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Anne of Green Gables: the transformation from Bildungsroman to romantic comedy

LaurenBeth Signore

LaurenBeth Signore is a graduate student in the Children's Literature program at Hollins University. Her scholarly interests in children's literature include the portrayal of war and oppression specifically within the context of the Holocaust. She also enjoys reading and studying Arthurian influenced young adult literature. Ms. Signore resides in Washington, D.C. and is a seventh grade English teacher at Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She would like to thank Michelle Abate for giving her the wonderful opportunity to be published and Jeb Butler for his late night help with revisions. Lastly, she is grateful to her very own Gilbert, Joshua Signore for his continual support and patience through all of her endeavors.


Lucy Maud Montgomery's story of an orphan girl who finds a home on Prince Edward Island with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert was an instant success when it was first published in 1908. Anne of Green Gables tells a story of an adolescent and her gradual maturation into a young woman. In effect, Montgomery writes a Bildungsroman: a novel of maturation. M. H. Abrams defines it as "the development of the protagonist's mind and character, in the passage from childhood through varied experiences into maturity, which usually involves recognition of one's identity and role in the world" (193). Montgomery's Anne develops into a young woman who identifies with not only Matthew and Marilla, but also with all the other kindred spirits of Avonlea. As the novel progresses, Anne becomes part of the very same community that at one time did not want to embrace a little orphan girl. In Kevin Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables, a 1985 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBS) miniseries, the focus is not strictly on the formation of Anne from girl to young woman, but rather Anne's overly romantic notions on her vision of love. Sullivan's commentary adaptation exaggerates the roles of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poetic works and Gilbert Blythe's role of suitor to fulfill Anne's desire to have romance in her life. As a result, Montgomery's story of Anne as a Bildungsroman transforms to the screen as Sullivan's romantic comedy.

During Montgomery's life, two Anne films were produced. The films were made possible because of Montgomery's loss of rights to the Anne series for a settlement of $17,880 to her publishing company, L.C. Page (MacDonald 39). L.C. Page then sold the rights for $40,000 (MacDonald 39). Montgomery never received any profit from the films, nor did she have any control over their content. Moreover, she did not enjoy the first film adaptation Anne of Green Gables because it lacked the atmosphere of Prince Edward Island and was too reflective of the United States. Montgomery commented on the influence: " 'crass, blatant Yankeeism' " (MacDonald 39). Montgomery found the 1934 film adaptation also entitled Anne of Green Gables an improvement. Surprisingly, this film took many liberties with the plot as well as characters. To date, there have been seven film/television adaptations of Anne of Green Gables. One of the most recent and most popular is Kevin Sullivan's 1985 adaptation of Anne of Green Gables.

When Kevin Sullivan bought the film rights, he soon realized the difficult task of adapting such a famous Canadian novel (www.Anne3.com). The pressures of remaining faithful to the original text were paramount because of the large Canadian fan base. The adaptation developed into a miniseries that broadcasted on CBS. Sullivan's miniseries mirrored Montgomery's approach of writing Anne: Montgomery wrote Anne in short, episodic, often comic stories, which Sullivan captures in the miniseries. However, Sullivan and co-writer, Joe Wisenfield, decided on key changes for the adaptation to create a newer, slightly altered version of Anne (www.Anne3.com).

Sullivan viewed the adaptation process as creating "independent works of art that are inspired by the source novels yet are distinct from them in their technical aspects and appeal to audiences" (Hersey 132). As producer and director, he remained quite faithful to the plot, characters, dialogue, and comic situations but he also wanted to share his own perception of Anne. Sullivan's vision is a precocious girl who is extremely eager to be one of the romantic heroines about which she has so long read and dreamed. In effect, his approach created a romanticized version of Anne. Sullivan commented on the film's construction: "You study the books, you understand the characters, you learn the environment, and then you have to really put them aside and then say okay, I'm going to create a new story here" (Hersey 132). Though Sullivan creates a new story, the success of his version relies on Anne's believability with the audience. Fortunately for Sullivan, Canadian audiences as well as international ones enjoyed his version of Anne.

