Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Question of Retelling

Yesterday I finished Netflix's first season of Anne with an "E." I considered doing a post on why I disagree with certain of the choices made with the show, but then I decided that I don't really care enough to do so, nor do I necessarily want to be focusing on the topics that would come up if I were to do so. Instead I'll be talking about the idea of retelling familiar stories.

The thing about this show is that, after the pilot episode, it's extremely different from Anne of Green Gables. So if you've read the book, you have to realize that the show is not the book, view it as something completely separate, and then go from there. It's loosely inspired by the book, and that's all. Watching it in this way, I was able to somewhat enjoy it--but I did find that certain things that the creators did to modernize the story in fact pushed it further back. The original story is in fact more inspiring and more modern in many ways than this "modernized" version.

It's an artistic choice, though. And isn't that exactly what creators do when they adapt a book story to film or TV?

Sometimes people try to replicate a book. This rarely works, however. The book needs to be short (in the case of a movie, at least) and paced accordingly and focused on, well, movie-like elements in order to lend itself to direct replication. So sometimes this approach can work--but usually attempting it will instead botch chances at success.

Instead the creators must decide what specific elements they are trying to reproduce--and which they are going to change and in what way. Take, for instance, my preferred version of Jane Eyre (the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson). Plenty of things are different from how they happen in the book. But there was a conscious attempt to keep the tone of what draws readers into the book intact. That fantastical, sometimes spiritual, sometimes brooding, fierce tone. That's what, to me, made this movie succeed.

Consider one infamous TV series loosely based on a set of books, Little House on the Prairie. When you watch this show, you absolutely know that it isn't trying to replicate the books, especially after the first season. Everything is different, both the events and the characters. But that's because it was a long-standing TV show and so it had to have its own framework in order to last so long. A permanent location. The right flow of changing and permanent characters. Etc. What made the show successful, even though it was very different from the books on which it was based, was that it maintained the same sense of family, community, and perseverance and faith through hardship that the books offer.

We don't necessarily need stories, especially TV shows, to exactly replicate the books on which they're based. Sometimes it's better when they're different: you can enjoy both without being constantly shackled by the need to analyze the changes. However, there does need to be a reason why the show or movie is aligning itself with a certain book instead of just creating an entirely new story that is still inspired by said book.

Anne with an "E" reminded me most of 1998's Little Men. This was a TV series with just two seasons that was loosely based on the sequel to Little Women. Very loosely. At first I was annoyed at how loosely, but then I started to enjoy the show for itself--I think I even watched it a couple of times. Once again, the main thing about Little Men was the sense of community and family, and this at least stayed intact in the show.

But the thing about Anne is that the focus changed. Here I have to mention that while I did enjoy reading Anne of Green Gables in sixth grade, I never loved it as much as other books; so the story is not so near and dear to me that I can't think straight. Sometimes I found Anne's imagination a bit much, and I lost interest as the books went on and never finished all of them (compare this with my assiduity in reading Little House books and Louisa May Alcott books).

Let me get back to what I was saying about the show. Anne is the vibrant heroine of this story, the girl who randomly shows up on the scene and quickly inspires the other girls. She makes herself at home. And then they all, boys and girls alike, go off to college as buddies. She marries (well, not in the first book) her school time rival, Gilbert Blythe, because they were children then and they're adults now and things are different because that's how life is--it changes. It's a straightforward story. But the show introduces too much. It tries to set up a feminist story. It talks too much about marriage (Anne was just living her life, not concerned about how feminism and marriage fit together--don't we already have enough marriage plot stories without unnecessarily making up new ones?). There's more about education, which kind of works because it goes hand in hand with imagination. But overall, I don't get the incessant focus on socio-political elements.

Anne gets lost in all of this, and her imagination becomes something strange, the byproduct of a troubled mind. It's no longer something to look up to. Anne herself is no longer someone to look up to because she is not the focus of the story anymore. The story is socio-political instead of imaginative. So you can't enjoy characters as people; you can only view them for what they say about society. And that's a huge change. That's why I have trouble with this retelling. I'm all for retellings that completely change a story while keeping the central theme intact (like SyFy's Alice), but if you want to change the focus, then why don't you just make a new story?

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