Until very recently, Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 Anne of Green Gables held the distinction of being my most-loved film* from childhood that I had never rewatched in adulthood.
This wasn’t an intentional decision — I wasn’t deliberately avoiding it, and had anyone asked me to watch it with them, I would have been happy to do it. It’s more that it just never really came up. Most of my closest film buff friends are men, and not only did none of them grow up watching it, they never seemed especially interested in giving it a try or even learning much about it. Oh, sure, had I pushed the matter, I think a couple of them would have offered to watch it with me. But the lack of interest in it that I sensed from my film circles made me push the film to the back of my mind. Eventually it became a film I just didn’t think about terribly often, let alone bring up in conversation, except with my closest childhood friend who loves the film as much as I do but isn’t one to frequently revisit movies she’s already seen.
Something changed this year. I found myself in a season of life where I was thinking about Anne a lot, and I finally bought it for myself on DVD. A few weeks ago, I had two back-to-back evenings to myself and watched the entire film for the first time in twenty years. (I was delighted to find that just as I needed to switch VHS tapes halfway through the movie when I watched it as a child, I was prompted to turn the DVD over halfway through watching it in 2019.) And seeing it through adult eyes for the first time made me realize a truth that felt more unexpected than it should have been: this film is really, really good.
It’s beautiful to watch, of course. The filming locations throughout Prince Edward Island and Ontario, with their lush landscapes and Victorian architecture, are stunning, and having the opportunity to spend three hours with them is enough of a joy on its own. But what I had forgotten — or perhaps not ever even consciously realized — is how moving the emotional core of the story remains.
Based on the first installment of L. M. Montgomery’s nine-novel series, Anne tells the story of 13-year-old Anne Shirley (Megan Follows) as she transitions out of a childhood spent taking care of others and into an adulthood where she is allowed to truly embrace and care for herself. We see some of the abuse she endures, but it’s mostly implied. When she’s taken in by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth), her primary goal is to do whatever she can to earn their love, a position no child should ever have to be in. But they nurture her growth and creativity, introducing her to school and friends and a world bigger than even her vivid imagination had allowed her to conceive.
Anne Shirley is a girl who feels everything, all the time, and with great intensity. Every setback is the worst despair of her life; every small joy is a momentous occasion to be celebrated. She longs to be beautiful and has a deeply fraught relationship with her red hair as a result. Her bond with “bosom friend” Diana Barry (Schuyler Grant) has the ferocious and committed love of a romance, leading queer women (myself included) to see themselves in a text that has no overt LGBTQIA content whatsoever. And even as she grows up and she starts to gain greater control of how she expresses and channels her emotions, she is never cold or out of touch with them. She is radical in how open and honest she is about her emotions. She is a role model for every girl who has ever been told that she is “too much.”
It’s only now, through adult eyes, that I fully see why this is the coming-of-age story I related to most strongly as I was growing up. I too was an anxious and imaginative girl who craved love and acceptance and felt big feelings constantly. I didn’t realize at the time how much I felt seen by this film. But I did, more than anything else I watched as a child. It’s rare to find art about childhood, let alone girlhood, with this depth of emotion. Even in art about and for adults, this is a difficult achievement. So it seems to me that this should be considered unmistakably great and important art, for how well it conveys the hardest feelings for young people to express.
And yet, this is exactly the reason why it is likely pushed aside as much as it is. Works of art about women are marginalized enough; works of art that are, at their essence, feminine — as emotions are always coded, for better or worse — are rarely if ever taken seriously. They are pushed aside and labeled “sentimental” or “trite,” without any thought given to the artistry involved in its making. Anne has so much to teach viewers of all ages and genders about the importance of experiencing and articulating one’s feelings, a truly radical concept in a society that would prefer we keep our feelings to ourselves, if we are to acknowledge their existence at all. It is vital piece of storytelling for an emotionally healthy society. But we don’t talk about it as serious art, and as a result, we don’t talk about it much at all.
This is the danger of the Women’s+ Canon remaining invisible. When we go so long without engaging with the films that have most spoken to us as women, we can forget how valuable they are in the first place. It becomes an ever-repeating cycle, and the only way to stop it is to keep engaging with this art, even when it will never be popular or accepted by more mainstream film canons. There is a part of me that still feels shy about bringing up Anne in serious film discussions, its overwhelming femininity seemingly inconsistent with much of what’s discussed by others. But after rewatching it again so recently and realizing how much it has to offer, I know I need to try.
And as it turns out, sometimes evangelizing art like this has positive results. After hearing me talk about my recent rewatch, my husband has agreed to watch it with me soon — his first time seeing it.
*Yes, technically it’s a miniseries, but it’s such a short miniseries that I’ve only ever thought of it as a movie. I hope you can forgive my imprecision.