Screening L.M. Montgomery: Heritage, Nostalgia and National Identity

By Gates, Philippa; Gillis, Stacy | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Screening L.M. Montgomery: Heritage, Nostalgia and National Identity


Gates, Philippa, Gillis, Stacy, British Journal of Canadian Studies


I don't know why I keep on going to see my favourite books screened. The result is always a disappointment. (Montgomery, Selected Journals, vol. 111: 26)

Lucy Maud Montgomery's novel Anne of Green Gables (1908) has been dramatised several times, but never as commercially or critically successfully as in Kevin Sullivan's 1985 television film Anne of Green Gables.1 Sullivan's film won ten of twelve Gemini Awards in Canada, an Emmy Award for the Best Children's Movie, and the George Peabody Award for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting in 1986. The success led to two other films - Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987) and Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (2000) - and a long-running television series, Road to Avonlea (1990-96). While Sullivan's first Anne film was praised by Montgomery devotees for its faithful transference from page to screen, the later productions moved further away from Montgomery's books, rewriting Montgomery and, by extension, Canadian historical narratives. Consequently, these filmic Canadian histories provide a locus for inscriptions of heritage and nostalgia. Giddings, Selby and Wensley sum up the problems inherent in the historical film:

If we modernize those staging-posts along our journey to our way of thinking, it is in a sense a way of admitting they are no longer appropriate or relevant in their original form to speak to us of the twentieth century. If we slavishly endeavour to recreate them as we think they might have appeared in their own time we produce a fake antique. (1990: 24)

In labelling this latter process the synthesis of a 'fake antique', Giddings, Selby and Wensley gloss over their earlier suggestions that 'new' histories are ways of interacting with the past that cannot adequately sustain the desired communication with it. Those elements of Montgomery's Avonlea which could be read as heritage fiction - that is, endorsing a Canadian rural idealised history - have been re-presented by Sullivan Entertainment as the Canadian past. Thus, if Montgomery's translation into a heritage industry has provided an authoritative Canadian 'past', both Montgomery and the adaptations are more than simply 'replacement' histories: they inform a particular vision of national identity. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation promoted the Sullivan films as family entertainment and the series Road to Avonlea was shown late afternoons/early evenings on Sundays, a prime family time-slot. '[S]ince 1968 television drama has been defined as the strategic position on which the future of Canada's nationhood turns' (Collins 1990: 42). The future of Canada's nationhood, in this instance, relies upon the cultural unconscious of the Montgomery novels.

In the us and the uk, the last two decades of the twentieth century saw a spate of high-budget television adaptations. While the literary adaptation has always enjoyed great success in Hollywood - more than three-quarters of the Academy Awards for best picture between 1928 and 1978 going to adaptations (Beja 1979: 78) - the growing television markets of the 1980s saw the literary adaptation moving to the small screen. There was some precedent for this - the British Broadcasting Corporation had enjoyed a massive success with their screening of The Forsyte Saga (1967). This was one of the first dramas to be internationally marketed and, by 1970, the bbc reported that it had been viewed by 16 million people in forty-five countries. The heritage film and the costume drama enjoyed much success throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, best exemplified by the international success of the bbc's Pride and Prejudice (Langton 1995). Broadly speaking, the metamorphosis of novel into film involves a movement between two media, with distinct methodological and formal possibilities. Sheen argues that adaptation should be regarded 'as relocation, a negotiation by which a text goes upmarket, buys into more expensive institutional resources than those of the production system from which it derives' (2000: 16; emphasis in original). …

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