26 May 2017

When does an adaptation become an imposition?

Sometimes, during dark times, it is pleasant to consider trivial matters.

I was thinking of the recent adaptations of Anne of Green Gables, one of which I thought merely terrible, and the other was worse.  For some reason, people keep asking me about the one I believe to be worse: Anne with an E, as shown on CBC and Netflix.

It is always tricky, adapting a book to a movie, to go from one art form to another.  Changes to the source become a necessity- but what changes and why?  I confess myself to be something of a purist in this matter- I prefer the adaptation to be as close as possible to the original.  There are some exceptions to this, but, on the whole, I like the adaptation to hew close to the source.  The Anne of Green Gables series from the '80's, starring Megan Follows, did quite well.  I enjoyed that first little series very much,  and its sequels less so.  Unfortunately, that series left a bit of a difficult legacy: first of all, it left Canadian programmers stuck in the 1880's, producing one butter churner after another, trying to recapture the success of Anne. They drove the genre into the ground, yet they are still stuck trying to revive it.  So they revisit Anne, only to run into the second problem of the earlier Anne's legacy: since the story  had already been done about as well as it could be, what would future adaptations do?

Enter Anne with an E.  The producers announced from the beginning that their Anne would be the Anne of the books, only they would have her dealing with the issues of our time- and they used the example of bullying.  In other words, they intend to diverge from the original story, but it will still be Anne.

Or is it?  Anne's character in the book comes from the things she says and the things she does.  If you change her words and change her actions, then the character itself must change as well.  At one point can you say that this new character, who neither does as Anne does nor says Anne's words is still Anne?  At what point is she no longer Anne?

Why don't they simply create a new character?

That last question is at least simple and straightforward to answer: because no one would care.  Anne has a ready made fan base and following.  A new character does not and would not. They would be left with the task of creating a new likeable character, make her interesting enough that people wish to watch, and then try and build up their popularity.  It's easier to just take someone else's creation and run with it. So they must use Anne, even if she becomes unrecognizable.

Let's go back to what the producers said: Anne would be dealing with issues that contemporary audiences will find relevant.  In short, Anne will now be carrying a political message.  She is not saying her own words any longer, she will be saying the words the new producers will put into her mouth.

I will admit that I have not and will not watch the series, and it is for this very reason: political preaching.  You may ask: how do I know that is what is going on if I haven't watched the series?  Well, I did watch a little bit of it, about a minute. It was put out on the CBC website as a fine example of how the story would now be told and what they hoped to do with the series.  This was a part they wanted people to see because they believed it would draw viewers to the show.

What was that scene?  It was not a scene I recognized from the book, not even as an altered scene.  It was a tea party or sewing party.  Anne, the character who speaks whole paragraphs to other characters sentences, who essentially never holds her tongue, sits silently and does not say a single word in this minute.  She is silenced so the others may speak.  Marilla sits beside her.  There is a person addressing the ladies at the tea on Important Topics of the Day, and her topic of the day is the word 'Feminism'.  She spends that minute telling the other women what a lovely word feminism is and all  it really means is that women want a better life for their daughters.  That is all, nothing more.  The scene concludes with the woman congratulating Marilla on adopting a girl, which she was "very forward thinking."

So much wrong in such a short little scene. Where to begin?  Let's start with the last anachronism first: the term 'forward thinking' only appeared in the '90's- that's 1990's, not 1890's- at the very earliest.  She is speaking words that would have been gibberish to Lucy Maude Montgomery. 

Also an anachronism would be her use of the word 'feminism'.  The word was not in common usage at the time, and it is very unlikely such a tea would have been addressed by a self identified feminist.  There were several proto feminist movements occurring at the time.  They could have been addressed by a suffragette- but her talk would not have been about how benign her desires were- she would have wanted to change things.  But, while suffragette may have been much more likely, she would not have been likely as such.  The suffragette movement was taking root in Canada around that time, but it was rather in a fledgling state. It is more likely that the tea would have been addressed by the movement that the suffragettes grew out of- the Women Christian Temperance Union.  It is quite likely a few of the women at the tea would have belonged to it themselves.  It was around this time that the WCTU realized that men were never going to vote to banish the demon rum, so they were starting to try and get the vote so they could take the matter into their own hands. 

I am, of course, oversimplifying, but I am playing the odds.  Why wouldn't they use the proto feminists of the time?  Well, first, using the WCTU would require them to speak positively of 'Christians', and there's no way a CBC show is going to do that.  Secondly, it allows them to rewrite history as well as the book. The scene they were portraying was not in the books, it was unlikely to have occurred in the time and setting, and it was impossible to have happened in the way and in the terms that it was presented here.  It was an attempt to make a complicated and diverse and frequently radical movement seem merely benign, and dedicated to an utterly unobjectionable goal- and also make it has a much longer history than it does, and is beholding to nothing that came before it.    It is not merely an imposition.  It is also really bad history shown to a people increasingly devoid of their own history, apart from the warts, and who also increasingly get their 'history' from partial- in every sense of the word- sources like this.

I dislike such blatant impositions. The show was called Anne, so where was she?  There she was, sitting silently.  Anne, the spirited and fiercely independent young girl in the books, the girl who, when confronted at school by a male rival for the top academic spot refuses to back down and fights tooth and nail to best him, is placid and silent as she is instructed in what is to be best for her. The character who has been an inspirational figure to many feminists over the last century needs to have feminism explained to her, and seemingly takes her inspiration from it.  And this, I feel compelled to repeat, was the scene the producers apparently most wanted us to see.  the scene they chose to represent Anne to the potential viewer. Not an iconic scene, such as Anne breaking her slate over Gilbert Blythe's head, or Anne talking in her odd way. No, it was Anne silenced, so the viewer may be lectured about the politics  of our time.  They created a scene not in the books so they could stop telling the story to deliver a lecture. 

When is the character no longer the character? Here's one way: when they no longer speak their mind, but yours. Anne was no longer Anne.  Her story was no longer an end in itself, but a vehicle for others to impose their politics and desires upon.  Quite frankly, I've had enough of that.

The makers of it should have had enough of it, too. They have taken the work of another time and another place, and used it to their own ends. They have a [phrase for this sort of thing: 'cultural appropriation', and I had thought they were against it. I suppose they are only against it when someone else with another political agenda does it.

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