Anne Shirley has “a genius for getting into trouble". Her nosy neighbor Mrs Rachel Lynde makes this declaration in the midst of one of the many misadventures the red-haired girl finds herself in throughout L.M. Montgomery’s beloved 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables.
And while Mrs Lynde delivers the line with her customary air of pious condescension, it is also true, and one of the main reasons she’s so appealing. Anne’s free spirit and courage make her a heroine worth spending time with, and so is Anne of Green Gables, a story we love to revisit over and over again, on the page or on screen.
Even though it is most often categorised as a book for children, the appeal of Montgomery's novel is certainly wider than this. After all, there is much to love.
She creates a rich world of characters, and a sense of place on Canada’s picturesque Prince Edward Island, that is profoundly warm and welcoming. The Cuthberts – brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla – decide to adopt 11-year-old Anne after the orphanage sends her instead of the boy they had been expecting. Matthew is immediately smitten; Marilla, a little stricter than her gentle brother, can only resist for so long.
It’s easy to see why. Anne is vain and constantly battles the red hair she sees as her curse. Trouble seems to follow her everywhere she goes, whether accidentally serving currant wine in place of raspberry cordial at an afternoon tea, or dyeing her hair green. She has a temper and many opinions she’s always ready to share.
But she’s also fiercely intelligent and imaginative. Anne’s a budding writer with a flair for the romantic and dramatic. Her steadfast friendship with “bosom friend” Diana Barry, and her schoolroom rivalry and eventual affection for Gilbert Blythe, highlight how Anne changes the lives of everyone she meets for the better.
Despite her fictional status, Anne is nothing short of a Canadian national treasure. An entire tourist industry has developed around her character, and thousands of visitors travel each year to see the green-gabled house in Cavendish and its surrounds.
In Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical has been performed every summer since 1965, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest running annual production. Since 2013, Anne and Gilbert: The Musical has played at the theatre across the road, picking up Anne’s story where the other one ends.
Anne’s is a familiar face on our screens. A silent film dates from 1919, and the first television film dates from in 1956.
For many of us of a certain age, whether or not we were fans of the book and its sequels – including Anne of Avonlea (1909) and Anne of the Island (1915) – our first introduction to “that Shirley girl” was through Kevin Sullivan’s CBC two-part mini-series. First screened in 1985, it remains the highest-rated television event in Canadian history, and popular all around the world.
Sullivan’s follow-ups – Anne of Avonlea (1987) and Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (2000) – capture the beauty of rural life, and Megan Follows embodies all Anne’s fire and charms. It’s a performance that has set the standard for all the Anne’s that have come after.
But every generation needs its own Anne Shirley. In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s charms are amplified and her tantrums toned down. Starring Ella Ballentine as Anne, Sara Botsford as Marilla, and Martin Sheen as a warm and wise Matthew, the 90-minute film is a lovely introduction, in abridged form (it focuses only on the first half of the book), for new fans.
Watch Anne of Green Gables from SBS On Demand right here: