‘Anne with an E’ and Theology: Do we want our Art to be Prescriptive or Descriptive?

By Debbie Holloway

Anne Shirley, the red-headed orphan created by LM Montgomery in her 1908 children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, has been a massively important figure for children growing up in North America (especially girls). She is an outcast at first: bookwormish, freckled (called “ugly” by some), no family, no friends, starting anew amidst a set of people who tried to adopt a boy, but got her instead. But she has an unconquerable spirit, and as the years pass, those around Anne come to find her an invaluable member of their community. She is admired for her cleverness instead of gawked at for her big words. She learns to control her hot temper without losing her ability to be angry, stand up for herself and others, and fight for what’s right.

It’s no wonder the Anne books have become such a staple for U.S. and Canadian children, both in religious and secular communities. There is something for everyone in the Anne stories.

But audience reviews for the new Netflix adaptation (entitled Anne or Anne with an E, depending on where you live) are coming out decidedly mixed. Strong feelings have arisen in fans, both positively and negatively, and it’s clear this new version is not exactly going to be universally beloved like the novels.

Some have cited the new material was too bizarre, too dark, or strayed too much from the events or “the spirit” of the original novels. Others question the mature content and complain that Anne is supposed to be a safe, positive, and inspiring story for children. On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve read lengthy declaration from mega-fans proclaiming that the series made them weep; that it made them think about the story in a whole new way, and absolutely stayed true to Anne’s world on Prince Edward Island.

It seems as though this series is the newest flare-up in what’s been an age-old problem for people of faith. Perhaps one of the most oft-discussed (and oft-disagreed upon) problems of living as a Christian is how to think of entertainment and art. On the one hand, it’s not so hard. I think most Christian people would say that art and entertainment, while different, serve similar or overlapping purposes: they exist both for the enjoyment and betterment of humans. They allow us to see the world, to see each other (perhaps to see God) in new and useful ways, and sometimes make us feel good to boot. Of course there’s plenty of unentertaining art, and even more artless entertainment, but you get the picture.

But that’s not all Christians must decide when it comes to art.

(For the purposes of this blog, I’ll pick just “art” as my subject and stick with it, since Anne With an E is a high-quality production that’s clearly a labour of love and not one of mass appeal)

Again and again, religious communities across the U.S. (across the world) talk themselves into knots over whether art should be prescriptive or descriptive. Should art zero in on showing us exactly what we ought to be thinking, feeling, believing? Should everything deemed extraneous or inappropriate or undesirable be left aside entirely, so as not to distract? Or should art hold a real mirror to real humans? Should it be free to portray anything that happens in real life?

Should a story like Anne’s be solely for the pleasure of dramatic storytelling, uplifting messages, and encouraging characters? Should it always be told in a way that’s acceptable for any child of any age to watch? Is that a requirement for keeping “the spirit” of the story? Or might it be worth having a version that dives into the darker aspects mentioned in Anne’s world: orphanages, the foster system, loneliness, corporal punishment, behavioral disorders, bullying, and depression?

I believe the way we answer this question has great impact on individual persons of faith, religious communities, and even society at large.

From my experience growing up in a conservative Christian environment, most of the authority figures in my world seemed to hold conflicting or fluctuating views on what was acceptable to present in art.

If you were old enough, violence was usually allowed. Inspirational war movies such as Braveheart, The Patriot, or even Gladiator were beloved by families and pastors that I knew. Graphic violence, so long as it was only watched by those grown enough not to be given nightmares, was acceptable because it really happened, and continues to happen. War is a part of life; violence is a part of life.

Adult language or “cuss words” was in its own category, and often differed more sharply between families. Understandably, rough speech was usually forbidden (or to be kept between adults) in conservative homes, but eventually (say, when the kids started their first job or started taking college classes) parents conceded that their child was aware of “four-letter-words” and didn’t become quite so scandalized when characters in movies dropped profanity.

And a third category, the most verboten of all: sex and nudity. Perhaps not surprising of protestant Christians descended from Puritans, but you can never truly reach an age where a flash of nudity or a sex scene won’t get the TV immediately shut off if mom or dad happens to notice. It’s not about maturity or age; it’s often not even about sexual experience or marital status. It’s a deeply rooted conviction that to view an unclothed body (or as an actor, to present an unclothed body) is a deep sin and violation of holiness.

