Moira Walley-Beckett talks ‘accidental feminist’ ‘Anne’ as show hits Netflix

By Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The “female gaze” has become a hot topic in television.

The explosion in scripted content has opened the door to a new generation of female stars and showrunners, and as a result, gender has become an increasingly important factor in storytelling’s point of view.

Series such as the female prison drama “Orange is the New Black,” created by Jenji Kohan and returning for a fifth season next month on Netflix, have led the way. So has Lena Dunham’s “Girls” as well as writer/director Jill Soloway’s Amazon dramas “Transparent” and the new “I Love Dick.” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Margaret Atwood’s bestseller, and comedies “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Fleabag” have also been part of the conversation.

Moira Walley-Beckett suggests it can actually be traced back nearly 110 years.

Walley-Beckett is the executive producer and screenwriter behind “Anne,” the recent CBC series based on the beloved Anne of Green Gables novels from Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery. The first of the books was published in 1908.

“There’s so much conversation in the world right now about feminism, bullying, gender parity, equality and prejudice against people who come from away and these are all themes that are built right into L.M. Montgomery’s stories,” says Walley-Beckett, who was in New York recently to promote the series, renamed “Anne with an ‘E'” for its international release on Netflix.

In adapting Montgomery’s prose, Walley-Beckett says “it felt really exciting to be part of that conversation right now. That was a huge impetus for wanting to tell this story.”

She says she first read Montgomery’s “Anne” books when she was around 12.

“I grew up in Canada where it was almost required reading,” says the Vancouver native. “I just devoured that entire series. I didn’t think anybody saw me for days.”

Re-reading the books as an adult in preparation for adapting the series was a completely different experience, she says. For one thing, she found that Anne was “an accidental feminist before the term was even coined.”

“She’s outspoken, she’s opinionated, she’s fiery fierce and brave. I really wanted to highlight her feminist traits because it is the moment right now.”

The first season of the show consists of eight episodes — will there be more? “Anne” was well received critically in Canada but the ratings did not quite live up to expectations, despite a massive promotional campaign. The series premiered to close to a million viewers on CBC, with the following episodes in the 700,000 to 800,000 range. CBC has yet to officially renew the series.

Both Walley-Beckett and young star Amybeth McNulty say they hope to do more “Anne.”

“I think it would be pretty fun,” says Walley-Beckett. “We’re not even anywhere near through the first book.”

Part of the challenge for “Anne” was living up to the high ratings expectations set by the 1985 CBC version created by Kevin Sullivan. That “Anne of Green Gables” miniseries was Canada’s “Roots,” opening to close to five million viewers. Sundays, however, were far less cluttered back then (and ratings gathering far less precise).

Sullivan’s “Anne” was much more romanticized than the new version. Walley-Beckett, whose “Breaking Bad” scripts won acclaim, sought to explore Anne’s abused orphan backstory.

“I’m really drawn to wounded people and human stories,” she says, “and really excited about this current conversation in the world.”

The “E” in the show’s new title could stand for export. Netflix enjoys close to 100 million subscribers worldwide, with nearly half in the United States. The Anne of Green Gables stories are popular there (Sullivan’s series was a hit in the ’80s on PBS), but also elsewhere. Japanese tourists, for example, regularly visit the Anne of Green Gables museum in Prince Edward Island.

“I’ve seen a couple of Instagram postings where people have tagged me in drawings,” says 15-year-old Irish actress McNulty of the foreign interest.

“I thought, ‘You haven’t even seen it yet and already you’re making drawings!’ They’re obviously excited.”

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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