An exercise in modernization
This past week, two Anne of Green Gables adaptations made some headway in their respective plotlines. Green Gables Fables introduced Phil Gordon’s love interest Blake Jonas, a physics and theology student with whom Phil seems instantaneously enamored with, who just so happens to be a woman (and not Jonas Blake the obviously male minister of the original). Meanwhile, newer adaptation Project Green Gables tackled the Lady of Shalott scene and gave fans their first glimpse (ish) of the infamous Gilbert Blythe (which interestingly was also the point at which GGF introduced Gilbert to viewers).
Both episodes were ultimately intriguing in the way they played with a modern twist on the familiar story and also, more complexly I think, in their reception. First and foremost was the Blake Jonas gender swap. While some had registered this through the publicized casting, others (like me) had not and were thus perhaps surprised when Phil uploaded “people who speak **ancient** greek though…?” and described - warmly and happily - this new girl she had met, who she was extremely interested in. Some responded enthusiastically, whether specifically in relation to the representation or in response to Robyn Matuto’s great acting which conveyed Phil’s awe so brightly (or both).
Others, however, responded less positively. In fact, downright negatively. Some fans implied that changing the gender of Phil’s love interest contradicted the message of her character’s original arc, by which she dropped her frivolous personality in exchange for a serious, religious husband without wealth or status. Some even spoke specifically of Jonas Blake’s position as a minister, with Christian arguments I simply won’t get into here because I’m not Christian (I will note however that other fans have attempted to refute these claims).
Two things struck me about the whole thing. First: this was a surprisingly bold modernization choice in a show that tends to stick fairly close to the original text. GGF can be very conservative with its attempt to update the source text (most recently Diana’s exceptionally young engagement) and truthfully, Blake’s introduction shouldn’t actually be all that radical either. The name may be swapped, but the religious factor is there and there’s still that huge break from Phil’s usual type of, well, guy. So what makes this radical? That same-sex couples are still deemed different. The second thing that surprised me was the reception, which was much noisier than anything I had expected. In fact, it was pretty much the first time I had witnessed this fandom quite so angry and divided, and I remain stunned and baffled and depressed at how many fans describe this adaptation choice as a bad/inappropriate one that contradicts the original story or introduces something the story didn’t “need”.
Meanwhile PGG looked at the Lady of Shalott scene, translating it into a short film produced by Anne and her friends (for school). While the film itself contains none of the drama of the original scene, the week’s actual video - a behind the scenes compilation - gives the Gilbert/Anne interaction the scene is most famous for. Instead of nearly drowning, Anne finds herself lost at an off-route bus stop in the snow while still in her cast (a nice reminder of the plot points of previous weeks and another great example of PGG’s deliberate continuity) with a dead phone and few drivers around who can help her.
PGG has played around much more boldly with modernizing Anne of Green Gables than GGF has, in everything from Anne being a black foster kid to Mr. Phillip being a slightly creepy teacher to the way certain less modern plot points are effectively abandoned (Diana getting accidentally drunk, for instance). This video project is another great example, both because it reduces the slight ridiculousness of teenagers dramatically acting out a poem (by giving them a clear reason to do so) and in the way it creates a much more realistic means for Gilbert to “rescue” Anne in our modern 2016. This was a creative choice which led to literally no negative feedback , perhaps because it’s not new for the show to adapt things more conceptually or perhaps simply because PGG still has a significantly smaller fanbase than GGF (undeservedly so; both shows are great and I would expect much larger overlapping fandoms).
These two episodes from two very different adaptations of the same overall story show just how significant modernization can be. PGG frequently discusses racial matters (through Anne’s experiences), while GGF is now exploring a queer relationship (after already introducing an explicitly asexual character who is also explicitly told to be in a romantic relationship). And both shows are also demonstrating how by changing certain details of the story, they’re able to more honestly represent the point of the original: PGG’s Anne is better able to find herself in a position to need help from Gilbert once she lives in a world with cars and snowstorms and broken legs and film projects, while GGF’s Phil is allowed to find a different sort of love with a serious girl who studies theology and physics.
Sometimes, it turns out, the way to more faithfully adapt the story is to change it.