To enter Disney Channel’s Anne of Green Gables universe, I watched two works, amounting to about seven hours. In the 1980s, these projects were released as miniseries, but I purchased them as cohesive films. Kevin Sullivan produced, co-wrote (with Joe Wiesenfeld), and directed the 1985 Anne of Green Gables adaptation for CBC, which became the most successful TV drama broadcast in Canada’s history at the time (per The New York Times). In 1986, the miniseries aired on PBS and WNET/Channel 13. It came to the Disney Channel in 1987, right before Sullivan’s next project: Anne of Avonlea. This sequel was made in collaboration with the Disney Channel. Though Sullivan hadn’t planned on a sequel, he shared in a behind-the-scenes video, “I was met with this wash of enthusiasm, that it sort of surprised me — I had everybody saying, ‘What happens?’ or ‘Gosh, we didn’t want the movie to end. We could have watched another hour of that movie.'”
As a middle schooler, I read the first Anne of Green Gables book and loved the story, but I never finished reading L.M. Montgomery’s whole series. That’s still something I’d like to do, but I enjoyed seeing Kevin Sullivan’s first two miniseries, and I plan to watch his long-running TV drama, Road to Avonlea, which includes some of Montgomery’s characters from the Anne universe. Sullivan also produced Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story and Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (neither are affiliated with Disney Channel).
Frankly, I took my time with these artistic films while I was in the process of watching so many DCOMs and Disney Channel Premiere Films. I’m so glad I began with the first Anne of Green Gables miniseries. Megan Follows is perfectly energetic and rambunctious as young Anne, and it’s so fun to watch her grow up. The first story establishes her home in Avonlea, where siblings Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) and Matthew Cuthbert (Richard Farnsworth) adopt Anne. She quickly forms a friendship with Diana Barry (Schuyler Grant). You might remember the raspberry cordial scene from reading the first story — it’s perfectly adapted here.
The second film shows us a more grown-up Anne Shirley, who is pursuing her career as a teacher. The children in Anne’s class (all girls) are mostly horrible and make it obvious that they dislike her. There’s a disruption which causes one father, Morgan Harris, to pull his financial support from the school and withdraw his two daughters. I dislike the fact that Morgan and Anne have a flirtation; he must be at least 20 years older than her. Besides, Anne belongs with Gilbert Blythe (the late Jonathan Crombie), who teased her in the first film but matures into a loving and suitable mate. Anne turns down his advances for much of the sequel. I think it’s probably alright to spoil the ending and tell you that Gilbert and Anne do end up together. As sweet as her romance is, Anne will charm you all on her own. Writer Heather Cocks shared in a Vanity Fair piece, “Anne Shirley is pluck personified, and deeply theatrical, which makes it impossible not to love her. … But she’s also the first female heroine I can remember whose mind was considered flat-out cool.”
In addition to a brave and beloved protagonist, the Canadian films come with splendid scenery, set in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island. While there are gorgeous landscape shots of PEI, the Anne stories were mostly filmed throughout Ontario, including villages and a farm. You can read more about each film’s settings and historical research — including the Edwardian interiors crafted by production designer Carol Spier — on the official Anne of Green Gables website. Though it was a Disney Channel co-production, Anne of Avonlea isn’t on Disney+, so I would suggest purchasing a hard copy or renting/buying the film digitally from Sullivan’s streaming service, GazeboTV.