Monday, January 5, 2009

Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning - Failure to Launch?

In the last post, I tried to share some of the reasons why I felt that Kevin Sullivan’s original Television movie, Anne Of Green Gables, was a near perfect film adaptation of a literary work. There were too many good reasons the production was successful to list.

After stumbling across A-channel's rebroadcast of the first on a Saturday evening over the holidays, we were all ready for Sullivan's latest Anne production, Anne Of Green Gables: A New Beginning with Shirley Maclean the next night. Sadly, it failed to live up to the high bar set the night before.

The truth is, my wife and I saw so many things working against Sullivan’s latest Anne production, Anne Of Green Gables: A New Beginning, they held up in sharp relief what was truly good about the first one.

Yes, there was an immediate and tremendous contrast between the two productions. The same choices affect both films. Because Sullivan made certain decisions the first film soars. The fact that he failed to make the same choices this time around sinks the latest movie.

John Sculley (the noted American businessman who created the Pepsi Challenge and then took Apple Computers to new heights before turning it back over to Steve Jobs. You can read differing views on him here and here.) found that he learned more from his mistakes than from his successes. “If you aren't making some mistakes, you aren't taking enough chances. “

In keeping with that sentiment, let’s take a peek at the new production.

“When I lived with Mrs. Thomas [before coming to Green Gables to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert] she had a bookcase in her sitting room with glass doors. There weren’t any books in it; Mrs. Thomas kept her best china and her preserves there — when she had any preserves to keep. One of the doors was broken. Mr. Thomas smashed it one night when he was slightly intoxicated. But the other was whole and I used to pretend that my reflection in it was another little girl who lived in it. I called her Katie Maurice, and we were very intimate. I used to talk to her by the hour, especially on Sunday, and tell her everything. Katie was the comfort and consolation of my life. We used to pretend that the bookcase was enchanted and that if I only knew the spell I could open the door and step right into the room where Katie Maurice lived, instead of into Mrs. Thomas’s shelves of preserves and china. And then Katie Maurice would have taken me by the hand and led me out into a wonderful place, all flowers and sunshine and fairies, and we would have lived there happy forever after. When I went to live with Mrs. Hammond it just broke my heart to leave Katie Maurice. She felt it dreadfully too, I know she did, for she was crying when she kissed me good-bye through the bookcase door. There was no bookcase at Mrs. Hammond’s. But just up the river a little way from the house there was a long green little valley, and the loveliest echo lived there. It echoed back every word you said, even if you didn’t talk a bit loud. So I imagined that it was a little girl called Violetta and we were great friends and I loved her almost as well as I loved Katie Maurice — not quite, but almost, you know. The night before I went to the asylum I said goodbye to Violetta, and oh, her good-bye came back to me in such sad, sad tones. I had become so attached to her that I hadn’t the heart to imagine a bosom friend at the asylum, even if there had been any scope for imagination there.”

Upon arriving at Green Gables, Anne breathlessly encapsulates her previous life for Marilla
- Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1908

This is Lucy Maud Montgomery's own summation of Anne Shirley's life before Green Gables, in the breathless words of her flame-haired heroine. Sullivan has based his latest three hour opus on these word, research into Montgomery's own life own to create an adventure that rivals The Perils of Pauline movie serial for action, pluck and ridiculous plot turns.

Having weathered a lawsuit with the heirs of Montgomery's estate over rights issues, Sullivan has attempted to avoid taking anything outright from Anne's novels, preferring instead to allude to Anne's later adventures while borrowing heavily from other classic literature for plot fodder.

In veering off in a new direction with this prequel, Sullivan loads as many adventures for Anne as he can into the meandering, three-hour length running time.

A brief list of the high points:

(*Warning. Here there be spoliers!)

Precocious Anne Shirley's father is accused of theft and the murder of her mother. Marking her by association as a criminal in miniature and provides the character with a suitably Dickensian starting point.

Anne (played with plucky abandon by (Hannah Endicott-Douglas) is taken to an adult asylum where she, much like Oliver Twist,they try to break her innocent spirit. She meets bearded inmate Gabriel who only speaks aloud to Anne.

