Emily of New Moon gets a star turn in Netflix hit Russian Doll
Move over, Anne: L.M. Montgomery's Emily is ready for her closeup
Warning: This story container spoilers, as well as an image some might find disturbing.
Lisa Simpson read Anne of Green Gables on The Simpsons a few years ago. Last year, an episode of the Netflix blockbuster Stranger Things saw the sheriff reading Anne to his dying daughter. The television show Criminal Minds even quoted Anne author Lucy Maud Montgomery at the end of an episode in season three.
Now, it seems it's Emily's turn in the spotlight.
Emily of New Moon is featured prominently in the new Netflix smash hit Russian Doll, an eight-episode dramedy starring Natasha Lyonne as brassy, foul-mouthed, fast-talking New Yorker Nadia, who is stuck in a time loop in which she dies repeatedly, coming back each time at the same point in time at her 36th birthday party.
The fabulously cool Nadia references and reads from Montgomery's Emily, first published in 1923.
"Bingo," says Nadia, holding up a paperback copy.
"You know that was written by the same woman who wrote Anne of Green Gables?" her friend Ruth says.
"Ya of course. EVERYBODY loves Anne. But I like Emily. She's DARK," says Nadia, tapping her head.
Anne was too 'sunny'
"We knew that we wanted a book that meant a lot to the character Nadia, who has seen a lot of tough things and had a tough childhood, and that she was going to pass it along to a young person," says Allison Silverman, on the phone from Brooklyn, New York.
Silverman is a 46-year-old writer and executive producer on Russian Doll, and it was her idea to write Emily into the show.
Silverman is as about as famous as a television comedy writer can be, having won two daytime Emmys for writing on shows including The Office, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Portlandia and The Colbert Report.
Silverman herself professes she had a happy childhood, except for being plagued by nightmares which often kept her awake. So, she read a lot — but not L.M. Montgomery.
It was wonderful to discover it.— Allison Silverman
Even after friends raved about the Anne books, Silverman thought they sounded too "sunny" for her. Her favourites were the A Wrinkle in Time triology by Madeleine L'Engle, but she didn't want to write the Wrinkle books into the script since they had fantasy elements that she thought would "confuse the story we were telling in Russian Doll."
"I looked a little more into Madeleine L'Engle and discovered that her favourite book was Emily of New Moon," Silverman said. Turned out the book was perfect. Emily and Nadia have a lot in common — childhood abandonment, intense creativity, and a deep love of their cat.
"A lot of things in it I found very beautiful and seemed to speak to the concerns that Nadia has and the things she's facing and how she conceives of her place in the world," Silverman said. One aspect of Emily was her near-ability to glimpse an other-world of pure beauty and happiness, moments of clarity glimpsed as though behind a thin curtain — something she called "the flash."
It felt a lot to Silverman like the predicament Nadia is in in Russian Doll, she said.
"Not just in the sort of Groundhog Day reiterations of her party, but more who she is as a person, her inability to access the beauty in the world and her yearning for it."
'She OD'd, I know'
"I don't know why I'm alive!" Nadia tells Ruth, after having died several times.
"Listen, your life force is strong. I don't know how you survived all those years, but it worked!" Ruth replies.
"Emily! Life force!" Nadia exclaims, rummaging for the book in the closet, sighing contentedly when she finds it.
"You know that's the woman who wrote Anne of Green Gables," Ruth reminds her. "You know what I heard?"
"She OD'd, I know," replies Nadia.
"I was going to say she's haunting a house on Prince Edward Island," says Ruth, smiling wryly. They hug.
It was also important that Emily was written by a woman — something the all-female writers and directors wanted.
"We were very much trying to look at mental health and how it is spoken about, how real it is for many people — how real it certainly is for the characters and for many of the people who were involved in the show," Silverman said.
"It just felt special to me that she [Montgomery] had battled some of the demons that the show was also trying to have a conversation about," Silverman said.
It was many years after her death in 1942 that L.M. Montgomery's journals detailing her final years battling depression were published. Her family revealed in 2008 — the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne — that the author had died by suicide, having left a controversial note. Her battle with mental illness was also the subject of a heritage minute mini-documentary.
Montgomery's biographer Mary Rubio contended Montgomery's cause of death could not really be determined, since there was no autopsy — she could have died of an accidental overdose or from natural causes.
'Felt like magic'
"There were a lot of things that felt like magic in making this show, things that just started coming together in ways you didn't imagine — and this was one of them," Silverman said of finding the book, its themes and its author dovetailing with Russian Doll.
"I really felt like I was seeing these things that just seemed correct to me — they were falling into place and there was some higher purpose to it ... it was wonderful to discover it."
Nadia takes the book to her ex-boyfriend's pre-teen daughter as a sort of gift.
"It's not really a present, it's more something that we share," Nadia says, handing the girl the book in a restaurant.
"Emily is the hero," Nadia explains. Moments later, she coughs up blood that spatters across the girl's face, dislodging a shard of broken mirror — no doubt one of the pieces from mirrors her mentally-ill mother broke in front of her when she was a child. Nadia dies (again).
"The embarrassing thing is I have not read the whole book," Silverman confesses. Writing television happens at lightning speed, she explained, and she only had time to read excerpts. However, she said she hopes Russian Doll encourages more people to read it.