For once, I’m honestly not sure if I encountered the book or the movie (made-for-TV, but we’re going there this week) first. The movie aired on The Disney Channel when it was new; Disney had a lot of L. M. Montgomery programming for a while there. But also I’ve read most of Montgomery’s books, including the ones no one has ever heard of. This week, I reread Kilmeny of the Orchard, and while she may have written more obscure books, probably not many. Then again, mostly what people remember her for is Anne, and Jane is . . . not Anne.
Book-Jane grows up in Toronto somewhere around the late ’20s or early ’30s; a date is not given, but there are clues. She lives at her grandmother’s house with an aunt and her mother. All her life, she has vaguely believed her father to be dead, though she has never really been told that. He’s just not mentioned. One day, she finds out he’s alive and well and living on Prince Edward Island. She hates him for making her mother unhappy but otherwise continues life as normal—which is to say put upon by her grandmother and stiff and awkward in her day-to-day life. Suddenly, her whole life is changed the day her father sends a letter informing her mother that he wants to have Jane for the summer.
In Toronto, she’s always been trapped. She’s not who her grandmother wants her to be; she’s Jane Victoria, and the implication is that she’s only “Jane” because it’s on her birth certificate. But in her own heart, she’s Jane, and it turns out her father gave her the name. She hits it off with her father right away. He buys the house of Lantern Hill on the shore of the island, and Jane gets to be herself for the first time ever. Slowly, she pieces together what went wrong in her parents’ marriage, and it’s mostly her grandmother. She goes back to Toronto in the fall a changed girl and determined to fix what went wrong.
The movie is . . . similar. Ish. Jane (Mairon Bennett) and her mother, Robin (Patricia Phillips), have been living alone until her mother gets polio. She is then taken to live with her grandmother (Zoe Caldwell); her cruel cousin Phyllis (Juno Mills Cockell) tells her that, yes, Andrew Stuart (Sam Waterston) is still alive. Again he requests that she visit; she meets the apparent mystic Hepziba (Colleen Dewhurst), who tells her about her parents’ marriage and separation. In this version, her best friend Jody (Sarah Polley in her first Montgomery adaptation) runs away and hitches trains to the Island instead of simply having Jane make arrangements for her to be adopted.
I can definitely make a recommendation here in the “you can only have one” category. The book is so much better. All three characters are given better character development. Honestly, the movie seems to be relying on familiarity with Sam Waterston to let us know who Andrew Stuart is, but this is five years before he became Jack McCoy, so would that have worked? Jane herself is fine, I guess, but she doesn’t have half the flair of Book-Jane and doesn’t show half the development from timid, clumsy Jane to brave, competent Jane.
Really, the solution as I see it is to give us a miniseries. It’s the only way to really adapt this work. Leave out the ridiculous mysticism bit; it doesn’t add anything to the story. Jane’s journey at the end of the book is driven by perfectly ordinary reasons and is resolved for perfectly ordinary reasons, and it fully makes sense. Let us have a full episode of Jane in Toronto with the end being her stepping off the train in PEI. Then an episode of her with her father, learning who she is, then an episode resolving it, which admittedly will encompass more time than the second because she has a second full summer before the story is resolved. Or you could do even longer; there’s enough vignettes to get us eight hours easily. Heck, a full Netflix series of thirteen hours would do for it.
What we have here is . . . misguided. Sarah Polley doing a ludicrous Cockney accent would be a much better Jody if the character were closer to the book, though goodness knows she’s too old now. She might be an interesting choice for Robin, though? Having Jane raised in poverty misses a lot of why she is who she is. The whole point is that she’s been pressured by her grandmother her whole life and expected to be a very specific sort of person, and in the movie, her very existence is a surprise to her grandmother’s friends. Phyllis is much crueler in the movie, and all we really need of her is to be who Jane is expected to be.
And it always comes as a surprise to me to remember the ridiculous subplot in the movie about how supposedly Andrew was connected to someone’s death and that’s supposedly why Jane’s parents separated. If they wanted to make a movie from an L.M. Montgomery ghost story, there are options there—Into the Shadows is a fine book full of many interesting stories that would be much better suited to it. I watched very little of the Emily of New Moon series—enough to be appalled by it—but even that should have a genuinely supernatural element. Jane is practical and prosaic and just a little whimsical and not unearthly at all.
The biggest mistake the movie makes is being too much about Jane’s parents. The house called Lantern Hill in the movie is not one Jane and her father agree to buy from Jimmy John Garland; it’s the house the Stuarts lived in before her father possibly killed someone, and Jimmy John Meade (Zachary Bennett) is the kid on the farm next door. Book-Jane’s wish is to be her own person; Movie-Jane doesn’t have that wish, because she’s too interested in figuring out whether her father’s really a murderer. And Aunt Irene (Vivian Reis) is still trying to hook Andrew up with his possible victim’s sister, so that’s weird. Social climbing is one thing, but aren’t the Kennedys good enough for her?
L.M. Montgomery herself had contemplated divorcing her husband. Not for her the lifelong love of Anne and Gilbert. Not even the various other takes of love for most of her heroines. Her husband was a religious nut—apparently he almost ran over a Methodist minister in anger when their churches were considering merging—who seems to have made her life miserable. The plot here very much revolves around the idea of how rare divorce is in Canada. Jane’s parents have issues that they need to work through, but if they don’t listen to Aunt Irene or Mrs. Kennedy, they’ll be okay. That was not the case with Montgomery. Her husband, Ewan MacDonald, was a minister with no interest in literature, obviously not a good fit to the imaginative, literary Montgomery.
It is not surprising that Montgomery’s books are full of people whose lives are better than hers turned out to be. Jane’s parents don’t get divorced because they’re still in love. Montgomery didn’t get divorced because she didn’t believe in divorce. It must have made her feel better to have Jane’s parents still be in love. Apparently, one of her last works was an unfinished sequel to the novel, and I’d love to read that. If for no other reason than to see what she did with Jane’s parents’ relationship after that.
This was Montgomery’s final published novel from her lifetime. It deserves to be better known than it is; Anne was never as saccharine as her reputation, but Jane isn’t anywhere close to it. Presumably this is because Montgomery herself was tired of Anne’s reputation, which she was quite firm had little or nothing to do with who Anne really was. She was also upset with the insistence she was Anne, given she suffered from depression—in fact, her granddaughter recently wrote about the family’s belief that Montgomery had killed herself. I don’t think it’s exclusively the depression and isolation that made her dedicate this book to her cat, but maybe?
I would also like to note, tying back in to last week’s article about novelty cookbooks, that The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook is written by one Kate Macdonald. What I did not know until I was researching this longer-than-I-expected article is that Macdonald, now Kate Macdonald Butler, is Montgomery’s granddaughter. There’s a new edition featuring more content, which I clearly need. Ditto her final completed work, The Blythes Are Quoted, which she submitted to her publisher the day she died and which I have in an incomplete form and which wasn’t published as she’d intended until 2009. So, um, kick into my Patreon or Ko-fi so I can acquire them? I’d definitely write them up just for you if you did.
Or you can contribute for next month, where I will be writing up Daddy Long Legs and both its Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire adaptations.