‘There Seems To Be Some Queer Mistake’: The Film of Anne of Green Gables

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Still from the 1985 film of Anne of Green Gables (Megan Follows and Richard Farnsworth)

When you’re feeling a bit down, what you really, really need is a coven of feminists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of YA fiction through the ages. Luckily, I have such a thing, and last year, on one of those days when I was moping in bed with a cold, they put me onto the film versions of Anne of Green Gables. Weirdly, although I read the books years ago (and they’re free on Project Gutenberg, by the way, which is a lovely perk you get for reading stuff written in 1908), I’d never seen the films. I think I’d probably assumed they’d be travesties, a bit like the godawful TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books (note to anyone interested in adaptations: Pa is not a hunk. He does not have a square jaw and faraway gaze. We want no sex here. HTH). Plus, a cursory glance at the cover art of the Anne books through the decades shows just how bad things can get.

Obviously, you probably know I was wrong: the film of Anne is absolutely pitch-perfect and endearing and funny and just exactly what you need to curl up with for a couple of hours with a nice cup of tea and a warm blanket. And it’s also completely feminist-friendly. So, when I heard, yesterday, that there was going to be a new, updated version, I was quite pleased. Then I heard doom-laden pronouncements from said cultured feminist YA-reading friends. And I read that there were to be ‘new elements’ that would reflect “timeless issues, including themes of identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self”. Oh, new version. No. Let me explain this to you. You do not need new elements. All the fun of the old version was introducing these ‘new elements’ yourself, through the time-honoured medium of cackling and sniggering at unintended innuendos. Allow me to explain. I present, for your critical assessment, ten moments of pure, unadulterated, queer-theory-is-my-bitch, gold dust:

10: ‘My Bosom Friend’

The theme of female friendship is what Anne’s story is really all about. And we’re not talking vague, fourth-wave gestures towards inclusion and exhortations to ‘self-care’ that turn out to be excuses to sell stuff. This is more along the lines of separatism, womyn’s lands (just minus the overt lesbianism and with an amused tolerance for a few decent men).  In the books, Marilla and the widowed Rachel Lynde eventually set up house together; in the film, the only time the widowed Mrs Hammond is shown in a good light is when her friend, comforting her, invites her to move in. So Anne’s burning desire for a ‘bosom friend’ to call her own isn’t odd in nature, only in the way she expresses herself. That said, in the books, the precise terminology just about passes without comment. By the 80s, it requires the scripting of a delightfully shocked interchange between the innocently precocious Anne and a slightly-less-than-heteronormative Marilla, exclaiming ‘a what kind of friend?!’

9: Kindred Spirits

I suppose if you’re really trying hard to queer it, you probably can. Anne and her ‘bosom friend’ do, eventually, have a brief platonic kiss and, er, they do break the bed. But really, queering isn’t the point here: what’s lovely about the film version is that Diana’s rewritten as a character who just enjoys things, with a very unproblematic refusal to beat herself up about anything. It’s a nicer, more female-friendly version than the books, where we hear Diana’s internal monologue and it tends to be irritatingly full of doubts about propriety and coy thoughts about boys.
Montgomery_Anne_of_Green_Gables
This is the 1908 first edition cover art, by the way, which is very, very period-piece and charming, but does have the minor drawback of making Anne look as if she’s permanently kinked her neck by wearing that volume of hair tied up on it.

8: ‘Sentimental Schoolboys’

In the film Anne, complaining about Gilbert, sounds extremely Elinor Dashwood: ‘Why can’t he just be sensible, instead of acting like a sentimental schoolboy?’ This is absolutely in the spirit of the books, but I don’t recall that specific phrase. In wider pop culture, the prhase is almost invariably in the feminine (‘sentimental schoolgirl’), so this change is nice. Plus, it gives me happy images of Jonathan Crombie playing Marianne in a gender-flip Austen. You can see it, right?

7: First Dance

At the ball, Diana asks Anne to dance, and they whirl around the floor alongside all the (mostly grown-up) male/female couples. I just love this, because why the hell not? It’s not in the book so far as I remember, but it would fit there fine: there’s no need for them to sit in the corner decorously waiting to be asked to dance.