(Except, perhaps, in the case of a Holocaust movie…)

On one level, this caution is absolutely understandable, relatable, and similar to how nonreligious families moniter the movie-watching habits of their kids. No parent wants their eight year old swearing like a sailor, traumatized by watching Mel Gibson behead another man, or trying to emulate sex scenes on the school playground. It’s just not stuff kids are equipped to deal with. As a society, we work together to transition the innocence of our kids into the wiser, sadder knowledge of adulthood without too much trauma.

But as I mentioned, some of this desire for censorship never expires for many Christians. For many, there’s no age where they can accept that a movie is filled with profanity, even if it displays soldiers in the trenches speaking exactly how soldiers speak. For many, there’s no age where observing nudity in a film, whether sexual or not, doesn’t fill them with shame or guilty thoughts and feelings. There are even services such as VidAngel which take pre-existing works of film and TV and remove whatever kind of content you feel objectionable so that you don’t have to fast forward or press the mute button yourself.

This is one surface level of desiring that art not be too descriptive. Some things, no matter how true and real and common, shouldn’t be seen or heard.

But there is a deeper level to this worldview, and one that I think far more dangerous. There are some people, some places, and some true events that many religious communities believe should never be represented in art. Conservative Christians may be aware that gay people exist, but they shouldn’t be seen in film. Trans and gender-nonconforming people exist, but they definitely should never be portrayed in art. It will romanticize, it will present an agenda, it will sway the youth – the arguments go. Not the prescribing of values (many modern pieces of art barely do that at all) but merely the act of allowing art to reflect what life looks like.

And here’s where it comes back around to Anne.

I understand that many people just simply aren’t able to enjoy looser interpretations of books-to-screen. They are a particular art form, and a hard one, and they aren’t for everyone. Perhaps you can’t help but mentally check-out if a new character comes on screen, or a new subplot is added that you think would never have happened. (You have my hearty sympathy; and the only remedy, I’m afraid, is to keep to your books!)

But for the rest of us…

For those who watched Anne with an E and were scandalized by the sight of a filthy and abusive man knocking Anne against a stump to whip her roughly with a belt, I trust you know that that is how foundlings (and even many beloved children) were treated in that time and place.

For those who say that Anne would never have been sexually abused, or have fumbled a conversation with an innocent playmate because of her abuse, you may not have known many foster children.

For those displeased by the darkness glimpsed in flashbacks, of the deep mistrust Anne and Marilla must work through, of Anne’s fear to become attached to Green Gables, that is what happens when you grow up without roots, without family, and without a home.

LM Montgomery may not have explicitly mentioned many of these issues in her text aimed at young readers, but she certainly left room for them (and did mention a fair few, if without much graphic detail). Watching a portrayal is always a more raw and visceral way to experience a story, and I think the writer of this Netflix series was very brave to face the tough issues present in the Anne books so head-on.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s high time a stark and difficult drama was made of this story, aimed at adults, to remind us of some important things. To remind us of the Christian value of chosen family. To put fear in us about how we take our children for granted – of how we expect vastly more of them than we ever expect of our adult selves. To show us the struggles of adult singleness and isolation, and the necessity of community in growing old and raising the next generation.

We didn’t need another safe retelling of Anne of Green Gables. We have enough of those, and they are beautiful. This is something else, something meant to make us feel more sharply, and to take us off guard.

But the beautiful thing about Anne, is that Anne Shirley herself remains. She is devoted and pure and believes the best can happen. No matter how realistically, darkly, or brutally her story is portrayed, Anne remains to teach us the same lessons about respect, trust, love, humility, forgiveness, and friendship.

Perhaps this new series can be the best of both worlds – prescriptive and descriptive – if we let it.

Debbie Jane Holloway graduated with a BA in English with a concentration in Multimedia Communication from Regent University. She reviews films & books as part of her freelance hustle in Brooklyn, New York. You can read more of her thoughts on films and culture at NarrativeMuse.co.

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