Full of good cheer, warmth, and Martin Sheen’s fabulously full head of hair, the new PBS version of Anne of Green Gables, airing on Thanksgiving, is a TV alternative to football after you’ve been sated by turkey and all the fixings. This Canadian production stars Ella Ballentine as the lucky orphan who is taken in by aging siblings Marilla (Sara Botsford) and Matthew Cuthbert (Sheen).
This production of Anne — whose full title is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, presumably to bestow an added emphasis of fidelity to the Lucy Maud Montgomery source books — was filmed in Canada, as the story is set on windswept, rural Prince Edward Island. It hits many of the notes familiar to Gables fans, right down to Anne smashing a chalkboard over the head of young Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu) in school.
I’m not quite sure where this Anne of Green Gables fits into the current TV atmosphere, in which it is decreed that all female protagonists must be aggressively forward-thinking. After all, the Anne here does flounce around complaining that she doesn’t feel pretty enough and that she hates her red hair — instead of, you know, owning it. Still, Ella Ballentine is chipper and appropriately mischievous, if a tad too perfectly red-haired and freckled. (There were times when I was confused — was I watching Anne of Green Gables or a lost chapter of Pippi Longstocking?)
On the other hand, this Anne is nicely willful and obstreperous, confident in her imaginative solitary playing. Indeed, it’s after seeing their familiar world through Anne’s eyes that Marilla and Matthew are convinced it’s a good idea to adopt her.
The new Anne of Green Gables, directed by John Kent Harrison, is, however, not nearly as good as the Annes that were produced by Canadian television in the mid-1980s and shown here on PBS. They starred Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as a superbly flinty, assiduously unsentimental Marilla, and Richard Farnsworth as a more buttoned-up Matthew. By contrast, Sheen’s Matthew is something of a chatterbox — I wonder if liberties needed to be taken to accommodate the former president of The West Wing, prone to declamations. Then too, Sheen’s great mane of hair is barely mussed, even after his character falls into a pile of animal dung. Not sure if this was for absurdist comic effect or PBS-style seemliness. Overall, the pacing of the new Anne is rather slow, but not so much that it ruins the underlying heartfelt emotions that make just about every variation on Anne of Green Gables irresistible. And note to Anne-a-maniacs: Netflix is doing its own new version, simply titled Anne, next year.
L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables airs Thursday night on PBS. Check your local listings.