Being an L.M Montgomery fan, I had heard about the Emily of New Moon TV series years ago, but only recently have I had the opportunity to finally see the show (it’s been off the air for years now). I wasn’t expecting something completely accurate to the trilogy of books that I grew up reading, but I really wasn’t prepared for the level of “WTF?” I’ve encountered.
Now, at least in my mind, Emily has always been the oddest and most fanciful of the major L.M. Montgomery heroines (those with more than one book). There was always more of a supernatural/second site element to Emily than there was to Anne or Pat or Sara. But that element of the odd, eerily-other-worldly does not account for the acid trip I’ve been on in my marathon viewing of the first three season of this show. If you are expecting the kind of look and feel of the many Kevin Sullivan interpretations of other LM Montgomery tales*, you are not going to get it. It’s got a darker, closer, eerier feel, from the music to to the many tree-enclosed scenes.
If you know the books, forget them or just don’t watch. The first season bears a passing resemblance to the source material. You get most of the characters (Emily, Aunt Laura, Aunt Elizabeth, Jimmy, Perry, Ilse Burnley, Dr. Burnley, Rhoda Stewart…) all of whom seem to fit, at least generally, into their proper places. Some of the sites and incidents are alike (the death of Mr. Starr, Emily’s letter writing in the garret, and there is a Disappointed House…) but larger plots and themes that unwound over a long period of time in the books are truncated to nothingness (the extended period before Emily is allowed into and eventually given the room that belonged to Juliet, for example). The scads of smaller incidents that make up the episodes of the book (the soured friendship with Rhoda Stewart, various adventures in exploration with Ilse, day to day battles with Aunt Elizabeth, friendship with Dean Priest) are absent, replaced with incidents that are decidedly NOT in the original books (or any other part of the large body of LM Montgomery literature–like the whole Maida Flynn illegitimate baby thing. WTF? And Ian Bowles and the whole doll mess?). And that’s just season 1.
By season 2, names of characters are about all you have left. Aunt Elizabeth, a featured character throughout the books? Drowns at sea at the beginning of season 2. And it’s all downhill from there. Aunt Laura spirals into a laudanum addiction and the Murray’s of New Moon are less the upstanding family of Blair Water than a train wreck of epic proportions. And while the Stewarts in the books passed as a little tacky, they don’t hold a candle to the white trash version we get on the TV show. Random new cousins from Scotland bring some kind of interest, but only derail this thing further from the trilogy. (Yes, I’m spoiling it, but if it prevents suffering to an Emily fan, I think I’m justified.)
In the mean time, Emily’s hallucinations and visions are increased in frequency–sure she has a few episodes in the book, but those are just a few very key and critical moments. In the show it’s almost old hat and probably sign the kid needs meds. And in trying to blend Emily’s imaginings with the real-world plot, such as it was, things wind up feeling odd and disjointed. More than once I thought maybe I’d been drinking while I was watching. Especially with the final ep of the season which does a total sci-fi number on me with what basically amounts to a multi-verse version of one particularly relevant day at New Moon. I give that props (me and multi-verse story lines are tight, yo), but it was HIGHLY unusual for a period costume drama and I was thrown for a loop at first.
The feeling that I must be drunk only increased with season three. Jimmy does a Flowers for Algernon thing, we get more infidelity and unwed pregnancy than you could shake a stick at (Maud would have been SHOCKED). Cousin Isabel and Uncle Malcolm from Scotland have a dynamic that may have been interesting if it weren’t so incredibly manic-depressive. Aunt Laura, having finally kicked the laudanum problem, has moved on to Stockholm Syndrome. The one thing I always read into the novels that never really got addressed (Aunt Laura + Dr. Burnley) is given a star-crossed lover’s treatment of painful proportions. Random plagues of smallpox along with an adorable black boy with a painfully Scottish name (Robbie Burns) are actually the most coherent parts of the series, but certainly don’t resemble the books. Emily is seeing everything from the embodiment of death to God (and having conversations/arguments with both). Honestly, if you would have landed the Millenium Falcon in the middle of a Blair Water potato field it really couldn’t have made this season feel any less weird.
There’s still a 4th season that I’ll have to get ahold of to finish out the madness.
As a fan of the books, I’m horrified. And as a general fan of a good yarn, particularly in TV form, I’m just confused. Despite the (needless) divergence from the material available in the books, the kind of drama and character relationships introduced had some potential–it just wasn’t executed quite right. For one thing, the character relationships were all running hot and cold. While there is some value to be had in focusing on the conflicting feelings of a character and how that impacts events around them, we never got that focus. Instead you are kind of left feeling like the interactions of the characters are dependent on what was needed for the episode (or even the scene), not out of any true, inner source. For example, just about everyone’s relationship with Cousin Isabel ran hot and cold. It could have made for a great running theme, but there seemed to be no reasoning behind the moments when they decided they were OK with her (the moments when they despised her were usually supported in the moment). Aunt Laura’s weak spirit might have explained her inability to commit to her Stockholm Syndrome or rebel against it, but nothing in the show gave the proper focus to her internal struggle with indecision and we were again left with that feeling that whether or not Aunt Laura hated her husband was more a factor of what was needed to move a scene forward than out of her feelings.
And would it kill these writers to make one person happy? Tragedy is good in small doses, but I didn’t see a single happy romance in this whole tangle. The closest thing to happy is the friendships of Perry, Ilse, Emily and Jimmy, and they are continually being beat down from the outside. Without at least one example of success and happiness, nothing in this series gave you much hope. The town of Blair Water is gossipy, small minded and unwelcoming, and the New Moon family is the heart of dysfunction.
The acting is actually fine. I love that all the kids looked like realistic kids instead of show pieces. I totally loved that they let the kids scuffle and yell the kind of insults only kids can yell (Ilse’s are the best). The adult cast is impressive (I really loved Susan Clark as Aunt Elizabeth–so it totally sucked when they killed off the character). If the storylines had been more coherent, they honestly would have knocked this outta the park.
But the entire experience has left me feeling disjointed. I can’t say I’m regretting having watched, but I’m not going to run out and suggest this to anyone else. In fact, I think I mostly feel like I just want to take the good stuff and shake it into place. The pieces are there if they just put them together a little different.
Or, maybe I’ll just go drink a beer and lie down.
*Note: Understand that this is NOT a Sullivan production.