6: Queering Parenting

Matthew (who speaks even less in the film than in the books) is determinedly unfussed about any incipient relationship between Anne and Gilbert. This isn’t in the books, and it isn’t an unqualified plus point for the films (why would Marilla – or Mrs Lynde – think Anne, in her mid-teens, shouldn’t be accepting a lift from Gilbert? And why on earth would they jump to the conclusion she’s flirting?). But, it is nice to have Matthew as the total opposite of the father-figure who censures his daughter for any kind of sexuality.

Which is why this travesty (cover art from 2013) is such a heap of Wrong. anne_of_green_gables_cover_a_l.jpg

5: Don’t Try That Shit Here

Gilbert gets tries a tiiiiny bit of emotional manipulation and gets slammed.

“I think you’re old enough to make up your own mind, Anne.”

“I’ve always been old enough to make up my own mind.”

Classy.

4) Don’t Try That Shit, Take Two:

Marilla’s fucking terrifying deadpan interrogation of Gilbert. Not remotely in the books – where Marilla takes a moment to feel slightly sad she turned down Gilbert’s dad – this bit is the only time I’ve ever seen a female character do the equivalent of the (admittedly, awful) Scary Dad to Prospective Suitor lecture.

3: Beyond Bechdel

The conversation that redefines the test (yes, I know it’s a flawed measure anyway). Anne and Diana sit up in bed, with Anne catastrophising about her exams. Diana, sensibly, motivates Anne with good old-fashioned academic competition. Technically, this is a ‘conversation between two women concerning a man’ and therefore Not Bechdel, but Gilbert features purely and entirely as Diana’s means of motivating Anne to want to kick his arse. Nice.

2: ‘There must be Some Queer Mistake’

I had to pause the film, rewind, and drink some tea to stop the cackles from choking me the first time I heard this, for I am deeply, deeply immature and have immature issues with queer theory. But this is just brilliant.

As Marilla realises that Matthew has brought home from the orphanage not the required boy – to help out with the farm work – but a girl, she comes out with this delightfully postmodern complaint:

“There seems to be some queer mistake, Sarah. We told Roberta to get us a boy.”

A ‘queer mistake’ is precisely what Anne is: a girl who should have been a boy, and an individual who destabilises all of Marilla’s narrow, tightly-controlled ideas about her own identity. In 1908, I can believe the term ‘some queer mistake’ raised nary an eyebrow. In 1985 – a year after Foucault died – I quite like to believe someone intended this one. 

1: Not quite Eddie Izzard

It’s the scene in which Matthew buys Anne her first dress with puffed sleeves. Yes, I know, in the books it’s brown Gloria, and Mrs Lynde takes pity on Matthew after his disastrous visit to the store, and makes it up herself. And yes, brown Gloria does sound a heck of a lot more attractive than the sky-blue eighties monstrosity they came up with, which does not make Matthew look (as Anne sighs) like a man of ‘exceptional taste’.

But I love everything they changed about this scene. In the books, Matthew’s mortified, tongue-tied attempts to pull himself together and talk to a woman results in a half-dozen desperate impulse buys, including 20lb of brown sugar, before he departs miserably, dress un-bought and intentions undeclared. But in the film, he manages to get control of his shyness long enough to whisper hoarsely across the counter ‘I want a dress!’

I cannot begin to say how much I adore the momentary look of utter shock in the saleswoman’s eyes, and the dawning moment before she realises he’s not asking for one for himself. This is truly brilliant: L. M. Montgomery couldn’t, I think, have written it and I’m fairly sure it was nowhere in her mind when she set out that scene. But it’s incredibly endearing, and it does bring home to you that – for a very, very shy man at the end of the nineteenth century – buying a child a dress was probably as difficult a secret to overcome as the same man admitting to cross-dressing in 1985, the date the film was made. And I’d love to imagine Marilla’s face if it were true …

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And one more for luck …

The brilliant Cath Andrews reminds me of something I should never have forgotten, from the books. In her teens, Anne dyes her hated red hair with dye intended to turn it ‘beautiful raven black’ … instead it turns her hair green, and so Marilla is forced to ‘shingle’ it.

