I am always surprised how every year, so many people around the world discover and fall in love with Anne Shirley for the first time; whether it is through Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novels or through watching my series of films. – Kevin Sullivan
Anne of Green Gables
The first time I encountered Anne, I was in Grade Five and my teacher read the book aloud to our class. Looking back on the experience, Anne of Green Gables seemed merely a funny book… for girls only. In fact, I could only recall a couple of moments from the book, such as when Diana accidentally gets drunk and Anne dyes her hair green. I did remember though how that classroom was filled with laughter.
However, it wasn’t until years later, when I was approached by a colleague at another movie company looking to make a film based on the book that I embarked on reading the novel as an adult. Though nearly a century had passed since Montgomery penned what would become her first and most famous novel, I found it an oddity that the book had remained so popular around the world. With some ambivalence, I approached the novel quite objectively; not as a fan, but as an interpreter, trying to understand why Montgomery’s Anne had stood the test of time.
It was initially a struggle for me, and I resisted the long passages of Edwardian prose. Upon a second reading of it, however, I slowly began to uncover the marvelous sub-text that encapsulates many of the experiences we as humans share in growing up: family, strong friendships, and the essence of ‘community’ that are all at the very heart of the human condition. All of these elements are wrapped up in the moving story of an orphan who accidentally lands in a small maritime community and changes the lives of the elderly couple who adopt her. As Anne grows up, the couple, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, eventually comes to the realization that they desperately need her as much as Anne needs them. With these solid elements, I began to visualize how I could take what might have long been considered juvenile material and project it onto the screen for a much larger audience.
In bringing this well-read novel to the screen, I discovered that Anne of Green Gables is much more than a children’s book. It allows its reader to experience a genuine world and to encounter human characters that many of us in the 21st century yearn for and want to believe still exist. It’s no wonder that P.E. I. has become such a tourist destination for countless Anne fans around the world, which are consumed with all things Anne.
Marilla’s great mistake of adopting Anne became her greatest blessing. She had little understanding of how this child would transform her life. As a father of three girls, I can say with some authority that the influence children have on their parents is sublime and in many ways more powerful than the impression parents try to make on their own children. Perhaps that’s something you can’t know until you become a parent yourself. That’s also part of the richness of Montgomery’s work – her acute understanding of human nature lets her craft complex characters. However, when these individuals are drawn onto the stage of human drama, they become transcendent and relevant to all of us, wherever we happen to find ourselves in the journey through life.
Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea was one of the sequel novels that formed the basis for the next movie I created for my Anne of Green Gables film Trilogy. The film was entitled Anne of Avonlea when released in the USA; but was presented as Anne of Green Gables – The Sequel in Canada and elsewhere around the world.
In addition to using characters and story from Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, I also used material from Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars in order to round out what became a four-hour long sequel to the original Anne of Green Gables. The film adaptation ultimately became a composite of these three later novels.
Not having read any of Montgomery’s other novels, my role as the interpreter of Anne continued, with diminished skepticism this time, but with more determination to create an ambitious story that would mix scale with intimacy. I wanted Anne’s character to be pushed out of her element, cut loose from her community and family, where her survival skills would be tested.
I was personally interested in knowing whether Anne would succeed as a writer when she grew up, and most of all, what would become of her burgeoning friendship with Gilbert Blythe. In reading Montgomery’s later works, I discovered that the questions I had posed about Anne’s character and her departure from Avonlea really evolved over numerous books which made adaptation of a single novel impossible. I also recognized that there was a certain element of risk involved in making a sequel to a successful film. Audiences would have expectations that could be easily dashed and I felt that any subsequent film had to be as emotionally powerful as the first. Ironically, I found myself in the same boat as Montgomery, when her publishers insisted she revive Anne over several new novels she had been contracted to write.
When I sat down to pen the script, I realized that if I was going to move Anne forward in her life, I would have to create my own original story, combining elements from the series of Montgomery’s novels. I included specific moments like Marilla making ‘plum puffs’ to brighten Anne’s spirits, Diana submitting Anne’s original short-story to the Rollings Reliable Baking Company contest behind Anne’s back and I dramatized Anne’s frustrations as a teacher in a one room Prince Edward Island schoolhouse.
Everyone assumed (and secretly hoped) that Anne and Gilbert would end up together. I wanted to challenge that assumption and demonstrate how life usually has a way of intervening in our best laid plans. As characters in a drama, Anne and Gilbert are strongest when they are separated and trying find their way back to one another. I set this in motion by providing the dramatic dilemma Anne faces in both Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island, where she finds herself divided between two very different suitors: Gilbert, her childhood friend, and an enigmatic older widower by the name of ‘Morgan Harris’– who is a composite I created out of several of Montgomery’s older male characters, found in both novels.
Gilbert represents Anne’s past life: familiar, reliable, safe. Morgan Harris represents the future: ambition, opportunity, intrigue and endless possibility. Anne initially rejects Gilbert only to realize that she finds herself too far out of her element when confronted by the prospect of accepting Morgan’s honest and open proposal of marriage. In my film, Anne finally looks into her own heart and acknowledges who she really is. In doing so, she confesses her true feelings to Gilbert at the very precipice of losing him. This coincides with the surprise publication of her book of short stories about Avonlea dedicated to Matthew and Marilla. At this juxtaposition of events and despite her ambitions and enormous potential for greatness, Anne chooses the things that matter most to her in life—family, friendship, and community.
Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story
After completing production on Anne of Green Gables – The Sequel in 1987, I accepted the challenge from several broadcasters around the world to create a television series based on my Anne films. This led me to recreate the world around Green Gables with an ensemble of characters that were based in part on two collections of short stories by Montgomery (entitled Chronicles of Avonlea). It also gave me the opportunity to showcase the talents of a handful of wonderful performers from my earlier films, who returned to reprise their roles. The world of Road to Avonlea evolved into a multi-layered, almost Dickensian landscape, peopled with colourful characters and set in the pastoral maritime community where Anne’s story began.
The storylines of the episodes were occasionally written to overlap with stories and characters that had been featured in the first two Anne films. As such, many of these episodes link chronologically with the earlier films. The series grew in length and breadth to 91 episodes and a Christmas special. Through mainly original stories based on the Chronicles by Montgomery, the TV writers and I worked hard to strike the right tone and make the dialogue sound authentic; as though written by Montgomery herself. Nevertheless, fans were also adamant about finding out what happened to Anne and Gilbert.
As I began to consider doing a third installment of Anne of Green Gables, I realized that if Anne and Gilbert’s lives were to proceed in the fictional world I had created, they would likely be married against the backdrop of The First Great War. The time frame of my fictional world had evolved to a twenty year difference from the time period in which Montgomery set her first novel! Unlike Montgomery’s later sequels which describe Anne and Gilbert’s children going off to war, I saw the dramatic potential of separating Anne and Gilbert during the war, as a way to test Anne’s true feelings about both Gilbert and Green Gables. The third Anne film, made in 1998 and entitled Anne of Green Gables – The Continuing Story, was a completely original concept that took Anne and the other characters in Avonlea (from both the television series and the films) into a time period when each character was faced with personal turmoil as a result of the Great War being played out on the world stage.
When separated from someone with whom she has grown to love and care about so strongly, Anne initially loses hope. In Anne, though, Montgomery created a character who does what others (including Montgomery herself) are incapable of doing. In my story, Anne tries to find her husband Gilbert when he goes missing in the battlefields of France. It is a delicate mixture of the epic and the intimate; an ode to the spirit of an unassailable relationship. When Anne and Gilbert are finally reunited, they prove the resilience of their bond, and demonstrate how from the moment Anne hit Gilbert over the head with her slate the duo was destined to be inseparable.
Anne of Green Gables – The Continuing Story also offered me the opportunity to create a framework where Anne could do for someone else what the Cuthbert’s had done for her. By adopting the infant war orphan Dominic, Anne lends symmetry to the Trilogy of films. I hoped to build a subtle but reconciling ending, which allows Anne to let go of the most precious thing in her life. Her decision to give up ownership of her Green Gables farm to her best friend Diana, whose husband has returned from War broken and without prospects, is an act of pure sacrifice for a friend she cares about deeply. She does it at a point in her life where she no longer needs to hold onto the past as obsessively as she did growing up. Her life with Gilbert is stable and she allows herself to move on to create a new life for herself and for her young family.
Montgomery’s personal life was ridden with despair and she never achieved the personal emancipation of her brilliant fictional heroine. She struggled with many personal sacrifices as the wife of a Presbyterian minister, but she was never rewarded with the sublime personal relationship of her faithful Anne and Gilbert––a fact which makes the interpretation of Anne’s character all the more poignant.
Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning
The very genesis of Anne: A New Beginning evolved from the fact that many fans of my original films began making contact with me in 2006 wondering whether I planned a further movie installment for the book’s 100th anniversary. As a result of much prodding, the idea finally evolved into reality in my mind, where I decided I would try to offer audiences a story that could resonate with the original, but that would also offer great depth and understanding to Anne’s unique character and enhance the appreciation of my earlier original movies.
I thought long and hard about how to develop an intriguing concept that might offer audiences a lot more about the creation of the strong-minded redhead. I went right to the source for inspiration – L.M. Montgomery herself. Montgomery created the character Anne out of a sense of being abandoned by her father. She grew up visualizing herself as an orphan. This was the catalyst that compelled me to fictionalize a sprawling, original story that transports an adult Anne back into their childhood, from the instant she begins the poignant and challenging search for her enigmatic birth father; a man she understood very little about and respected even less.
From a grown up perspective over the course of the film, Anne is able to see her childhood and her relationship with her father with better clarity. Through the discovery of a long, lost letter from her father Anne is compelled to admit for the first time in her life that she made up stories about herself as a child, out of a need to erase her past. This upsetting letter, however, inspires her to write a play; a creative outpouring that she has never attempted before. Through the catharsis of writing she comes closer and closer to the truth about herself, her parents and the many forceful adults who shaped her sensitive personality. This is a rich and intuitive story that offers audiences a rare treat; a moving and compelling glimpse into the circumstances that created one of the most beloved fictional characters of all time.
Anne’s story is all the more poignant when seen against the sweeping changes in history that she survives, and in light of the difficulties she endures in her early years that make her so strong and optimistic. My decision to depict Anne as a mature woman, caught in the coils of an abruptly changing world in Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, elaborates on all of the earlier interpretations of Anne’s character, but also offers audiences an enhanced perspective on Montgomery herself, struggling to come to terms with the desolation of her early years and how those events shaped her unique and extraordinary perspective as an author.
I hope my Anne of Green Gables films serve as a tribute to Montgomery’s novels, which have persisted in readers’ imaginations for over a century as they return, again and again, to delve into Anne’s world.