My Review on the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’
by Brandy D. Anderson
I just finished all three parts of the new Masterpiece Theater adaptation of ‘Little Women’. — Well…so much to say. I’m a huge fan of the books (both ‘Little Women’ and ‘Good Wives’, but these days they’re almost always included in one volume just titled ‘Little Women’ – movie adaptations always cover both, and if you’ve picked up a volume after the turn of the century, you’ve read both, too). There were things I really liked about this version, and things I really didn’t like. If you care to hear more, here goes…
For this review, in addition the source material from the books, I’ll mostly be comparing the new miniseries with two beloved adaptations: The ’49 version starring June Allyson as Jo & Peter Lawford as Laurie, and the ’94 version starring Winona Ryder as Jo & Christian Bale as Laurie (I’ll discuss the ’33 adaptation starring Kate Hepburn as Jo and Douglass Montgomery as Laurie a little bit, but not too much because I really don’t care for that one at all. I love Kate H., but not as Jo, and don’t get me started on this Laurie…)
Things they get right:
The bleakness. The books are generally darker than the adaptations illustrate. You get a real sense of the poverty faced by the Marches, and many other families, and this adaptation certainly doesn’t shy from showing the stark reality of impoverishment. The filming itself is often dull and full of muted colours. The ’33 and ’49 adaptations shy away from this reality – the ’94 version does get into this a bit more, and offers more of a glimpse into the hard life they face, but it’s still nowhere near the level that we get here. Yes, yes, this new miniseries certainly delves headfirst into the stark themes throughout the story — even, at times, too much, I argue. More on this later…
Jo and Beth. I think this new one really shines in portraying the closeness between these two sisters. Although the other versions play this dynamic nicely, I don’t think they quite catch the nuances between Beth and Jo like this new one does. There’s a certain quiet and melancholy closeness that Maya Hawke and Annes Elwy bring to the table. That being said, I do prefer the ’94 version of Beth’s death – I don’t think that scene can be done better than the way it’s filmed and played out by Winona Ryder and Claire Danes.
Beth’s social anxiety. No other adaptation that I’ve seen spends very much time developing Beth’s anxiety beyond the surface revelation that she’s shy. However, Elwy really is brings her all to this role, and we see how painful it is for her to go out into the world, and to mingle with people outside of her family. I applaud this adaptation for bringing this element out with such sensitivity.
Historical details. I love how this version takes great care to illustrate some of the little everyday things the Marches go through – right down to showing Jo paying for posting mail (and you see a neat little closeup on the coin). They show similar little details throughout the story, such as when they let you see just how curling hair was done in the 1860s, and I love how the girls all wear realistic hair fashions (making it look as though the characters actually did their own hair rather than elaborate hairstyles obviously done by an artful hair dept). I really appreciate these sorts of realistic touches in movies.
Inclusion of unique scenes. Now, part of the reason this one has scenes not covered much in other adaptations is because it’s a miniseries, and therefore it has the time to spend on more side stories. The writer, Heidi Thomas, obviously takes pains to cover book scenes we don’t see anywhere else, and that’s pretty cool. ‘Pilgrims Progress’ is mentioned, though not as heavily as in the book, and they even include a brief shot of Marmee gifting each daughter with a leather bound copy of the Bible for Christmas. It’s nice to see a filmmaker unafraid to insert at least a little of ‘Little Women”s heavy-handed religion into the story since Christianity is a HUGE theme throughout the books.
Another oft neglected scene you’ll see here is part of the picnic, although they still leave out some of the most fun and interesting bits with Laurie and Jo in the canoe. However, they do include a bit of the shy bonding between Beth and Laurie’s friend, Frank Vaughn, and that is nice. The one drawback to this is that they spend too much emphasis on covering the unexplored, and that causes them to exclude some of the best scenes (like ‘The Pickwick Papers’, the March living room dramas, and the blancmange, for instance).
What they get wrong:
Jo and Laurie. And this is the biggest reason that this version just sort of flops for me. I really like the casting of Laurie here (Jonah Hauer-King), although he’s no Peter Lawford or Christian Bale, he holds his own in the role (and, unlike the previous Lauries, he actually has black hair and a slightly more “Italian air” like he has in the books). But where this adaptation really misses the mark, is in its inability to capture the intimate and playful connection between Teddy and his Jo. They do a great job with the angst and lovelornity that Laurie has, but that crazy close connection between the two “comrades” just isn’t there.
I always joke (uh, yeah, totally a joke) that Louis May Alcott ruined love for me and gave me permanent commitment issues by having Jo and Laurie not end up together. And in the books, and in the previous adaptations, you feel that tremendous loss when Jo turns down Laurie’s proposal. And yet, in this version, I find myself saying, ‘Yeah, you guys don’t really work’ – because in this version, they don’t. Jo is always a bit too cold towards Laurie, and he’s always a bit too moony and pie-eyed towards Jo, and so, when the big moment comes – which is rather bumbled in this adaptation, too (you guessed it, more on this later) – it’s not the same gut wrenching loss that all of the other adaptations, and the book, traumatize us with. Here, Laurie is primarily portrayed as being a lovesick boy forever pestering Jo, nearly always an annoyance to her, and that’s just not the true dynamic between these two. It’s all rather annoying.
