An Anne for our times

A darker, contemporary twist on a classic helped this CBC/Netflix series, and Playback's TV show of the year, resonate globally during turbulent times.

In today’s atmosphere, can an earnest re-telling of a Canadian classic do well at home and abroad? Thanks to a rich remake of Anne of Green Gables, tackling more mature themes that touch on modern-day issues, Northwood Entertainment’s Anne is resonating across the globe.

Currently in the public domain, the series was adapted by producer Miranda de Pencier, who played Anne’s rival Josie Pye in the 1980′s CBC series, and Moira Walley-Beckett, the acclaimed Breaking Bad writer.

While it may seem obvious that the CBC would be interested in a 21st century version of Anne, it was the quality and content of the pitch by de Pencier that convinced the CBC’s general manager of programming, Sally Catto. “The minute Miranda said Moira Walley-Beckett was involved, I was all ears. She and Moira really had thought about it: a very contemporary take on Anne, in depth but still accessible to a broad audience,” she says.

Catto ordered a two-hour script, which would be Anne‘s pilot, to be followed by six TV hours. Walley-Beckett, whose script “Ozymandias” for Breaking Bad won an Emmy, was encouraged to write the script without interference.

“I gave myself the freedom to imagine [not only] what was already laid out on the pages of L.M. Montgomery’s book but was implied under the surface,” says Walley-Beckett. “The only way that I was going to tell this story was if I could go deeper. I’m always drawn to wounded characters and I love coming of age stories. I was super interested in what shaped Anne and [her surrogate uncle and aunt] Matthew and Marilla and honouring Anne’s journey of what had come before. What had her life actually been like in the system, as an orphan, as an unwanted child? That’s what excited me.”

The result is a deeper version of the iconic orphan, who still can light up a Prince Edward Island community with her literate, imaginative presence.

De Pencier sent the pilot script to Netflix, but while it was slowly making the rounds there, she became involved in discussions with distributors. At a point when the production was getting close to taking place, Elizabeth Bradley, VP content at Netflix, who had finally read and loved the script, tracked down de Pencier and made a deal to air the series across all the SVODs territories, save Canada.

“[Netflix] definitely allowed us to be able to produce the series at a higher production value level,” says de Pencier. “We have the luxury right now of shooting eleven days an episode. That allows us scope and time with our actors and time for really alternative and innovative coverage.”

The response to Anne has been excellent worldwide according to de Pencier. And while Netflix doesn’t provide audience numbers – even to its producing partners – based on her own social media research, the series is resonating across a wide swathe of audiences abroad, she says.

As for CBC, Anne reached 4.5 million Canadians over the course of the season and garnered an average 2+ audience of 898,000. Anne’s 18-to-49 audience was the highest among all CBC dramas for the 2016/17 season.

A rhapsodic review by The Guardian‘s Chitra Ramaswamy concluded, “This is an Anne of Green Gables for our times: a darker, sadder, more realistic story about an outsider’s will to survive,” while Lorraine Ali in the L.A. Times wrote, “If only television treated all its teenage girls with the same respect Anne…affords its whip-smart, scrappy protagonist.”

The praise has been enough to bring both the SVOD and pubcaster aboard for a second season, which is currently filming across Canada.

Why is Anne a success in these turbulent times? De Pencier says, that the character of Anne is a flawed individual who lays it all bare.

“Anne gives people permission to be themselves, because she is so resoundingly herself. Anne loves life, she loves people, she’s accepting. But she makes mistakes. She’s got an anger issue. She doesn’t check her feelings at the door. I think Anne offers us a reminder that it’s okay to stay positive, be kind and to dream, no matter how tough life gets.”