This particular post all started when a good friend of mine who had never seen any of the Little Women movies and needed to get out of the house messaged me a screenshot of the movie times. The rational thing for me to do was drive to her house to pick her up, grab some pad thai and off to the movies we went. I was interested in seeing just how much more could be pulled out of this one hundred fifty one year old novel. While movies adapted from books often fall short of expectations, I still am a sucker for them overall.
The previews weren’t even halfway through when I began to wonder several things. Why does every generation seem to have it’s own movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women? Did we really need another version? Hasn’t everything that can be said about the overall themes of the novel been played out enough on the big screen? I will admit to being biased to the 1994 movie version. That particular adaptation (even with its flaws) I willingly credit with enticing me to read the novel in the first place.
Once the movie was over (more on my thoughts about the 2019 version later), I dropped her off and did what any book to movie enthusiast would do. I binge watched the other three major versions over the next 2 nights (a lady does have to work on occasion). While each movie is worth watching, each puts its own spin on the novel and incorporates the morals and values of each generation. And yes, I am aware of several silent film adaptations of Alcott’s novel as well as a tv version, I just don’t have it in me to watch them all. Sorry not sorry.
The 1933 version starring Catherine Hepburn (love her!) brought a tomboyish take on Jo March to the silver screen. At the beginning of the film she is everything I imagine my older daughter would have been if she were to live in the 1850’s. She climbs trees, hops fences and hikes her skirts and is much more forward than most other genteel ladies of her generation are. I do love the way she doesn’t let anything (skirts included) get in her way. She does everything a modern, forward thinking female does while hampered down with the constraints her society placed on women.
Hepburn’s portrayal of Jo is, for me, one of the only redeeming qualities of the 1933 version. The rest of the cast don’t seem to fit the characters they were playing. I didn’t find them believable as Amy, Beth, or Meg. Don’t even get me started on the one dimensional portrayal of Laurie.
Even with the poor casting and mostly flimsy acting I can see why the 1933 adaptation won the award for best picture. The thrifty March sisters would have really resonated with depression era America. Their need to pinch every penny possible while still being able to experience some of the finer things in life (such as a trip to Europe thanks to Great Aunt March, those luxuries provided by Laurie or the rag money) provided an escape from the harsh reality of life for many. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the lack of character development, overall it isn’t a terrible adaptation.
Encouraged to continue my binge watching late into the wee hours of the morning, I moved onto the 1949 adaptation. This version has all the things one would expect in a late 1940’s and early 1950’s film done by the studio giant MGM. Not a hair is out of place, not a speck of dust is anywhere to be found in the film. The color is vivid leaving a glossed over and romantic feel to the overall ambiance. It is clearly a film created in post war times with the focus being on an idealized existence rather than an authentic one. The March sisters are noticeably less thrifty here than they are in the 1933 adaptation being more willing to spend the money Great Aunt March gives them than save it.
Along with cheesy, idealistic backdrop is the feeling of each character being both overacted and having a lack of realistic depth to them at the same time. It could have been because at four in the morning I am naturally a bit testy or because the characters didn’t seem to act with one another but rather at one another. For me, they were simply unrelatable and too polished to realistically showcase how I see them when I read the novel itself. Jo (played by June Allyson) is still the tomboy we know and love in the 1933 adaptation, but seems more brash and one dimensional lacking the depth of emotion Hepburn brough to the screen. I found myself not liking Jo as the film went on. The great Elizabeth Taylor’s take on Amy was okay, not anything to write home to mother about as she is still the gold digging and spoiled little girl we found before. Meg comes off as a know it all, emotionally distant from any reality. Laurie is portrayed as a bumbling blockhead of a suiter more easily seen as bad comic relief than anything.
The only reason I was able to finish watching was because of Beth. Margaret O’Brien’s choice to portray her as emotionally young as she did helped make her death just that much more tragic. We see her truly cut down before she has any chance to grow beyond the limited scope of her home life. This was, by far the hardest adaptation for me to get through and I highly doubt I will be watching it ever again.
One very long day at work later, I was ready to watch the 1994 adaptation. Maybe it’s because I was an impressionable high school kid and found a way to relate to each of the March sisters in turn. Maybe it’s because after watching a musical starring Christian Bale he became my teenage heart throb. Or maybe even because as a teenager I saw the movie, read the novel and felt connected with each character as well as the overall themes Alcott showed us, this is the movie adaptation that is my favorite.
Wynona Ryder as Jo is portrayed as less of a tomboy and more as a clever, witty and independent young woman thrust into adulting before she really should need to. Whether it’s because acting styles change overall as time goes by or because of my own bias, I found Ryder’s portrayal of Jo to be the most well rounded. The Jo in the 1994 film seems driven to be a person in her own right. She doesn’t want to wind up an eccentric extension of the man she marries. While in the first two films marriage isn’t really in her plan, it is firmly seen as an eventuality. In the 1994 film her marrying is seen as an undesirable yet inevitable conclusion.
In addition to the change in how Jo’s inclination towards romance is the change in how the sisters interact with one another. All of the relationships between the March girls are more well rounded and realistic compared to prior adaptations. Meg (portrayed by Trini Alvarado) takes on a leadership role, as older sisters are known to do. Beth (portrayed by Claire Danes) while a homebody by nature becomes each sister’s confidant and a peacekeeper, accepting them for who they are and nurturing them in her own quiet way. Amy (is portrayed by both Kirsten Dunst as a child and Samantha Mathis as an adult) evolves from behaving as a spoiled but much loved and adored baby sister into a self assured and confident example of what every young lady was expected to become according to society in general. More emphasis is placed on the March sisters interpersonal dynamic than in previous adaptations of the novel.
Marmee is perhaps my second favorite character in the novel. Portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the 1994 movie adaptation is shown to be what I always wanted to be as a mother. She is caring, independent, and takes care of her family in a fierce, feisty and progressive way. She knows she has taught her girls to do the right thing, trust their instincts and to advocate for the those in need of help
Laurie (portrayed by my teenage heart throb Christian Bale) is finally a well rounded person instead of the hollow shell of a person he is made to be in the prior adaptations. Here he is a young man on the brink of adulthood, clinging to the frivolity a early childhood tragically denied him. Laurie is still fun loving, however he shows more emotional depth in his interactions with Jo and her sisters. Unlike the prior two movie adaptations where he seems a minor part of the plot, here he better represents everything Jo desperatly wants out of life and can not have. Jo sees Laurie as an ideal brother and while the audience may see them as a perfect “match” I believe she is correct when she exclaims to him that they would ultimately make each other miserable. His statement that he would let her win every argument does little to appease her and sends her into an even deeper panic.
Frederick is much more of a match for Jo and while their relationship isn’t well developed, I can at least understand what she sees in him as a man. He is her intellectual equal and challenges her to become a better writer with her own vision rather than continue to create the trash she consistently sells to the newspapers.
This brings me to the 2019 movie adaptation. I was excited to see what more could be done with the March sisters. A girlfriend (who has never read Little Women or seen any of the other movie adaptations, but has heard about the March sisters) and I grabbed dinner quickly, bought our tickets, and sat down to enjoy the show. Within 25 minutes it was clear to me the best thing about my evening was going to be the pad thai we ate beforehand. The film is cut in a choppy fashion, flashing forward and backwards in time so the viewer never knows what is really going on unless they already know the story. One begins the movie in the middle of the novel. Jo is already in New York pursuing her dream of being a novelist. Next to no care is taken with regard to developing her relationship with Frederick let alone Laurie. This choppiness does allow us as viewers to see the March sisters as adult women, secure in the roles they have chosen for themselves rather than wondering where they went as they grew into adulthood. This was an unexpected, but likeable twist compared to other adaptations.
Amy (portrayed by Florence Pugh) was played well as an adult. Her relationship with Laurie in this film makes her eventual marriage to him much more believable. However, her behavior as a young child felt overacted and unrealistic. The only scene I found to be completely heartfelt was where Amy rails on about the expectations of women in society and how they must find a way of manipulating a system made to oppress them at every turn.
Jo (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan) as a character felt both scattered and hyperfocused on her goal with little regard shown to her relationships with anyone. To me, it seemed as if she was on the outside looking in on her sister’s story rather than being a part of the story. While I understand this was a stylistic choice and done on purpose, it didn’t endear me to Jo as prior versions did.
Laurie quite frankly irritated me throughout the entire film. Timothee Chalamet didn’t feel to me like a man on the brink of adulthood as Christian Bale did. Rather he felt more like a lanky, irresponsible teenager I wouldn’t with the care of my dogs for the weekend let alone a company or household.
Meg (portrayed by Emma Watson) was more well rounded than in prior adaptations and seemed to have more age appropriate and relatable moments than ever before. Her struggles with wanting beautiful things to “keep up with the Joneses” while trying to stay within an almost impossible budget resonated with the struggle many families in more modern times find themselves.
My favorite character in the 2019 adaptation was actually Beth. Portrayed by (Eliza Scanien) she was much less watered down than in previous versions. I enjoyed the development of her relationship with Mr. Laurence and watching their friendship grow. My favorite scenes all contain Beth. The first being where she is playing piano at the Laurence house and he sits on the stairs to listen to her unobserved while remembering a moment with his own fragile daughter. The second scene, while not containing Beth, is directly linked to her memory as Mr. Laurence stands outside the March home, unable to face going in without Beth there. My absolute favorite scene Beth is with Jo at the beach recollecting all that she found joy and comfort in. Her last moments were spent remembering her family and encouraging Jo to become the author she always knew Jo could be.
While I understand that the 2019 version of Little Women envisioned by Greta Gerwig is more about taking women seriously in a world where women are often discounted. The frequent parallels of Jo’s life and character to Louisa May Alcott’s were so in your face only someone completely lacking in any knowledge of literature or a basic american high school education would miss them. Both Jo and Alcott were ambidextrous and both negotiated for the rights to their own book in the same way. Gerwig as a director clearly wanted to showcase that women have always had to fight for what they have. I fear that with how choppy and broken up the storyline was, the message gets lost to anyone who isn’t already aware of it.
In the end, it turn out that Louisa May Alcott still resonates with a modern day women. Or at least she does with this one. No matter how the March sisters are portrayed in film, I for one would still rather read the book.