What can a writer best known for “Breaking Bad” bring to the story of spunky Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan adored by readers since Lucy Maud Montgomery published “Anne of Green Gables” in 1908?
Plenty, it turns out.
Moira Walley-Beckett, who won an Emmy for the devastating “Ozymandias” episode of “Breaking Bad,” which saw Walter White brought to his knees by the collapse of both his drug empire and his family, might not have seemed a logical choice to adapt Montgomery’s sweet story.
But “Anne of Green Gables,” already dramatized many times, was due for a fresh interpretation, and who better for that than a Canadian who grew up reading and loving the “Anne” stories, as Walley-Beckett did?
And so “Anne With an E” arrives Friday on Netflix, a co-production with the Canadian Broadcast Corp. (In Canada, where the eight-part drama debuted in March, the series was titled merely “Anne.”)
Much was made, after the Canadian premiere, of this new “Anne” being dark and gritty. Americans, waiting our turn, wondered whether Walley-Beckett, who also created the no-holds-barred ballet drama “Flesh and Bone” for Starz, might have gone too far toward grim.
That’s not the case. Anne’s quirky charm and the lovely scenery of Canada’s Prince Edward Island both arrive intact.
But from the opening scene, in which Anne (Amybeth McNulty), on a train heading for her new home, hears a baby cry and flashes back to a recent foster-home horror, only the most recent of her young life, it’s clear that “Anne With an E” won’t gloss over realities of growing up as an orphan at the turn of the 20th century.
At stressful moments, Anne’s mind painfully returns to the “orphan asylum” where she was bullied and to the families that took her in to work as a servant, caring for their own broods.
No wonder she likes to live in her head and in the books she devours. “I like imagining more than remembering,” she says, wondering, “Why are the worst memories the most persistent?”
McNulty, who is 15, is perfectly cast as 13-year-old Anne, in pigtails and smocks, dreaming of a dress with puffed sleeves.
For the moment, she is simply thrilled to be adopted. “I am ecstatic beyond measure that I am going to belong to you and your sister,” she tells elderly bachelor Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson), adding that “I am not usually brought into a house to be a daughter.”
For a few happy miles, Anne is “enraptured” by the landscape, and viewers will be too. It’s sad to learn that almost the whole production was shot in Ontario, with just a few days on tiny Prince Edward Island, which didn’t have the infrastructure for full film crews.
Stoic, silent Matthew, meanwhile, is taken with Anne but also apprehensive. The Cuthberts asked for a boy orphan to help with the farm work, and his stiff-necked sister, Marilla (Geraldine James), won’t be happy to see that they got a girl instead.
In a modernizing twist, “Anne With a E” doesn’t accept the premise that a girl is less worthy or less useful.
“Girls can do anything a boy can do — and more,” she tells Marilla on learning that she’ll be sent back.
But our hearts break for her as she says, “I should have expected it. I might have known nobody would really want me,” and when she cries herself to sleep in what she thought would be her new room.
Don’t worry. As always, happiness ensues.
“Anne of Green Gables” was dramatized as early as 1919 as a silent film. A Canadian television production in 1985 (“Anne of Green Gables,” starring Megan Follows) and its 1987 sequel, “Anne of Avonlea,” are probably the best known. Most recently, Martin Sheen played Matthew in a new “Anne of Green Gables” movie that aired on PBS.
With a luxury of time that the recent movie didn’t have, “Anne With an E” can both expand on Anne’s past and explore the new world in which she finds herself, a world in which she may not only have parents but also find friends for the first time in her life.
The series will be a joy both for “Anne” superfans and for anyone who likes heart-tugging drama.