In a Count Of Monte Cristo turn of events, Gabriel teaches Anne the meaning of "kindred spirit" and quite literally holds the key to her escape. Gabriel also has been working a repository of the English language in his head for years and expresses extreme disappointment when Anne reveals a dictionary already exists. This character choice was likely inspired not by literature but by history, and seems to reference William Chester Minor, an American surgeon in the 20's who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary from his confinement in a lunatic asylum.

Anne escapes and happens across Louisa Thomas (Rachel Blanchard) a friend of her mother fleeing the city with our own kids in tow. One of the kids is Violetta Thomas (Hannah's real-life sister, Vivien Endicott-Douglas), whom Sullivan has promoted from imaginary friend to real life antagonist. Violetta will spend the next two and half hours going from friend to spiteful foe and back in the blink of an eye, and often several times in a single scene.

Violeta tricks Anne into getting on the wrong train, seemingly to get rid of her but then helps her mother call Anne back in time to miss the actual train they wanted. As they walk along the tracks past lovely, sun-dappled countryside, she complains, which caused me to wonder what the hell she had in mind in the first place.

Anne's constant , spastic fantasies are not grounded in an awareness of the reality around her, as the previous movies and book, make clear. This Anne patently ignores the major catastrophes around her as if living in a perpetual state of denial.

Anne charms a mailwoman named Nellie Parkhurts (Kyra Harper) and gets the motley crew a ride to Louisa's rich mother-in-law's home, whom Nellie despises. The runaways are grudgingly taken in by the matron (Shirley Maclean, bringing a lot of class and weight to a troubled script as Amelia Parkhurst).

Anne soon befriends and names her reflection Katie Maurice, just because, is framed and kicked off Amelia's estate for stealing and finds works as an itinerant worker to an apple orchard. I expected it to veer into Of Mice and Men territory but Sullivan gets bored of the orchard within a single scene and Anne is taken by the suddenly friendly Violeta. Violeta becomes little Anne's nemesis again in the next scene and continues to switch back and forth constantly.

One wonders if Sullivan was suffering short-term memory loss over the course of writing his script, as characters motivations and actions change with every scene. In a nod to Anne lying in the sinking boat from the foirst novel, Sullivan has Anne place Violeta's younger brother in a leaky boat so he can pretend to be a knight drifting away on his funeral barge. The boy is saved from drowning by one of Amelia's mill workers.

Sullivan's memory loss must be catching because it seems odd that Anne would nearly kill another child in this way and then repeat the experience with herself only a few years later at Green Gables.

Anyhoo, having found little dramatic traction at the cider mill, Sullivan quickly has run away from the estate again to find work in a lumber mill.

The lumber mill sequence soons turns into Joseph Conrad's The Sabateur when Anne becomes emmeshed with grousing union workers and the part of the mill is blown up. Anne's small size allows her to climb under the wreckage to help a wounded man but she is soon carried away from the area on a white horse no less, by Nellie, who is working for the rebels but for some reason trusts Anne implicitly with their secrets.

Anne sees the woman who framed her for stealing sharing Amelia's secrets with the union workers but doesn't share that knowledge upon her return.

Sullivan next uses Montgomery's "haunted forest" motif as Anne and Violetta (currently a friend in this sequence) will be kidnapped by Nellie on the white horse again (so she can see her lost father plotting with the villains). This later sequence borrows from Treasure Island as Violeta is literally, swept up in a net in the forest!

She returns home with Anne. But where any normal child would breathlessly exclaim, "Holy crap! I just got swept up in a net in the forest next door and Anne was kidnapped again!", Violetta never mentions a thing. Oh, and she's Anne's nemesis again. Perhaps she's sublimated the experience into her hatred.

Consistency and logic is lacking in most of the characters. Louisa is quick to ignore her own kids in favour of Anne, then truns around and does the opposite. Her motivations change from scene to scene (I guess that's where her daughter Violetta gets it).

Amelia is betrayed by her manager, who reveals her mill is on Crown land. Louisa betrays Anne and Amelia, out of passion for Anne's criminal father, a need to help the worker's earn more rights and a petulant desire to prove herself in Amelia's eyes. Anne is betrayed by her father and Louisa and Violetta.

