Anne With an E Trades Realism for ‘Realism’
Anne With an E, the latest incarnation of beloved children’s literature heroine Anne of Green Gables, hit Netflix on May 12th, to mostly enthusiastic critical acclaim. After 22 reviews, Season 1 sits, so far, at a healthy 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Indiewire gushes that it “dares to get bold and messy.” Variety is slightly more tempered, but praises the “stark tragedy” this “darker, moodier” version of Anne’s story brings to the table. The Guardian hails it with, “at last … an Anne of Green Gables for our times: a darker, sadder, more realistic story.”
It’s hard to avoid words like “real,” “realistic,” “raw,” etc., when reading anything about the rebooted Lucy Maud Montgomery tale. Certainly, they describe the show’s opinion of itself. And apparently, for writer Moira Walley-Beckett (who also produced Breaking Bad), “realism” is synonymous with throwing as many unpleasant left turns into the warm, familiar tale as possible. A number of them are catalogued in Vanity Fair’s extensive take-down. These include: Anne’s flashbacks of savage beatings at her foster home, relentless bullying by almost every single child in her new school, menacing drifters and potential molesters around every corner, and a suicide attempt by Matthew Cuthbert.
The problem is, in equating “darker” with “more realistic,” writers come to crave darkness for its own sake.
Realistic tragedy? Try sensationalist fantasy. Oh, but Walley-Beckett insists, “All the darker aspects of the story are inherently in the book, so I’m not actually reinventing the wheel.” Mmmm.
Getting Caught Up in Darkness
Anne Shirley is neither the first nor the last victim of our 21st-century obsession with the “gritty reboot,” which stems from a larger obsession with over-the-top unpleasantness in our entertainment. The aforementioned Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the best, yet also one of the most punishingly bleak, TV series of all time. It’s not that there can never be a place for grim tales of corruption, violence and despair (though whether Christians always need such tales in their life is another question). If you feel compelled to make a story about a chemistry teacher who becomes a corrupt meth king, then yes, it’s going to be dark, because duh.
The problem is, in the act of writing such stories, writers come to crave that darkness for its own sake. And when that happens, it affects everything they touch. Filth and smut find their way into places like sunny Avonlea, where they have no business. Some critics will be fooled, but others can clearly see that what’s being peddled as “realism” is a fraudulent caricature of reality. Oh, the irony. Not only has Walley-Beckett lost her soul, she’s lost her writer’s integrity with it.
If you want to know what reality really looks like, all you have to do is look around. Look at your family, your friends, your neighbors. Will you see some sadness? Without a doubt. Will you see loss, pain, depression, darkness? Unquestionably. Will you see some church communities that struggle with how to handle darkness and pain, particularly the kind that leaves people seemingly functional on the outside? Unfortunately, yes, sometimes. Sometimes, in real life, people get sad endings.
But for every real sad ending, there’s a real happy ending. For every bitter divorced couple, there’s a couple celebrating their golden anniversary. For every prodigal, there’s a faithful son. All this, you will also see.
A Realistic ‘Realism’ Would Show Goodness
As Anne would say, so long as we’re imagining, we might as well imagine something worthwhile.
As usual, C. S. Lewis was ahead of the times here. His Screwtape instructs Wormwood extensively on the art of convincing humans that any experience seeming to offer light, joy or comfort is an illusion — while only the oppressively dark, sad things in life are “real.” The fruits of Screwtape’s work are evident. Today, people have become conditioned by Nicholas Sparks movies and cloying clickbait websites to see “feel-good” stories as inherently cheap and phony, leaving only “feel-bad” stories behind as the real deal. The only way this misconception will be corrected is if the entertainment they consume shows them a better way.
Tolstoy famously said, “Happy families are all alike; [but] every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It would be more accurate to flip the observation on its head: Happy families are each happy in their own unique way. Misery is dull. Joy is an adventure. If only the gate-keepers of pop culture would choose to recognize the excitement, the thrill, of goodness. Imagine the sea change this would have on the stories we tell. Imagine the bursting forth of light and joy and creativity such a revelation would catalyze.
If Anne With an E is any indication, such high hopes will live only in our imaginations for some time to come. But as Anne would say, as long as we’re imagining, we might as well imagine something worthwhile.