I was looking on Facebook on Saturday afternoon when my eyes darted to the right of the screen where I could see the items that were trending in social media. My eyes immediately went to the shocking news that Jonathan Crombie, probably best known for playing Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables movies had passed away from a brain hemorrhage at age 48. I let out an audible gasp before I read the first article.
And it hit me. A really deep sadness. But not because I was a big fan of his work, but because of how much of a piece he was to the Anne films that I so dearly loved.
I think I have my sister Melanie to thank for introducing me to Anne of Green Gables. Childhood memories are completely jumbled for the most part in my head, but there are a few things that I do remember. My sister was always one to encourage me to read, and to watch movies that were smart and intelligent. At the time, reading was the last thing I wanted to do but she kept at it with me until it finally stuck. I read the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery way after the films, but it was my appreciation of the films that brought me to the book.
A teacher of mine in elementary school had suggested to our Grade 3 class to watch Anne of Green Gables. A movie was going to be shown on CBC.
So, I did. I remember watching it on my black and white TV (complete with rabbit ears) in our house basement, by myself. Never did I imagine what a profound impact that first film would have on my tiny life back then.
Surface level wise, what on earth could a brown-skinned Pakistani Canadian boy of 8 years old have anything in common with a 12-year-old orphan girl from Prince Edward Island? That’s probably precisely why the film worked so well.
I fell in love with Megan Follows in that role. I remember proclaiming to people that she was my favorite actress of all time.
I fell in love with Anne. While it was completely acknowledged that many young girls would effortlessly connect with a character like Anne Shirley, much to my surprise I found a lot in common with her too. I loved her loner qualities, her large imagination, how she too was a child, but she was strong-willed and opinionated and sought to be the best that she could be in all avenues of her life. And yet at the same time, when she was sad, I connected to her sadness. I connected to her loneliness.
While it would be easy to dismiss the first Anne film as being some sort of saccharine kiddie film, I think why the film works is that it transcends that label on so many levels. Having legendary actors such as Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth also elevated the material and gave it the respect it deserved.
It’s also important to keep in mind that when that film was broadcast in 1985, it was still in the landscape having something be “a television event” to gather around the TV and watch with your families. And we know that people watched in droves where this film was concerned. It was a huge Canadian television moment.
Two years later, when a sequel to the first film was being released, I remember seeing an article in The Gazette and cutting it out because I was so excited for it. I remember bringing the article to school and showing it to my teacher, who then took my article and showed it to the rest of the class in order to show that it was a BIG DEAL that another Anne film was coming.
What’s interesting about the first film is that it’s about Anne going from child to older teenager. Anne of Green Gables – The Sequel is about becoming a young adult and taking the long way to finding true love with your best friend. It’s an equally memorable, loving, romantic epic film that hits different notes than the first one. It’s a gem to see all of the previous actors return to be in the second film. By that point, I was a 12-year-old when the second film came out – and while the film only solidified my love for Megan Follows even more, the epic romance between Anne and Gilbert didn’t completely hit me as it did when I got older.
Here’s a great interview with director Kevin Sullivan on his returning to make the sequel to Anne of Green Gables:
Movies comes and go, and as you get older, you sometimes forget the films that truly had an impact on you. I remember rewatching the two Anne films again about 12 years ago. I was happy to see that little boy I was, was still there enjoying every moment. But, I found myself connecting with other aspects to the film that was lost on me as it would for any child: the interesting choice to have a brother and sister (Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert) adopt a child together, the notion of having Anne be this woman of absolute strength to overcome life’s obstacles that were thrown in front of her and rise above, the sheer openness with which Megan Follows dives into the role, understanding how all of the secondary characters contribute to the fabric that make up the life and breath of this small town in PEI. And I could go on.
And the romance. I saw the romance more clearly watching these films again. The buildup of having Anne and Gilbert come together at the end of the second film was well worth the wait. And it was also a great storyline choice to have Anne to go out into the world and make a life for herself, only to return back to her home more informed and gaining a greater understanding of herself before committing to Gilbert.
About 8 years ago, I had the chance to visit Prince Edward Island for work. Trust me when I say that it lived up to any kind of expectations I may have had and then some. I close my eyes today, and I can remember all of the things that I loved about it: its quaint shops, the generous people you would run into, the crisp air. Though my trip there was so memorable, it was way too brief for my liking. I was able to make a new friend while I was there, and she was kind enough to bring me to Green Gables as well as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s grave. I felt like I was a kid in a candy store being able to see and take all of this history in and make it real. I won’t ever forget it, and I long for the day when I can go back there.
The passing of Jonathan Crombie this week reminded me just how much these films had a huge impact on me. I had forgotten somewhat, and it’s a shame that it always takes a loss for one to remember the things that bring them joy. I’ve been reading a lot of articles about Gilbert Blythe’s role in the literary world: about him being “the ideal man”, being a feminist, being an equal to Anne: again, these were so many things lost on me as a child watching these films. But, when you think about it, it’s so true. Gilbert always gave Anne the space to be who she was, and never asked her to be otherwise.
What’s so funny as well has been reading about how so many people confessing how Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert was their first crush. I really had no idea, but it was really interesting to hear just how many people share this common love for him and his character.
I have both films on VHS but never got them on DVD. The idea of transferring them over has often come and gone over the years. I’ve been watching a lot of You Tube videos this week, reminiscing with scenes from both films and finding myself really crying at certain moments that were so pure, and so connected to my childhood.
30 plus years later, those films still resonate with huge amount of people around the world, but especially Canadians.
Watch this great interview with Megan Follows and Strombo. Go to 6:36 when George asks Megan what her relationship with the character of Anne is now: