Avonlea Showdown: Which Anne of Green Gables is Better?
Three different versions of our Anne-girl.
L.M. Montgomery’s classic, Anne of Green Gables has inspired dozens and dozens of Annes on film and television since the book’s original publication in 1908. But, to my mind, there are only three worth real consideration: First, the famous and extremely popular 1985 adaptation that starred Megan Follows, long considered the modern gold standard of Montgomery’s vision. And then there have been two new versions causing quite a flutter recently, with fresh takes on Carrots and her fellow Prince Edward Island adventurers. The first came out late 2016 and aired in the U.S. chiefly on PBS stations (though the first installment is currently available to Amazon Prime streaming subscribers). The second debuted on Netflix in 2017.
So how do they stack up? Are any of these new Annes worthy of the Lake of Shining Waters or puff sleeves? I’m spitting out my lime once more, setting down my glass of gin, and cracking my knuckles in anticipation of another great showdown between rival cinematic loves. Just as with the Longbourn Showdown (Ahem, Pride and Prejudice fans), this will be much like Thunderdome, but with ipecac and red currant wine! So scoop the mouse out of the plumb pudding sauce and get ready!
Megan Follows vs. Ella Ballentine vs. Amybeth McNulty
I thought my Anne would always be Megan Follows, whose 1985 take was dramatically serious in her imagination and fantasies. Every dream and speech was an audition for play, a sworn oath, with her gaze constantly averted skyward, and it was easy to imagine that Follows’s Anne was maybe destined for the stage. She never lacked sweetness, but came across as a bit more self-centered, at least, at first. And she was always a bit embarrassing. But I just took it for granted that this was sort of baked into the character.
In 2016, we got a fresh Anne from Ella Ballentine. And I’m just gonna say it–she’s awful. Sure her look is sweetly generic, but her freckles are irritatingly fake, as is her grin, and her overly sunny disposition plays as a carefree girl who could make it anywhere. She’s the Mary Tyler Moore of Avonlea. Plus, Ballentine reminds me of a young Lindsey Lohan. And that thought hobbles me like smelling cheap whiskey. I’ve been burned before.
By 2017, we got a very different Anne from Amybeth McNulty. Darker, grittier, and slightly traumatizing to my youth, retroactively. McNulty has a very distinct look that isn’t too adorable or charming. Like a young Shelley Duvall. She’s the orphan that’s a little more difficult for the residents of Avonlea to welcome. And, this is a traumatized Anne who is precocious, but also damaged. She is appropriately distrusting, but still sees the wonder in people and moments. In fact, McNulty’s Anne strikes just the right chord between fear, passion, and silly-heartedness.
This is a tough call. But for age, tone, and looks, McNulty’s Anne is the most believable. She seems real and touching, even with all her imperfections. I’m so sorry to slight Megan Follows this way. She was wonderful, but she was played the role a bit too old, and lacked a certain brightness of youth that McNulty can pull off poetically.
Winner: Amybeth McNulty as Anne Shirley
Colleen Dewhurst vs. Sara Botsford vs. Geraldine James
Three brilliant women who do a great service to one of my favorite literary characters of all time: Marilla Cuthbert. Geraldine James’s take stands out the most as a little bit harder around the edges, which matches her version’s tone. Still, she manages to thaw beautifully, as does each of our Marillas. Sara Botsford was maybe a little too accommodating and lovable, making her Marilla a little shallower and easy to please. Almost too easy.
But I note that while grasping for criticism. All the ladies are wonderful. But there must be one winner! And of course, it has to be Colleen Dewhurst. Our husky-voiced Marilla knows how to be harsh and deep, but incredibly loving all the same. Her boisterous anger at the neighbors is brilliant, and yet she can be subtle in her emotions. She is simply perfect, and I wish our Marilla was still around.
Winner: Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla Cuthbert
Richard Farnsworth vs. Martin Sheen vs.
Talk about three very different Matthews. Each of these is an entirely different Canadian farmer.
