Finally I treated myself to the complete Anne of Green Gables DVD set — the 25-year-old VHS tapes just don’t display the Prince Edward Island scenery to its best advantage on a flat-screen TV.
Besides reading most of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne series, I’ve seen the Sullivan Entertainment Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea more times than I can remember. Anne is the ideal for an INFP like me; I like to think that once upon a time I had her potential, minus the ambition.
I’ve seen that regular Anne devotees don’t like The Continuing Story installment and read that due to a copyright dispute Sullivan couldn’t use material from Montgomery’s later books as he had for Anne of Avonlea. Many fans, perhaps unaware of this issue, hate this series because it deviates so widely from the established story and has some nasty continuity errors (e.g., Anne and Gilbert would have been well into middle age by World War I).
I don’t hate The Continuing Story because it deviates from the Anne story and its timeline. I hate it because it’s a weak story that has nothing to do with Anne of Green Gables. Even if you can imagine that it’s not about Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe of Avonlea and that is just another movie set during World War I, the plot is such a convoluted, implausible mishmosh and the visuals so flat that it’s a bad showing all around. It doesn’t help that, while Anne and Gilbert are supposed to be in their early 20s, Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie were in their early 30s when the series was filmed — well past the freshness of college and first jobs.
If all else shone, the continuity issues would be the kind of details I could overlook as poetic license. But nothing in this series works — nothing. All the elements that coalesced to make the previous installments conquer and capture millions of hearts across the globe are missing from this unrelentingly grim, joyless mess.
Plot: Conflict is at the heart of any plot, and as a girl and later as a young woman Anne’s tendency to daydream, act on impulse, and lash out in temper led her into any number of scrapes, some more serious than others. Her romantic fixation on Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” sets off her trouble at the very beginning and later leads to a fateful accident and rescue. When she isn’t daydreaming, writing, or sharing her hopes with Marilla or bosom friend Diana, she’s sparring with Avonlea’s busybody and gossip in chief, Rachel Lynde. Part of the reason Anne is beloved is because we like to see ourselves in her and because we recognize the dramas of girlhood which become more significant when she begins her teaching career in Anne of Avonlea. Despite the Rachel Lyndes, the Pringles, and the Katherine Brookes of the world, Anne, her imagination, and her vision prevail. That’s what we love — the idealism and the conviction that imagination doesn’t have to be suppressed or obliterated by conventional society, that it can thrive despite the human and social obstacles.
Anne and Gilbert are past the broken-slate stage of life, and The Continuing Story needed a more mature plot and conflict. Sullivan takes us from the small-town squabbles of Avonlea (first series) and the politics of private-school teaching (second series) to the conflict to end all conflicts — World War I. Our heroine, whose most nerve-wracking moments to date have been reciting poetry to sophisticates and islanders at the White Sands Hotel, awaiting test scores to see if she beat Gilbert Blythe academically, facing down the Pringle clan, and more of the same, now finds herself dodging bullets, shells, and spies in a torturous plot that plays on none of her beloved qualities.
Near the beginning Anne meets a publisher who wants adventure books written for women (although not by women). That’s what The Continuing Story tries to be — a woman’s adventure story, with a wife braving the front in France during WWI to find her MIA husband, a sort of Ernest Hemingway SuperLite. Despite the shelling, the bullets, the amputations, and the sense that there’s supposed to be ever-present danger, there’s no dramatic tension in sight, and the story drags on and on and on. I watched the second chapter for what seemed like a long, dreary time, then decided I needed a break. When I checked the time marker on the DVD for the remaining time, I saw that I had watched 10 minutes. Ten minutes! It felt like at least 30 or more. This is not exactly the desired denouement for a good war or adventure film.
There’s a plethora of implausible coincidences (for example, Anne manages to run into Fred Wright and Jack almost the moment she reaches the French front), but every attempt at dramatic tension falls flatter than a crepe — so flat that even if you had been told every spoiler ahead of viewing The Continuing Story, it wouldn’t ruin the series for you. It’s that dull and lifeless.
Setting: As you’d guess from the plot, you’re not going to be spending much time on Prince Edward Island or even in eastern Canada — most of the film is set in New York, London, France, and Germany. The indoor scenes could be anywhere — indeed, they were filmed in Canada — so there’s no sense of New York, London, or any other location. These vintage buildings, and the tight outdoor shots designed to hide geography and sets, made me yearn for the strong sense of place and community both the books and previous series are known for.
As for embattled France, it too consists of tight shots that make Gil’s field hospital and the various camps look just like what they are — sets. The uniformly low, gray skies add to the effect, and so do the scenes of soldiers, nuns, Red Cross workers, doctors, and nurses running willy nilly back and forth — it’s as though they’re there to add senseless movement and energy and to keep the already small spaces filled. Instead of looking like people caught in the chaos and terror of war, they look like extras whose director hasn’t given them direction, leaving them to flit about randomly.
New York, France, London, and Germany are sandwiched between establishing and concluding scenes set closer to the places Anne’s admirers have come to love. In an interesting, ill-conceived twist, Sullivan seems determined to obliterate the one place that is dear to everyone — Green Gables. In five short years, an absentee Anne has allowed what “people in Avonlea say [is] the prettiest acreage on the north shore” (Marilla) to become the kind of rundown shanty you might see in Pennsylvania when the farm’s been abandoned for decades. If you’re thinking, “Anne would never have let this happen to the home Matthew and Marilla kept up so meticulously,” you’re right. How could such a desirable house and farm have become so decrepit in a mere five years? How could Anne let it? The shutters are loose and askew, the fences are broken, and — best of all — there’s not an inch of paint left on the weathered boards of the house. Renters! Then, when Gil and Anne try to save Green Gables, they accidentally set fire to the once-airy, now mysteriously dark, forbidding house. It’s as if Sullivan wanted to obliterate the very heart of the work that made his name and fortune. This brings us to . . .
Characters: Anne Shirley, bright, imaginative, inventive, dreamy, inspired by Tennyson and devoted to Gilbert once she realizes she loves him, is recognizable only because she’s played by Megan Follows. First, Sullivan has her being cozy with Fred Wright (yes, bosom friend Diana’s dull but good husband) as well as an unlikeable adventure writer named Jack whom she meets in New York and, improbably, in several other places. He may be an adventurer and spy, but Jack manages not to be any more interesting than Fred — which should be irrelevant, because Anne is just now starting life with Gilbert after years of separation. The Anne we know isn’t that light or feckless.
The Anne who once yearned for puffed sleeves and pearls now sports tailored suits and dresses with gaudy geometric patterns — stylish, yes, but not reflective of her tastes. No matter where she is or what her circumstances, Anne always looks like she just stepped out of a popular fashion catalog. She doesn’t look like someone scraping by. Beyond the clothes, hats, and trim hairdo reminiscent of Katherine Brooke’s, Anne retains nothing of her old self. When she isn’t being distracted by Fred or Jack, she’s so single minded in her search for Gilbert that all sense of personality is lost. Imagination, the literature of romance, the attachment to community, even her smile, are lost to the grimly unrelenting bore she becomes. War changes people, but from the beginning Anne isn’t Anne.
Once Anne declared her feelings for Gilbert, fans wanted to see them together as two strong-willed, bright people in love with all the joys and conflicts that come with it. To avoid that possibility, Sullivan makes Gilbert disappear for more than half the movie. Indeed, Jack the uninspiring adventure writer seems to get as much screen time as our Gilbert. For huge swathes of footage, Fred Wright is more front and center than the male lead. Even when Gilbert does reappear, Anne leaves him to talk to Jack. Gilbert has been transformed into a earnest young doctor, a two-dimensional shadow of his adolescent self, when he had not only a mind and a heart, but a personality.
In the meantime, bosom friend Diana has become such a tiresome snob that her own high-and-mighty mother, Mrs. Barry, has to rebuke her. Mrs. Lynde, Moody Spurgeon, and Josie Pye (now Mrs. Spurgeon) make token appearances, with Josie magically become a shrill, self-righteous patriot.
Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story is ironically named; there’s nothing about this story that is recognizable, let alone familiar. When I watch Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea again, I won’t envision a future state where Green Gables is a wreck, Gilbert has the charm of a post office, Diana is a fashionably dressed fishwife, and Anne foregoes Tennyson for a nun’s habit and a spy’s mission. I have an imagination, and I can imagine this abomination away. Like a certain Dallas storyline, it was all a bad dream — a nightmare that never happened.