Why “Anne of Green Gables” May Wind Up the Most Adapted Book in History

Anne of Green Gables actor walking down country road, Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Barrett and MacKay / Getty Images

There is a short list of books that continue to be living, breathing parts of pop culture long after their initial publication; where most books have a pretty short “shelf life” as topics of conversation, a handful find new audiences year in and year out. Even in this elite group of literary works some are more famous than others — everyone knows that Sherlock Holmes or Alice in Wonderland continue to capture the imagination.

But some works become so commonly adapted and discussed they become almost invisible — like Anne of Green Gables.

That changed this year when Netflix presented an all-new adaptation of the novels as Anne with an E. This modern interpretation of the beloved tale dug into the implied darkness of the story and then dug in further. As opposed to almost every other adaptation of the books, Netflix went with an “edgy” approach to the story of the orphan Anne Shirley and her adventures on Prince Edward Island that had long-time fans (and especially fans of PBS’ sunny 1980s version) up in arms. Endless hot takes appeared condemning or defending the approach.

Of course, people only have hot takes and fierce arguments about literature that remains vital and exciting; the sleepy classics we read out of obligation or curiosity don’t inspire a lot of argument. The fact that we’re still discussing Anne of Green Gables in the 21st century is a sign of just how powerful and beloved the story is — and a reminder of just how often the books have been adapted into film, television, and other mediums.

In fact, there have been nearly 40 adaptations of the novel so far, and as Netflix’s version shows, there is very likely to be plenty more as new generations and new artists vie to put their stamp on this classic story. That means Anne of Green Gables has a chance at being the most-adapted book of all time.

In fact, it probably is already — while there have been hundreds of Sherlock Holmes films and TV series, those are adapted from all the Holmes stories, not just a single novel.

What’s the secret? Why is a novel from 1908 about a spirited orphan girl who arrives at a farm by mistake (because her adoptive parents wanted a boy, not a girl) and makes a life constantly being adapted?

The Universal Story

Unlike many stories written more than a century ago, Anne of Green Gables deals with issues that feel incredibly modern. Anne is an orphan who has bounced amongst foster homes and orphanages her whole life, and comes to a place where she is initially not wanted. That’s a theme that kids all over the world find compelling — who hasn’t felt unwanted, like an outsider?

Anne herself is a proto-feminist. Although it’s unlikely that Lucy Maud Montgomery intended this, the fact is Anne is an intelligent young woman who excels at everything she does and takes no guff from the men or boys around her. She fights back fiercely against any disrespect or hint that she’s not capable, making her a shining example for young women of each successive generation. It’s remarkable, really, considering the book was written more than a decade before women could vote in the U.S.

The Youth Market

When Montgomery wrote the original novel, there was no concept of a “young adult” audience, and she never intended the book to be a children’s novel. Over time that’s how it was routinely categorized, of course, which makes sense; it is a story about a young girl literally coming of age. In many ways, however, it was a Young Adult novel before the concept existed, a story that resonates with kids, teenagers, and young adults alike.

That market is only growing. As the hunger for intelligent, well-written Young Adult fare grows, more and more people are discovering or re-discovering Anne of Green Gables and finding to their surprise that you couldn’t design a better fit for the modern market.

The Formula

When Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables, stories about orphans were fairly common, and stories about red-haired orphan girls especially so.

It’s more or less totally forgotten today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a whole subgenre of orphan-focused literature, and there was a bit of a formula to them: The girls were always red-headed, they were always abused prior to coming to their new life, they were always acquired by their adoptive families in order to do work, and they ultimately proved themselves by saving their families from some terrible catastrophe. Completely forgotten examples include Lucy Ann by R.L. Harbour and Charity Ann by Mary Ann Maitland.

In other words, when Montgomery wrote her novel, she was working from and refining a formula that had been perfected long before. The refinements she brought to the story are what elevated it from just another story about an orphan girl, but the framework meant she was able to perfect the story instead of putting all her efforts into creating something from scratch. All the adaptations over the years are arguably a continuation of that process.

The Subtext

The reason Netflix’s new adaptation has gotten so much attention is, in part, the fact that it embraces the dark subtext of the novel — that Anne comes to Prince Edward Island from a past filled with physical and emotional abuse. This was often a staple of the formula mentioned above and is implied by Montgomery, but Netflix went all in and made one of the darkest adaptations of the novel. This darkness, however, is part of the story’s appeal — readers pick up the clues and even if they don’t imagine the worst, it adds depths to a story that could have been simply feel-good.

That depth is crucial. Even in adaptations that don’t delve into it, it adds a bit of heft to the story, a second level that catches the imagination. A flatter, simpler story wouldn’t be nearly as evergreen.

The Bittersweet

That darkness feeds into the other reason the story continues to fascinate and entertain: It’s bittersweet nature. Anne of Green Gables is a story that combines joy and triumph with sadness and defeat. Anne is very self-critical while being ebullient and intelligent. She comes from pain and suffering and has to fight for her place on the island and with her adoptive family. And in the end, she doesn’t get a simple happy ending — she has to make hard choices even as she enters adulthood. The ending of the first novel sees Anne making the right decision even if it isn’t the decision that will bring her the most happiness. That emotional complexity is, in a nutshell, why people never get tired of this story.

Anne of Green Gables will almost certainly end up one of — if not the — most adapted novel of all time. Its timeless nature and simple charm are a guarantee.