Farnsworth’s Matthew was so quiet and sweet that he was very boyish in his charm, and reminded me of a child falling for Anne. And I mean that as a compliment. He was never really pulled into Anne’s world, as he clearly didn’t understand it from his innocent vantage point, but he mooned over her all the same in a truly sincere way that still makes my heart melt, especially when he convinces her to apologize to Rachel Lynde. “You don’t have to really mean it.”
Sheen, on the other hand, is a slapstick version of Matthew who talks to pigs and falls face-first in the mud. Surely he’s a little sillier and probably plays better for a much younger audience, and that isn’t all rotten. If you aren’t a text loyalist, I get the Matthew he was trying to portray. But his goofiness lacked sincerity, so even as he watches the seagulls longingly, I have trouble recognizing my Matthew.
Thompson’s take, now, was an utter surprise. His take is appropriately coy and sweet, but without the puppy dog effect that Farnsworth added. He looks like a grizzled farmer, and carries the burdens of his life choices and his responsibilities heavily on his shoulders, but without even a hint of bitterness. He is all quiet loveliness, and falls for his Anne-girl very easily. She is the sunshine he has needed for so long. When he called her his daughter at the train station, my heart melted into a gooey puddle. More than any of the other Matthews, Thompson’s version seemed to need Anne the most, almost as much as she needed him.
So again, I must apologize to a member of the original cast. I thought Farnsworth would be my Matthew until the end of time. But it is with delight that I find I adore someone even more.
Winner: R.H. Thompson as Matthew Cuthbert
Schuyler Grant vs. Julia Lalonde vs. Delila Bela
If there was always one flaw in the sacred 1985 version, it was that I thought Schuyler Grant was awful as Diana Barry. Like a big, dumb baby animal. It seemed silly to me, even back in 1987 or so (when I first saw the movie), to wonder why a 25 year-old woman had such trouble sipping red current wine and why such a fuss was made over it, until you remember that she is supposed to be only about 12 or 13. Oddly, enough Schuyler Grant was actually only 14, so the casting director should get a pass…but on the other hand, her look was just way too big, old, and clumsy. No, no, I absolutely hated Grant’s take on Diana, who came across not just as more of a straight-woman to Anne’s wild imagination, but also as a whiny simpleton, bordering on mentally challenged.
Lalonde’s take was pretty straight-forward, and I have no significant complaints, but largely that is because her role was so minimized–as was the entire Avonlea ensemble’s. Sure she’s too skinny, and maybe acts a bit too clever to be the literary Diana, but she’s also completely unoffensive. The same can be said for Delila Bela. She strikes a nice medium note as a kind bosom friend who tries to gently guide Anne, but is also easily swept up into her fantasy world.
This one’s a toss-up. Just like Diana. I wish I cared more about any of them. Maybe the perfect Diana is still out there. But until then, I have to give it to…
Winner: Delila Bela as Diana Barry
Patricia Hamilton vs. Kate Henig vs. Corrine Koslo
The adaptations of nosy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, were extraordinarily different each time around. The 1985 Rachel Lynde was a real bitch. I was always kind of glad Anne went off on her. Even when she supposedly came around to see Anne’s charms, she still was scarcely nice. Then I was delightfully surprised to meet the Lynde of 2016–what a sweetheart! Sure she was skeptical at first, but then she practically became a bosom friend herself. It was a refreshing change, but perhaps a bit too sugary. If I wanted to watch a cult of people worship a little girl in a fantasy world, I’d tune in to Pollyanna. Or any Shirley Temple movie. That girl was always weird. I think she poisoned people in secret.
Back to Mrs. Lynde. The 2017 neighbor was a very moderate, if ordinary choice. Given the show’s length and detail, Mrs. Lynde was somewhat more in-depth, describing her many pregnancies and sharing affection with her husband. That makes her writing surprising, but the performance is mostly generic. Fine. Pleasant. Enjoyable. She’d fit well with any of the Avonleas, any of the Marillas, and any of the Annes. But to my surprise, I was still longing to see the sweeter 2016 Rachel.
Winner: Kate Henig as Rachel Lynde
Jonathan Crombie vs. Drew Haytaoglu
vs. Lucas Jade Zumann
Let’s just make this really easy right off the bat: No, no, no to 2016 Gilbert. No. Never. Not even a little. I am wholly offended by this choice of a little boy–not Anne’s elder by a few years–with a backwoods slicked down hairstyle, and no charm whatsoever. Appalling. Never. Never.
So it only comes down to the “original” Gilbert, played by Jonathan Crombie, and the 2017 Gilbert played by Lucas Jade Zumann. Both are incredibly handsome and charming, and both are incredibly deserving. Zumann’s Gilbert actually shows open fondness for Anne early on, while Crombie holds his cards a little closer to the vest and is a little more coy. I think Crombie’s Gilbert is supposed to be the alpha among the boys and loved by all the girls, but we never really get to see that in play. Maybe this isn’t entirely Crombie’s fault, though. His movie doesn’t spend as much time on his character and so he isn’t granted the depth. As a consequence, I see that Gilbert is dreamy, but it takes a very long time to appreciate what a good heart he has. Zumann’s Gilbert, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s hard to imagine every girl and woman on Prince Edward Island isn’t swooning in his path. So even though my sister would slap me for this choice, I have a clear winner.
Winner: Lucas Jade Zumann as Gilbert Blythe
Overall: Best Anne of Green Gables Adaptation
1985, Anne of Green Gables
2016, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
2017, Anne With an E
The 2016 version made every attempt to return the story to the land of children’s tales, forgoing some of the history and dramatics, and instead rejoicing in landscapes and smiles, much the way Anne herself would have. It feels very much like they brought an animated kids show about Anne to real-life, where every crisis is resolved neatly without a moment of real panic. Sure, this makes it accessible to a slightly younger crowd, in that kindergartners could watch and enjoy it. But what about us aaaa-dults? The ones who long for the turmoil and angst? Well, we’re the ones sitting there scowling and wondering if the makeup artists ever actually met a freckled person. I was waiting for Marilla to spit on a handkerchief and wipe off the mascara dots in exasperation. Let’s rule out the 2016 version straight away, as it is far too sugary, shallow, and simple to be worthy of Anne’s story. It just doesn’t do our orphan justice. In fact, I pretty much hate it.
So now that 2016 has been knocked out in the ring and dragged off by the makeup artists, who will presumably continue to cover the cast in Sharpie dots, let’s get down to the last two contenders: 1985 vs. 2017.
My original CBC Anne lives in my child-like heart. I recently discovered that I can get the main theme on Amazon Music, and I’ve added it to my relaxation list. Every time it comes on my heart swells a little and I smile. The 1985 Anne is the definitive story of childhood folly and the ultimate coming-of-age story. I just know Follows’s Anne and I would have been kindred spirits. I would’ve walked the ridgepole with her.
But if I’m being brutally honest, it has some gaping flaws. Some of the casting was poor and Anne was almost overly dreamy. Almost. A lot of the backstories for the other Islanders were reined in quite a bit, and so we missed out on knowing who Rachel Lynde really was, or what the story was with Gilbert Blythe’s dad. And I never complained about that until now, partly because I didn’t know what I was missing.
Then I saw Anne With an E, a positively intoxicating (as Anne herself would say) version that brings depths I didn’t realize the story needed all along. Anne is an ugly duckling who is awkward, but incredibly kind and brave. Matthew, Marilla, Gilbert, and Dianna are all wonderfully cast and well-written. I find not only do I have no true complaints about this version, but also I am quite addicted to it. You can bet I will be playing it over and over, especially on those rainy days, or on occasions when I’m wrapped up in blankets with a cold. After all, that’s how I fell in love with Anne in the first place. I think this Anne is going to age very well, and will inspire a whole new generation of girls. I cannot recommend this new version enough. Moody, dreamy, real. This is my favorite Anne.
Winner: Anne With an E