and belligerent Billy were proof that unlikable characters are sometimes even more realistic than the ones we love.
Anne with an E and its creators were of the opinion that not enough shows are these days – that people and places can evolve, that minds can change. That a female main character does not have to fight crime to be strong; she does not have to work in a lab to be smart; she does not have to run for office to make change. Anne is reminiscent of the heroines we used to see on the WB – the Felicity Porters and the Rory Gilmores. These were shows made for “teens,” but they took the time to create universal themes for any age. As a college professor told the Anne of the ’90s, Dawson’s Creek’s Joey Potter: “The problem with your story is that it ends at the exact moment it should begin.”
That’s how Anne’s abrupt cancellation felt. It’s easy to see why people of all ages campaigned for the show’s survival – people in my own life love it for different reasons, from a seven-year-old neighbor to a 70-year-old father.
“Art and Commerce is never an easy marriage. I often find it inexplicable. This is one of those times,” Walley-Beckett wrote of the cancellation in a December Instagram post, a heartfelt message to fans who fought to save the series. “But it’s impossible to argue with words like Economics, Algorithms, Demographics…But those words and others like them are the reason why the networks don’t want to continue. And we didn’t find a taker anywhere else.”
Because Anne grew up believing she was unwanted, she remained on a mission to share the kindness of the Cuthberts with others who might not feel seen, or wanted, or like their stories mattered. Including us. It’s fitting that the unfinished show now fits that category too: unwanted by the gatekeepers, but absolutely seen, and felt, and loved, by the people who matter.
It’s inspiring to see how genuinely beloved Anne with an E was – and will remain, despite an unfairly premature cancellation. “I know you’re upset and disappointed, sad and angry — I completely understand — because our beloved AnnE has been snatched away,” Walley-Beckett wrote. “I guess this is a tragical romance after all. But then again love is love is love is love is love. And love is not lost when it is nurtured. We will always love our Anne with an E. We will always love Green Gables with our whole hearts and everything it stands for. They can’t take that away from us.”
Anne and her family and friends were beginning an especially interesting new chapter at the end of season three – young adulthood, which provides so many lessons and hardships its younger audience might need to fall back on.
It’s a shame we’ll have to go without seeing her “tragical romance” with Gilbert Blythe unfold: a refreshing young love story built on friendship and shared experience, on a boy and girl who were smart and caring with dreams independent of one another, but who made a great t-e-a-m.
We won’t get to see her friends navigate the difficulties and new horizons of college, to witness the progress of women’s education at the turn of the century. We’ll miss out on watching Marilla as a town trustee, and Matthew adjusting to life at Green Gables without the red-haired girl who made it feel like home again.
But we just have to do what Anne would do if faced with the same heartache: use our imaginations.
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