Thursday, January 1, 2009

Anne Of Green Gables - A Lesson in Literary Adaptation

This holiday season provided my wife and I with a unique lesson in how to do a film adaptation of a literary work right and how it can go completely off the rails.

On a pre-Christmas Saturday night we stumbled upon producer director Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 television movie, Anne of Green Gables.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s vivid tales of Anne of her compatriots in Avonlea have been in print for a century now, selling over 50 million books, spawning a worldwide merchandising industry, fan clubs, propping up Prince Edward Island’s tourist industry with museums, the Green Gables farmhouse that inspired Montgomery, and two yearly musicals in Anne of Green Gables and the Anne & Gilbert. This is one literary property with a lot eyes on any adaptation.

Sullivan's first film sure stands the test of time and seems universally considered to be the definitive adaptation. A nearly perfect cast is led by the incandescent performance of Megan Fallows in the lead role, and note-perfect supporting performances from Richard Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst as Anne’s adoptive parents, Mathew and Marilla Cuthbert. Kevin Sullivan’s writing (in concert with Joe Wiesenfeld) and directing take advantage of the episodic nature of Montgomery’s first novel to create a rhythm to Anne’s antics.

The Anne’s legendary flights of fancy carry her into mischief. We see her slow realization of her fate and then watch her indomitable spirit recover from each setback with a passionate heart. It’s a rhythmic dance that slowly opens the hearts of the viewer as Anne opens the hearts of Avonlea’s citizenry. Each incident and the subsequent reaction to it feel inevitable.

As Anne’s temper rises or her hyper-active imagination leads her to a wrong conclusion, we know she could not behave in any other way. Marilla's sterness slowly grows less pronounced with each of Anne's screw-ups and yet, it returns when she is forced to apologize to Diana's mother and the gossipy Rachel Lynde for Anne accidentally getting Diana Barry drunk on current wine. We have to smile as she snaps at Rachel after forcing Anne to apologize and force her tonguew. She and the little red-haired orphan are more alike than she cares to admit.

In his first Anne film Sullivan the director allows the space for us to see each the emotional transition each events takes the characters through. In short, each happening has an effect on their relationship to each other and we are privy to the change. The sum total is created from how the characters relationships are enriched and changed by each event, not by the events themselves.

The secret to the first Sullivan film’s success, besides the note-perfect and subtle Hagood Hardy soundtrack and the sumptuous cinematography, isn’t about what happens, it’s how inevitable the character’s choices seem to be. Each performer is utterly true to the character and Sullivan the director allows them the time to experience each event in the story.

Take Mathew Cuthbert…

Sullivan gives us several examples of Mathew’s extreme reticence and introversion in dialogue (references to Mathew’s past) and the way he handles various situations. Only Anne’s boundless emotions give him strength to step outside his emotional boundaries. So, having familiarized the audience with this important aspect of Mathew’s character, Sullivan then plays with Montgomery’s chapter in which Anne wistfully wishes for a beautiful blue dress with puffy sleeves for her first dance.

Marilla denies her request but Mathew can’t deny Anne anything she has her heart set on. Thus is spurred his one and only attempt to buy, let alone discuss, something feminine with Alice Lawson, the shopkeeper played Mag Ruffman. Mathew can barely get a word out but when he finally does convey his request he is relieved when Alice instantly understands and offers to pick the perfect dress for him. Mathew’s relief evaporates when Alice calls him over to the very-public window to look at several dress choices.

The scene is funny because we have been allowed to learn about Mathew and so understand the tremendous strength it takes him to get Anne’s dress. This culminates in a moving scene in the barn when Anne rushes out to model the dress for him. For once, Anne is too overwhelmed for words -- a first for her, and for the audience that has come to know the character. Suddenly, we understand just how moved Anne is.

When Mathew takes Anne’s silence to mean she doesn’t like the dress we see the keen disappointment and self-reproach in Richard Farnsorth’s eyes. All his embarrassment was for naught. But Sullivan holds the scene even longer allowing Megan Fallows to show the shock in her eyes when she realizes Mathew’s misunderstanding. We see how heartbroken she is to make him feel that and she finally finds the words to say she loves his precious gift.

The script takes full advantage of Montgomery’s dialogue, comic antics and her humanist point of view. The film leaves the actors room to breathe and build up to each character’s decisions and time for them to explore the results.

That is what it’s all about.

After being moved to tears by his first film my wife and I had a spirited discussion over the next morning’s breakfast about this and Sullivan’s equally outstanding second Anne film, Anne of Avonlea (also known by the clever and infinitely more marketable title, Anne of Green Gables: the Sequel). We were quite excited to be able to see his latest entry, Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, that very night.

Sadly, the new film offered equally important, though somewhat less positive lessons in adaptation. In short, it was an exercise in what not to do!

More next time!

Live the adventure.