Sullivan rips a page out of Jane Eyre's finale for his own and burns down Amelia's estate with a mysterious fire. Amelia disappears without so much as a sayonara. Having lost her sugar mama, Louisa and her brood turn their backs on Anne, who is no longer useful to them. Nellie takes Anne to help her friends, The Hammonds, raise their children. There, finally, Anne makes up her mirror self mentioned in the original book.

Whew! And that's just the main story.

The framing sequence features a grown-up Anne. The famous writer is conquering stage (we know from a single sequence of her taking a bow before an applauding crowd) and discovers an old letter from her Dad under the floorboards of Green Gables. Apparently, that memory loss we discussed earlier begins to heal itself and Anne remembers her father for the first time in years. Those memories are the main plot I just described.

A major issue with the framing sequence is that everything that happens to adult Anne is referenced mainly in dialogue and voice-over, off-screen. we are told she's a great writer but never hear or see her work. And we are told of her unbridled spirit but all she does is mope.

The only active thing Older Anne does is look for her father, though we never learn why she didn't look for him before this. She discovers he is dead and gets an update of other off-screen action form the family lawyer. Her father's wife Louisa and children covered their tracks and left Anne on the hook for the burial.

Casting comes into play here as well. As my wife pointed out, Barbara Hershey's performance makes her think of Francis Farmer after the electroshock. There's no life to her Anne. Hershey is an understated actress, here style simply doesn't embody the kid of life and spirit the character of Anne. We should see some of that in the adult Anne but we don't. Paying attention to the characters in even these simple ways seems to have gotten lostalong the way in this production. I'm not surprising, with so many plot turns jerking characters to and fro, it's a wonder they retain any personality at all. Oh wait... they don't.

In the end, Anne's adopted son, Dominic, returns from WWII to get married and discovers she has a half-brother. Older Anne's partner or lover or agent (or all three), a character so unimportant and invisible he doesn't even merit a bio on the official web page, comments on what an incredible woman Anne Shirley-Blythe is. And the most amazing things is, he assures us, she doesn't even know it.

Sadly, we don't know it either. Instead of getting to see her passion and spirit for ourselves, we are forced to take his word for it.

And then it's over.

Whew, you've got admit that's packed. Even for this film's three hour running time, this is a packed, packed story. Even just reading this I'm sure you can feel every painful minute of this three hour litany of woe. And that is the film's first big problem.

Lots of things happen but there is little time for the characters to reflect on those events. It is essential for us to see the events actually affect our characters psyche. But we're too busy looping through this plaot roller-coaster to slow down for that.

In the first part of a terrific interview up on YouTube, Ira Glass of "This American Life" actually distillsthe essence of 'story' down to two things anecdote and moments of reflection. Anecdotes are all exterior action while the moment of reflection is the time spent showing how the action affects and changes our characters. It is also the moment that reveals how and possibly why they take their next action. Without these moments, characters don't seem to grow and change.
In my first posts on the Anne Of Green Gables brought to the screen by writer/producer Kevin Sullivan, we found his early Anne adaptations to be exquisite examples of how to adapt literary properties. Sullivan showed trust in his characters and actors and allowed them room to breath and react and reflect on each event. This created characters that grew in slow increments before our eyes.

Instead of explaining everything, Sullivan treated his audience as intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions. He simply presented the events and let their own observations regarding the characters carry the day. The result was high viewer investment into Montgomery's world. I know people who haven't seen the movies for years and remember them as part of their own trove of beloved memories. A great achievement indeed, Mr. Sullivan. I thank for the first half of the lesson.

Unfortunately, A New Beginning is all about the events. Moments of reflection are almost non-existent over the entire three hours. It quickly becomes a laundry list of "this happened, then this happened, then this happened". Because there is no time to get to know the inner workings of our characters, Sullivan loses our interest and is forced to rely on splashy events to keep eyes on the screen.

An exquisite, subtle moment like Richard Farnsworth painfully shy Mathew buying Anne her first dress with "puffy sleeves"from Mag Ruffman's cheery store clerk in Anne Of Green Gables is nowhere to be found in A New Beginning. Yet the film is much the poorer for it. The scene carries far greater emotional force and resonance than an exploding mill.

Live the adventure.