Obviously, you could read this as Anne working the androgynous look (which I’d love, for the other sexy androgynous short-haired gingers out there). But – amongst Cambridge undergrads at least – green hair seems to be a sign of queer individuality that’s in danger of becoming a uniform …

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4 thoughts on “‘There Seems To Be Some Queer Mistake’: The Film of Anne of Green Gables

  1. I’m glad I read the first book in the series when I was the same age as Anne. None of the queer stuff got in the way one way or another, whether it’s veiled within it or not. I was devastated as Anne out grew me in the completed book series, and that she had become more traditional to fit in to the male dominated profession of teaching… and so stopped reading until I was older and wanted to face that horror. Then I realized she had remained rebellious and had to become adaptive. I saw the film series as a young person too, and had the same horrible reaction and had to wait until I grew up! Oh well…

    I read the Emily of New Moon books that Montgomery wrote and identified with personally… as she never favored Anne, and was just good at the popular fiction, and making money to support herself and family. Emily was a shaman-witch-magic using child among a tremendously dark family that inherited her… and of course she was a “natural born writer”. Did you read those? Montgomery wanted those books to be the successful ones but they were not as well received. Canada did a television series based on those books, but not by much. They took a lot of creative license… Had some moments but not as good or as tight as the Anne movie series.

    As a kid, I liked the first Little House In The Big Woods book with Ingalls, and then after that I lost interest in the Laura books. She didn’t feel at all progressive or exciting as a writer to me. The details were definitely drabber and drabber. The show on television is something we all seemed to be watching in the states, back in the day though… Michael Landon took it on during a time when there were no “wholesome” shows and his wife brought him the books as an idea. There was nothing quite like it (distorted or not) at the time and they were surprised it became such a hit running for like nine seasons or something. Part of why we’re nutty over here, no?

    I don’t understand the blonde in that photo, Lucy… LOL! Where do the carrot jokes go with a blonde? But it cracked me up. Loved your cozy post and I hope you are over your cold. 🙂 Thanks too for indulging my long-winded reminiscing.

    • Thank you! Yes, over my cold now. And lovely to read your memories.

      I did read the Emily books. And I liked them at the time (I think I was 10/11?). But I re-read them a couple of years ago and found it a struggle. Too self-consciously fey, and I found Mr Carpenter really annoying. At the time I’d seen him as a wise teacher helping Emily learn to write, but I think maybe Montgomery’s aesthetic of poetry is just too distant from ours! I’m not wild keen on the poems grown-up Anne writes, either, to be fair. I also felt as if the genre of the Emily books held them back – thinking about it, Teddy Kent’s mother is absolutely terrifying, but there’s just not that much space for her to unfold, is there?

      I did not know the context of the Laura Ingalls TV series – that makes more sense – my memory is just of my granny finding it on TV and thinking it would be good for me to watch (this was very rare: I more or less didn’t have TV as a child). And I remember how much it made me cringe to watch it with her repeatedly sniffing, because I was aware she thought it was trashy but couldn’t quite follow how! 😀 (My granny was not a million miles from Ma in terms of radiating moral disapproval without specifying the target).

      I can only think the blonde in the cover was chosen by someone marketing the book who really had never opened it. It’s utterly odd. Though I’m fussy about things like that and find it irritating when the cover art for any children’s book deviates from my image of what it should be!

      • I didn’t ever re-read the emily books as an adult, but I think it’s safe to say your review of their differences is very astute! I never was a fan of Teddy Kent truth be told or how most mothers in the books were pretty oppressive or terrifying. A bit endless on that theme. I felt sorry for the chore-boy Perry Miller. I read the author actually fell in love with a man more like Perry Miller in real life that she refused to marry him due to his “life-station” so it’s the memoir-history around her that makes her collective works more fun for me.

        I think mostly I was interested in the author preferring these to her better written Anne series and how her attachment reveals something about her.

        The blond on the cover looks like she’s advertising a favorite trend in popular (not good) country music here in the states. No offense to anyone but she’s a disappointing role model for books or music.

        I’m glad you are a stickler for better representation in cover art and that you are feeling better!

        Thanks again for the fun post.

      • Ooh, that is really interesting about the author and the Perry-type man! How revealing. 😀 I love these details.

        (And thanks.)

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