Classic Literature Film Adaptations Week: A Love Letter to ‘Anne of Green Gables’

Megan Follows as Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables (1985)
I’ve admired strong, intelligent and assertive women and girls for as long as I can remember.
When I was 3 years old, I danced to my mom’s Tina Turner albums while donning my Wonder Woman Underoos or my Princess Leia gown. I proudly asserted my female identity – even changing my name to “Girl” when I was a toddler. But my favorite pastime by far? Reading. Books transported me to another world, spiriting me away from my painful childhood. I was especially drawn to strong female protagonists: Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins, Miyax in Julie of the Wolves, Jo March in Little Women, Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, and of course Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.
Anne of Green Gables was my favorite book growing up. Featuring one of my literary idols, Anne Shirley is a 13-year-old orphan sent to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada in the early 1900s. When I watch the 1985 mini-series based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved series, I relive that childhood love all over again. I usually prefer books to their film adaptations. But in this case, both versions complement each other perfectly. Megan Follows embodies Anne, capturing her feisty, intelligent, sensitive, compassionate and defiant personality.

I saw so much of myself in Anne. A loquacious and opinionated chatterbox, she talked too much which often got her into trouble. She devoured books, acting out her favorite scenes. She excelled at school and strived to be the top in her class. Stubborn and bold, Anne is a drama-queen – sometimes describing her situation as “the depths of despair” – with romantic dreams, a vivid imagination, quick temper and an insatiable curiosity.

Forever quirky, she asked to be called “Cordelia” and insisted people write her name with an “e,” as she swore her name without that crucial letter was just too plain. She loathed people making fun of her red hair, letting her fiery fury flare when she slammed a slate board over Gilbert Blythe’s head after he calls her “carrots”and pulls on her pigtails. (Hey, keep your hands to yourself Gilbert).

Anne is also vain. She’s obsessed with appearances, wearing fashionable puffy sleeves and laments the curse of her crimson mane, which she accidentally turns green after attempting to dye it raven black. She doesn’t grow out of her beauty obsession. Rather her hair eventually darkens to an “appealing” auburn and people begin to remark on her attractiveness.

Now Anne’s beauty obsession would seem to detract from her feminism. While this is annoying, I liked that she wasn’t a paragon of perfection. Also, while I’m not sure this was the intent, it seems as if the film and book are commenting on the toxicity of beauty culture. Despite Anne’s proclamations that she would “rather be pretty than smart,” Anne’s intellect, creativity, kindness and loyalty are what win people over. Her relationships and her aspirations are what bring her joy. Not her appearance.

Female relationships are highlighted in Anne of Green Gables, which is great to see in our male-centric media. Anne anoints the amicable Diana Barry her kindred spirit and “bosom” friend. The two female friends nurture and support one another. When Anne is about to recite a poem in public, Diana tells her, “You’ve never failed at anything, Anne Shirley.”

We witness an interesting display of gender with Anne’s guardians, Marilla and Mathew Cuthbert. Matthew was kind, gentle and nurturing while Marilla was strong, disciplined and stern – reversing stereotypical gender roles.

Boys often seem to be revered in media and culture. But Anne of Green Gables challenges that notion. The brother and sister wanted to adopt a boy who would help them on the farm. Instead they got Anne, a boisterous girl. Anne tells Matthew, “If I’d been the boy you sent for, I could have spared you in so many ways.” But he replies, “I never wanted a boy. I only wanted you from the first day. Don’t ever change. I love my little girl. I’m so proud of my little girl.” When Matthew says to Marilla it was “lucky mistake” they got Anne, Marilla replies, “It wasn’t luck; it was Providence. He knew we needed her.” My favorite author Margaret Atwood points out that it’s not Anne but Marilla who goes through the greatest transformation. Anne teaches her how to not only love but how to express love. A boy didn’t save them; a girl did.

While we merely see a blossoming friendship, Anne’s eventual romance with Gilbert Blythe in the following film (and books) Anne of Avonlea, is still my ideal to this day. Despite being written over 100 years ago, it’s still refreshing to see an egalitarian partnership. Gilbert is Anne’s intellectual and emotional equal. He supports, nurtures and challenges her, pushing her to be her best. How could a feminist not search for her own Gilbert Blythe?

Dedicated to her career, Anne relentlessly advances her education with the goal of becoming a teacher. Always independent, she wants to forge her own path and pursue her dreams. She also hopes to fall passionately in love. Yet her aspirations, career, family and female friendships matter equally.

While the word “feminist” is never uttered (or written) in Anne of Green Gables, I have no doubt in my mind that Anne is a feminist, albeit “a stealth feminist.” As Chloe Angyal so eloquently writes:

“On the surface, she adheres to all the requirements of turn early twentieth century Canadian womanhood. She’s domestic, as is expected. She’s feminine and elegant, as is expected. She’s polite and courteous, as is expected, except for those occasions on which her temper gets the better of her. But underneath all that, she’s quite a rebellious young woman. She’s determined to be as educated as she possibly can – as educated as a woman was permitted to be in those days. Anne is an opinionated young lady, and she isn’t afraid to voice her opinions out loud when so many of her girl friends defer to men and to tradition.”

But as Angyal points out, Anne is also “a model for those of us who work for social justice.” Anne struggled through her early childhood, living with a cruel family until she’s 13. Never knowing love at all, she recites, “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” Yet despite her pain and loneliness – or perhaps because of it – she seeks to make the world a better place:

“Anne is capable of turning pain into beauty, and injustice into love. She is able to imagine a better world. More than that, she views it as her duty and her delight to create that better world, through teaching and learning or even, simple though it might sound, through treating people with kindness and empathy and love.”

Children need role models. But girls especially need strong female role models because of the inundation of sexist and misogynistic media. Children’s (and adults’) movies and TV shows too often suffer from the Smurfette Principle, revolving around boys. In our pink sea of princess culture saturating girlhood, it’s refreshing to watch and read a bold, intelligent and unique – and feminist – character like Anne.

Even though I wasn’t an orphan, I related to Anne. With my tumultuous childhood – my parents’ divorce, moving in with my grandparents and my mother struggling with mental illness – I was a lonely and opinionated only child, never feeling like I belonged, never feeling loved. I desperately yearned to find my place in the world, just as Anne did. It was comforting to see, even if only on-screen and in the pages of a novel, that I wasn’t alone after all. I had a kindred spirit in Anne.