..

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Farnsworth, Patricia Hamilton, Schuyler Grant, Johnathan Crombie
Director: Kevin Sullivan
Audio: Mono 2.0
Subtitles: none
Video: non-anamorphic, full-frame, color
Studio: Sullivan Entertainment
Features: cast bios, trailers, deleted scenes, production stills, commentary by director and editor, news clip, Megan Follows' audition
Length: 195 minutes
Release Date: July 31, 2001

"All these trials and tribulations...they build character, as long as we can hold onto the lessons that we learn from our mistakes.  Remember, you can always start everything afresh tomorrow."

"That is a tremendous consolation, Miss Stacey.  Tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it."

"Well, no mistakes in it yet."

Film ****

Translating a popular novel to film, especially a popular children's novel, is always a tricky proposition.  Some degree of public indignation is never far behind when even moderate changes in the story are introduced.  How deafening, then, would the uproar be for any cinematic attempt to alter the collective cherished memories of a universally beloved children's story?  Even the bravest of directors typically shy away from such a humbling ordeal.  After all, even a literal adaptation of the novel's words cannot guarantee that the spirit of the story will be faithfully preserved.  Small surprise, then, that only in the rarest of circumstances are children's film classics produced - witness the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, arguably the silver screen's finest example of an adult novel adaptation seen through the eyes of children.  Or the bittersweet Charlotte's Web, probably the finest animated adaptation of any children's novel.

To this short list must also be included the CBC production of Anne of Green Gables, probably the best adaptation ever of any children's novel to film.  Being a major film buff and having seen hundreds of films, I do not make this declaration lightly.  A finer children's movie, you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere!

The film, a Canadian television production, was initially broadcast in 1985 as part of the PBS Wonderworks' series of children's programming.  An unqualified success, it led to two more sequels (1987's Anne of Avonlea and 2000's Anne of Green Gables: the Continuing Story) as well as the syndicated series Road to Avonlea.  Even today, PBS regularly broadcasts the original Anne of Green Gables movie as part of its semi-annual fund drives, and the film still amazingly retains all of its initial popularity and charm.

To those unfamiliar with the stories, the original novel Anne of Green Gables was written by the Canadian-born author Lucy Maud Montgomery and published in1908.  The novel's setting is the town of Avonlea on the beautiful Prince Edward Island, whereupon the novel chronicles the misadventures of a young red-headed girl named Anne Shirley.  She is mistakenly adopted from an orphanage by an elderly pair (Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew) to help on the family farm, Green Gables; they requested a boy but receive a girl, Anne, instead.  The novel follows Anne's many humorous missteps before finally winning over the hearts of the Cuthberts, who decide to keep her after all.  The story's initial reception was so enthusiastic that L.M. Montgomery continued the story in seven more sequels following Anne into adulthood and eventual marriage.  The lasting success of the series also led Montgomery to create different spirited, young heroines in later stories set on her beloved Prince Edward Island.

Much of the novels' charm derived from the wonderful, pastoral depictions of Avonlea and Prince Edward Island.  The novels painted a glowing portrait of simpler times before televisions and automobiles, before the frenzy bustle of today's society.  The novels celebrated the virtues of rural life, when people had time for their neighbors and everyone knew everyone else.  It is perhaps this dream of a more idyllic, innocent world that continues to draw people, young and old, to these tales.  Even today, the real Prince Edward Island continues to attract many tourists wishing to see the many locales that inspired so many pleasant childhood reminiscences.  With such multi-generational appeal, these novels would seem ideally suited for a film adaptation.

Indeed, Anne of Green Gables has been adapted several times before to film.  Most notably, there has been a silent 1919 version and also a 1934 sound version with a lead actress (ironically enough) named Anne Shirley.  But, hardly anyone remembers these films today.  They lacked several essential ingredients - faithfulness to the spirit of the novels, an evocation of the lush imagery of Montgomery's prose, and an appropriately-aged actress able to truly portray Anne Shirley, to re-create her spunky, optimistic spirit in face of all her mishaps and misfortunes.

I cannot emphasize how incredibly important casting is for any children's film.  It is often the key separating an average movie from a classic one.  Such is the case for this film as well, and fortunately, the casting for the lead characters in Anne of Green Gables is absolutely spot-on.  You simply could not ask for any better.  Richard Farnsworth, a multi-Oscar nominee (most recently for his beautiful swan song performance in 1999's The Straight Story), simply is Matthew Cuthbert, a gentle but quietly shy man.  The renowned Tony Award-winning stage actress, Colleen Dewhurst, brings her sly humor and exquisite mannerisms to Marilla Cuthbert, a role she inhabits so comfortably that one cannot imagine another actress portraying the witty-tongued Marilla.  Patricia Hamilton is often hilarious and pitch-perfect in her role as Rachel Lynde, the Cuthberts' gossipy neighbor who speaks her mind a little too often.  But most critically, after an exhausting year-long search through literally thousands of candidates, the role of Anne Shirley was finally rewarded to the young Canadian actress Megan Follows.  At the time, Megan was all of sixteen years old, though the role required her to portray Anne Shirley over the course of many years, from her sad, early childhood to her development as a confident young woman.

It would be an incredibly daunting and difficult role for even the best actresses.  Not only is the character of Anne Shirley present in practically every scene in the film, but the actress portraying her would have to be completely convincingly as Anne from her wide-eyed innocence to her awkward adolescence and finally to her graceful maturity.  Happily, Megan Follows' charming performance is a beautifully miraculous one.  She simply becomes Anne Shirley.  Her performance is the keystone that gels the entire production, from its superb cast to its bucolic location shots, together into the classic that it is.

The film faithfully recreates many of the wonderfully amusing scenes from the novel.  Fans of the novel will delight in Anne's disastrous first encounter with Rachel Lynde and her slate-cracking response for Gilbert Blyth's taunts and her green-haired misadventure.  There are many more delightful sequences, but my favorite occurs early on, when Matthew Cuthbert arrives at the Avonlea train depot to pick up the boy requested from the orphanage.  His surprise at finding Anne, and his reluctance to reveal the mistake as she prattles on endlessly during their ride back to Green Gables, by the "Lake of Shining Waters" and the "White Way to Light," is pure magic.  Not only does this sequence introduce us some gorgeous scenery, but it subtly establishes the peaceful character of Matthew Cuthbert as well as the dream world that Anne Shirley occupies.  By the sequence's conclusion, upon arrival at Green Gables, the illusion is complete.  We are on Prince Edward Island, and more importantly, we are in Anne Shirley's Avonlea.

The film accomplishes one last rare feat.  Its faithfulness extends to the novel's bittersweet conclusion.  There is no happily-ever-after ending.  There is some sorrow, and there are some regrets.  But, having followed Anne Shirley on her development from gangly, freckled child to beautiful young woman, we are confident in her ability to handle whatever trial and tribulations that life has in store for her.  In effect, it is really the best conclusion for the film and an ultimate testimony to the filmmakers' faith in the classic novel.

Video ** 1/2

Ah yes, once again, corner-cutting triumphs over common sense.  As is the case with so many DVDs of television productions, too much information is stuffed onto one poor DVD.  Sullivan Entertainment attempts to squeeze Anne of Green Gables, a 3 1/4 hour movie, onto one disc along with a commentary track and a slew of extras!  A valiant but misguided effort, fellows.

Not too surprisingly, the video quality suffers a little bit.  While the image mastering is fairly stable with only some trace shimmering here and there, the main point of contention is the pixelized grain.  It may not that noticeable at first, but it will become rather obvious after three hours!  The movie still looks quite nice, thanks to a very clean source print, but it could have looked downright gorgeous if it had been split between two discs (or at least a flipper disc!).  Given the somewhat episodic nature of the film anyways, its narrative flow would certainly not have been damaged by a split.  Ah well.

Audio ***

Crisp, clean, and no nonsense.  This is a television production of a children's tale, so don't expect any acrobatic maneuvers from your subwoofers.  As a mono track, naturally the dialogue and most everything else is heard up-front, while the surround speakers will remain pretty quiet.

But oh, that wonderful music!  It is beautiful and lush yet also melancholy.  There are many sequences, such as Anne Shirley's initial ride to Green Gables, or a simple scene of Anne and her friend Diana gazing at a sunset, where the evocative score simply overwhelms you.  You can close your eyes and completely envision yourself back in Avonlea in a bygone era of horse-drawn carriages, hot lazy summer afternoons spent fishing, and school outings in the meadows and fields.  It truly is a fine score, and the lyrical main theme will stay on your mind for days, as anyone who has seen the film on PBS can certainly attest to.

Features ***

Some nice stuff here but some pointless fillers, too!  There are short trailers for the two Anne of Green Gables sequels and a truly embarrassing-looking animated series.  A 2-minute news clip about the making of the film is provided.  The stills gallery is small and insignificant, as is the prerequisite cast bio.  Of much greater interest is the commentary by director Kevin Sullivan and his film editor.  It is generally very informative and provides many delightful little anecdotes about the actors and the activities on the set during production.

The deleted scenes are quite hilarious, as they all feature the same actress (Christiane Kruger) in the character of the minister's wife.  She seems to play the part of a mentor for Anne Shirley yet always seems to state the blatantly obvious in these unnecessary scenes.  Apparently, the scenes only played for German broadcasts of the film.  One gets the impression that perhaps this was just an example of favored casting that, once fulfilled, was quickly cut from the film.  Ha-ha!

My favorite feature, though, is an early screen-test for Megan Follows.  It is a delightful 17-minute audition and even early on, we can see that she is already a good choice for the role.  Interestingly, Schuyler Grant, the actress who plays Anne Shirley's best friend, Diana Barry, was at one point considered for the role of Anne Shirley, too.

Anyways, there are enough extras here, along with the film's length, to justify splitting the movie between two discs.  Such a decision would certainly have done the film justice!  Again, ah well...

Summary:

Once in a very blue moon, the angels of movie magic will grace a film with the gift of true immortality.  Anne of Green Gables is one of these extremely rare films, and it is honestly the finest adaptation of any children's novel ever set to film.  If you can only own one children's film in your entire personal collection, you should choose this film with no hesitation whatsoever.  Top recommendations!