When Sullivan first began the adaptation process of Anne of Green Gables, he thought only of adapting the first of Montgomery's books (www.Anne3.com). After so much critical and mass success however Sullivan decided to adapt Anne of Avonlea in 1987. Anne of Avonlea (Canada and VHS version) or Anne of Green Gables -- The Sequel (USA version) strays even further from the Anne series by combining three books into one film. In 2000, Sullivan began the task of filming another Anne miniseries entitled Anne of Green Gables -- The Continuing Story. In his analogy adaptation, Anne explores her strength and dedication in New York City as well as the battlefields of Europe during World War I. Sullivan's drastic and unrecognizable third film is purely from his own imagination. As a result, Montgomery's name is not credited in the film. After viewing Sullivan's three film versions, the most faithful to Montgomery's creation is Anne of Green Gables. One may go on to argue that is why it is also the most critically successful.

Though Sullivan remained quite faithful to the original, he did implement certain creative licenses such as Anne's recitations of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott. In the essay, "She look'd down to Camelot," Ann Howey writes of the significance of the poem, "As a result of Sullivan's use of The Lady of Shalott, I contend, there is an important thematic shift" (162). There is a paradigmatic change from Anne as a Bildungsroman to a romance story. At the beginning of the adaptation, Anne is shown walking through a forest reciting Tennyson. Anne's memorization of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott confirms how important the work is to her. Tennyson is not an addition to the film. In Montgomery's Anne series, Tennyson quotations abound. Montgomery included the Tennyson references as an homage to her favorite poet. Sullivan uses the Tennysonian allusions, and then exaggerates the role of the work to create a specific effect in the film.
This effect was a larger role of Tennyson's work so that Sullivan could pursue his idea of a more romantic Anne. The story of Lancelot and Elaine heavily influences the adaptation of Anne. The tale of unrequited love becomes one of Anne's most prevalent thoughts in the films. In Montgomery's novel, The Lady of Shalott is only mentioned right before Anne's reenactment of the lily maid:

It was Anne's idea that they dramatize Elaine. They had studied Tennyson's poem in school...They had analyzed and parsed it and torn it to pieces in general until it was a wonder there was any meaning at all left in it for them, but at least the fair lily maid and Lancelot and Guinevere and King Arthur had become very real people to them, and Anne was devoured by secret regret that she had not been born in Camelot.
(Montgomery 221)

Within the film, however, Anne has always been intrigued and/or obsessed with the writer's world. Howey comments on the Tennyson effect in the film: "Allusions to Tennyson also play a role in the romance, such allusions ironically further the romance plot of the movie while attempting to criticize Anne's exaggerated romantic notions of love and courtship" (168). As Anne desperately recreates the poet's scenes, the audience remains quite aware that she is actually enmeshed in a relationship that mirrors the familiar Lancelot and Elaine-type relationship.

In the film, Anne embracing the poem's message of unrequited love quickly foreshadows her own love affair. Whether consciously or not, she relives Lancelot and Elaine's love story by ignoring and/or dismissing Gilbert's countless attempts to be friends and perhaps something more. Throughout the film, she sees Gilbert pining after her and always quickly distances herself from his view. In one particular scene, Gilbert stands behind a tree watching Anne from afar (Anne of Green Gables). Once Anne is aware of Gilbert, aware that she is momentarily trapped in his gaze, she storms off with Diana. The pained look on Gilbert's face brings to mind what Elaine's emotions might have been when she first saw Lancelot depart.

The exploration of Gilbert's role as a leading man and Anne's struggle to acknowledge her feelings underscores Sullivan's goal of depicting this story as a film much closer to a romantic comedy than a Bildungsroman. K. L. Poe argues of Gilbert's role in the books to that of the film: "Had Montgomery wanted to have the romance be the focus of her series, she most likely would have called it Anne and Gilbert, not Anne of Green Gables " (149). In the novel, the word romance appears often, but it usually alludes to nature or experiences such as drowning. Anne often states she is not comfortable with a romantic liaison. The adolescent girl tells Marilla: "Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn't do to drag them into everything, does it? Diana and I are seriously thinking of promising each other that we will never marry but be nice old maids and live together forever" (Montgomery 239). Anne does not view (or chooses not to view) any particular Avonlea man as a potential beau. In the film, however, the young woman is very much aware of Gilbert's romantic interest in her and she seems to take delight at dismissing him. At every opportunity, Anne purposely ignores Gilbert. One of the first scenes of her immersion in Avonlea society is at the picnic. Diana, Anne's soon to be bosom friend, mentions Gilbert and his status at the school: "Don't you think Gilbert's handsome ... He's sixteen, but he is in our class" (Anne of Green Gables). After Anne beats Gilbert in the three-legged race, he winks at the new girl. Sullivan's almost immediate introduction of Gilbert in the picnic scene points to the importance of his role in Anne's life. Anne remarks of Gilbert: "He is handsome, but I think he is awful bold to wink at a strange girl" (Anne of Green Gables). Anne may appear as if she finds Gilbert's behavior rude, but as viewers we question if she is only acting as she believes she should when a young man takes liberties. For viewers, Gilbert's introduction immediately creates a romantic atmosphere in Avonlea.

Contrary to the film, Gilbert is not introduced so quickly in the novel. The young man is introduced in late September as a student who has been gone for three years, helping his father (Montgomery 111). Anne appreciates the classmate's addition to the schoolhouse because she will not be the only one her age using the fourth book instead of the fifth (Montgomery 110). In the novel, Diana remarks on Gilbert's appeal: " 'He's aw'fly handsome, Anne. And he teases the girls something terrible. He just torments our lives out.' Diana's voice indicated that she rather liked having her life tormented out than not" (Montgomery 109). Anne is not as convinced as Diana is of Gilbert's charm. When Gilbert tries to get Anne's attention by calling her "carrots," Anne loses all self-control and hits Gilbert over the head with her slate (Montgomery 111-112). Gilbert apologizes soon afterwards, but Anne refuses to forgive him. The film faithfully recreates this scene, but also accentuates the significance of his words to her. In the film, the scene ends with Marilla finding Anne in her bedroom, in the "depths of despair," her hair dyed a grotesque green (Anne of Green Gables). Anne tells Marilla: "I can't face him again. Gilbert Blythe had no right to call me carrots" (Anne of Green Gables). Sullivan connects these two events in a cause and effect relationship to show the impact of Gilbert's words on Anne. Gilbert's taunt has penetrated Anne's vanity, and she quickly rectifies the situation by dying her hair. In the novel, Gilbert's taunt is completely separate, happening months before, from Anne's purchasing of the black dye from the peddler. Sullivan's Anne is dictated by Gilbert's opinion of her. Anne relies so heavily on his perception that she will even change her appearance, behavior, and academic standing to impress him.

Throughout the film, Anne is compelled to complete certain tasks because of Gilbert. One such scene is when she accepts a dare at Moody Spurgeon's house at the end of the year party. After Josie Pye walks the picket fence, and jumps happily into Gilbert's arms, Anne makes an aside to Diana about a girl who could walk the ridgepole of a roof. Josie dares her classmate to this formidable task, but Anne only accepts after Gilbert's comment: "It's a little risky, don't you think, Anne?" (Anne of Green Gables). Anne walks the ridgepole of the roof, but soon loses her balance and falls off the roof. Gilbert lifts her from the ground and offers the hobbling girl a ride home:

Gilbert: Anne, I'll borrow a carriage and ride you home.
Anne: That won't be necessary. I'm quite capable of getting there on my own.
Gilbert: (touching her arm) I'm going your way. Please let me give you a hand.
Anne: (shrugging off his hand) Thank you for the offer, Mr. Blythe, but I am going in the opposite direction.
(Anne of Green Gables)

Anne does not want to appear weak in Gilbert's eyes. In the novel, Gilbert is not present for Anne's humiliation and near death encounter. She is dared only by Josie, and she bravely accepts the dare. In the film, it is quite obvious that Gilbert functions as the catalyst for Anne's actions.

Though Anne seems not to recognize her own feelings for Gilbert and believes she maintains control, the audience is aware of the power struggle occurring between them. In the novel, Anne always compares herself to Gilbert, but only in academics. Anne never wants to surrender her position of being the best student at school. Of course, this phenomenon eventually does happen, but it only makes Anne work harder. She does not let Gilbert dictate her perception of herself outside of the schoolhouse. This situation is quite contrary to what Sullivan has created in his version of Anne. Anne is very much preoccupied with Gilbert's feelings and how she may possibly manipulate them. In a scene not present in the novel, Anne attends a Christmas ball, and gloats to Diana how much control she has over Gilbert: "Gilbert Blythe would stand on his head if I asked him to" (Anne of Green Gables). When Diana then dares Anne to go up to him, Anne quickly realizes she cannot make him talk to her much less prop himself upside down. Gilbert ignores her and interacts only with Diana. When questioned about his behavior later, Gilbert tells Anne: "And I knew exactly what you were thinking, Anne Shirley -- you and Diana Barry" (Anne of Green Gables).

Once Gilbert shuns Anne, she loses her ability to be the one in control. Quite predictably, every time Anne is in a dilemma, Gilbert is usually nearby watching and ready to rescue. One of the most comical scenes in the novel as well as in the film is the heroine floating down the river in a sinking dory. In the film, Anne lays quite naturally, reciting The Lady of Shalott. When Anne finally realizes the boat is sinking, she quickly paddles to the pilings under a bridge. Shortly afterward, she is rescued by Gilbert. When the rescuer finds out what she has been up to, he states: "Well, then the fact is, I rescued you" (Anne of Green Gables). Anne refuses to admit she was the quintessential damsel in distress rescued by a man. She quickly answers: "Help was on the way, and I was calmly waiting for it" (Anne of Green Gables). Anne will not relinquish her power in the relationship, but as she is the one in the boat, soaking wet, we, as viewers are well aware of a shift in power. Not only does Gilbert save her from possible drowning, he also saves her from having to worry about the Queen's Entrance Exam Results. Before Anne turns away, Gilbert pulls her aside and tells of the news: "We tied for first place, you and I... I figured you'd have it for sure...I'm just so sorry you had to share it with me" (Anne of Green Gables). In the novel, Diana is the one who conveys the news of Anne's tie with Gilbert. Sullivan's change of the messenger from Diana to Gilbert again reinforces the idea of the handsome young man as a rescuer.

In the novel, after Gilbert saves Anne, their social interactions remain minimal. However in Sullivan's adaptation, after Gilbert saves Anne, the potential love interest bolsters his confidence and begins to pursue her again. While Anne is walking home from the general store with her abundance of packages, Gilbert on his horse and carriage comes upon her, ensuring her a much more pleasant ride home than walking. Anne hesitantly accepts, unsure of the change of the power hierarchy inherent to their relationship. As Anne is much friendlier than expected, Gilbert admits his reasons for bringing her home. He confesses he had previously been at the general store and knew she might need a ride. He proceeds to ask if he can escort her to the White Sands Hotel where she will be reciting The Highway Man. Anne rejects the offer because she has already agreed to go with Diana and her family. The potential suitor urges her to change her mind: "Well, I think you are old enough to make up your own mind, Anne" (Anne of Green Gables). Anne counters: "I've always been old enough to make up my mind. Very well then, Gilbert, I would be pleased to accept your invitation" (Anne of Green Gables). Later, Anne confides to Diana, she felt obligated to concede because of Gilbert's dare (Anne of Green Gables).
When Anne arrives home from this jaunt with Gilbert, Marilla is waiting to scold her for being overly friendly with Gilbert in the carriage. Anne tries to explain, but after Marilla's coaxing, the child realizes she is not ready to have a beau. Sullivan's creation of this scene depicts Anne sacrificing love so that she may still be viewed as a little girl in her caretaker's eyes. Anne struggles to balance her younger, hard-headed self with the mature and more compromising self she is becoming. She sends a note through Diana telling Gilbert she will be unable to be his escort. Both Anne and Gilbert feel they should have talked in person about her refusal, but Sullivan creates obstacles so that they are not able to talk to one another and thus furthering the tension between the two.

As the film progresses, Anne hears love advice from two women she respects. Diana's Aunt Josephine, an old maid, reminds the young woman: "Make a little room in your plans for love Anne, girl" (Anne of Green Gables). Marilla tells Anne of her own stubborn refusal to forgive a beau over a misunderstanding and the regret she has had. Ironically, this beau is Gilbert's father. By having the two old maids in Anne's life giving the advice, Sullivan makes lucid Anne's realization of what might happen to her if she does not reunite with Gilbert. Anne again feels the desire to explain to him what happened when she refused to be his date. When Diana tells Anne of Gilbert's teaching position nearby, she asks Anne if he is "fair game" to pursue (Anne of Green Gables). Anne wonders why Diana would ask her this, and her friend explains: "Cause I thought my bosom friend was in love with him" (Anne of Green Gables). Anne dismisses Diana's notion: "In love with Gilbert Blythe -- me?" (Anne of Green Gables). Diana responds: "Yes, you, Gilbert did say being smart was better than being pretty" (Anne of Green Gables). Though Anne tells her confidante she does not think of him that way, the thought of love has become embedded in her mind. Anne seems to realize she might actually be in love with Gilbert Blythe.

At the end of the novel, Anne learns through word of mouth that Gilbert has resigned his teaching position in Avonlea so that Anne may have it. When Anne sees her benefactor, she thanks him. They both agree to be friends. Gilbert states: "We are going to be the best of friends...We were born to be good friends, Anne. You've thwarted destiny long enough" (Montgomery 307). Anne tells Marilla of their meeting: "[W]e have decided that it will be much more sensible to be good friends in future" (Montgomery 307). The focus of Anne's and Gilbert's conversation is the word 'friends.' In Sullivan's film, they meet in the field and their exchange is romantic. Gilbert tells of his sacrifice -- he resigns as Avonlea school teacher so that she may have the position. Once again, Gilbert places Anne's needs before his own thus showing his devotion to her happiness. Both recognize the significance of the sacrifice. This in turn creates not only a friendship, but the beginning of a love affair. At the conclusion of their conversation, Gilbert caresses Anne's cheek and calls her "carrots" and Anne responds by smiling up at him (Anne of Green Gables). He then places his arm around her and they walk into the sunset.
One of the possible reasons why Sullivan may have approached this adaptation as a romance is because he believed he was only to direct and produce one film of the Anne series. Sullivan's prioritized Anne and Gilbert as a couple at the end of the film to assure the audience of their eventual fate as husband and wife. If Sullivan had ended such as Montgomery did, it would have been anti-climatic. Also by focusing on the romance aspect of the story, a fan base of women living vicariously through Anne's love story grew. Many young girls growing up knowing this film have wished to be Anne and not the Anne of the story, but Anne played by Megan Follows. Not only have girls wanted to be Follows playing Anne, but they have also wanted to be caressed by Gilbert, played by the handsome Jonathan Crombie. Thus, this film is not just watched because it is a retelling of a classic, but also because of the attractiveness of the leading actress and actor and the chemistry they created. For readers turned into film fans, no longer is Anne simply admired as a model of the Bildungsroman for her growth and maturity into womanhood, but more her developing role as a romantic heroine in a comedy.

Sullivan's commentary emphasizes the elements of Montgomery's work that had only been ever suggested. By exaggerating elements such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott and Gilbert Blythe's role of suitor, Sullivan retells Montgomery's text and changes the emphasis from a Bildungsroman to a romance. Hersey comments on Sullivan's adaptation: "Sullivan's approach may horrify fans who are deeply loyal to Montgomery's novels, yet many film theorists agree that the best adaptations function as acts of criticism rather than as faithful illustrations of their sources" (133). Sullivan did not attempt to make a faithful adaptation of Montgomery's work. He succeeds in his adaptation because he created a film dependent on his vision of Anne, not Montgomery's. Sullivan's adaptation is not Montgomery's Bildungsroman: a story of a singular girl trying to find her identity through the tumultuous changes of childhood to womanhood. For Sullivan, Anne is part of a romantic pairing, and she develops and improves from that union. From the start of the film when we first see Anne reciting Tennyson, it is apparent what Sullivan's view of Anne is. Anne of Green Gables is a romantic and waiting for her very own Lancelot to rescue her.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Terms. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Anne of Green Gables. Dir. Kevin Sullivan. Perf. Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst. Videocassette. Sullivan Entertainment, 1985.

Anne of Green Gables -- The Continuing Story. Dir. Kevin Sullivan. Perf. Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst. Videocassette. Sullivan Entertainment, 2000.

Anne of Green Gables -- The Sequel. Dir. Kevin Sullivan. Perf. Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst. Videocassette. Sullivan Entertainment, 1987.

Hersey, Eleanor. "'It's all mine': The Modern Woman as Writer in Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables Films." Making Avonlea. Ed. Irene Gammel. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2002. 131-144.

Howey, Ann. "'She look'd down to Camelot': Anne Shirley, Sullivan, and the Lady of Shalott." Making Avonlea. Ed. Irene Gammel. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2002. 160-173.

MacDonald, Ruth, ed. L.M. Montgomery. New York: Twane Publishers, 1992.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Poe, K.L. "Who's Got the Power? Montgomery, Sullivan, and the Unsuspecting Viewer." Making Avonlea. Ed. Irene Gammel. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2002. 145-159.

Sullivan, Kevin. Sullivan Movies. 2004. Sullivan Entertainment International Inc. 22 Jul. 2005.


LaurenBeth Signore

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