Utterly bland proposal. I really don’t know what happened here. With all of the time that this new adaptation puts into Laurie’s angst, and his fervent pining over Jo, you would think that they would really nail the proposal scene – but they don’t. They just don’t. It’s such a tremendous letdown. In the book, it’s heartbreaking and earth shattering. In the ’49 adaptation, the proposal is absolutely gutting to watch, as Laurie earnestly pours his heart out to Jo before her refusal sends him on his way “to the devil”. The ’94 proposal is equally soul destroying, maybe even more so, as Laurie blinks away the tears at Jo’s denial, and he struggles to keep any semblance of himself in tact. Heck, even the ‘33 version captures the moment better than this new one (although Hepburn’s Jo is stiffer thank Hawke’s). This miniseries just doesn’t ‘get’ the proposal, and it’s such a colossal letdown. Although, on a small note, I do like that this new version actually shows Laurie playing ‘Sonata Pathetique’.
Marmee and Father. I get that they were obviously trying to humanize the parents more, and flesh them out, since the books and previous adaptions do little to let us really know them. The ’94 version does bring a bit more punch to Marmee’s character, thanks to Susan Sarandon, but there still isn’t much there. And truly, there isn’t much there for those characters in the books, either. But really, I don’t think this to be much of a loss, the story, after all, focuses on the “little women”, on the March sisters. And in this miniseries, they add some strange scenes with Jo and her father, and it’s all a bit awkward, and completely unnecessary, to be honest. The miniseries could have utilized this time in much better ways, such as…
No Fred Vaughn. They completely cut this story line out – which is odd since they have the luxury of a fairly long running time to work with. Odder still, they did include Fred’s sister and brother, both in the picnic scene. It’s strange to not have this story line in at all. I suppose they cut this out in attempts to make Amy more amiable, and less like the gold digger she is in the book – and she is proudly so, she brags about the desire to marry a rich man rather plainly throughout the story. Plus, they obviously tried to make Amy and Laurie’s love story more romantic and uncomplicated than the books really paint it out to be…which brings me to…
Laurie and Amy. This really didn’t work for me. It’s such a primrose view of their real dynamic. Sure, in the books and in the previous adaptations, you get the sense that Amy and Laurie would be happy enough together – but there’s still that lingering romantic love that Laurie carries for Jo. This is actual canon. In the books, there’s even the scene in the garret, after Laurie and Amy return, hastily married, where Teddy and Jo have that conversation…
[Laurie explains the quick marriage to Jo]: “[…]But Grandpa wanted to come home. He went to please me, and I couldn’t let him go along, neither could I leave Amy, and Mrs. Carrol had got English notions about chaperons and such nonsense, and wouldn’t let Amy come with us. So I just settled the difficulty by saying, `Let’s be married, and then we can do as we like’.”
[Jo replies]: “Of course you did. You always have things to suit you.”
“Not always.” And something in Laurie’s voice made Jo say hastily…
“How did you ever get Aunt to agree?”
The ’49 version, with Lawford as the perfect Laurie, captures this bittersweet reunion, and you even see the hint of Laurie’s lingering unreciprocated love in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment as he stands, utterly dejected and lonely, at the foot of the stairs, wistfully watching Jo walk away with Amy. Adding the emphasis on the inseparable Laurie and Jo, this ’49 version completely omits Amy and Laurie’s courtship in Europe, so we only see Laurie and Amy together very briefly.
The ’94 version explores Laurie’s descent into debauchery in Europe, and Bale is perfect as the bitter, jilted Laurie – and this ’94 version includes scenes from the book where Amy tells him, “I do not wish to be courted by someone who is still in love with my sister”. However, all of these adaptations still leave out some of Laurie’s lovelornity in the books, like when Amy discovers Laurie has been carrying around Jo’s picture in his pocket. The new adaptation presumably leaves all of this content and subtext out in hopes of convincing the audience that Laurie and Amy have an uncomplicated and rosy romance and marriage – and, had I not read the books, or seen other adaptations, I suppose I would have probably bought it. But it’s not really true to the story. Sure, I know there is a minority that agrees with Marmee, and prefers Laurie and Amy together, and the adaptation obviously takes this viewpoint – which would be fine, but they shouldn’t have done it at the cost of the story, or by omitting so much of what makes ‘Little Women’ so great (ie. the wonderful dynamic between Jo and Laurie).
The Bleakness. Now we come back to this point. As previously mentioned, I appreciate that this adaptation embraces the darker aspects of the story; but they go too far here, and that makes us really lose a lot of the heart of the books. Yes, Beth’s fate is truly heartbreaking, and it’s just difficult to bear, no matter how many times you read the books or watch the movies – but ‘Little Women’ is about life, resiliency, loss, change, heartbreak, triumph, and above else, the promise of hope and unconditional love. And although there is a deep vein of sadness with Beth’s tragic end, the book is about striving for optimism and looking for the best things in life, about always striving towards our castles in the air – even though melancholy is always a sneeze away – and I just didn’t get that from this adaption. They try, at the end, to go out on a too sudden high note, and I do appreciate that they included the last scene, which no other adaptations seem to do, but it all feels a little flat since the overall aesthetic really is just kind of a dull bummer. By the end of it all, after three hours of so much dark and grey aesthetic, I feel weary and ready to be done – and, apparently, so did the filmmakers, it seems, since the last fifteen minutes are all rather rushed.
Final impression: The 2017 Masterpiece Theater adaptation is worth watching for ‘Little Women’ fans because it does offer a different perspective on the story – however, watching it once will probably be enough, and you’ll want to return to the ’49 and ’94 adaptations more often (I didn’t forget about the ’33 version, but I really didn’t care for that one at all – Jo and Laurie are woefully miscast, so I can hardly bare watching it, or thinking too much on it, ever again).
Here are a few random, but wonderful, scenes from these four adaptations:
And here’s a fun compilation someone put together of Jo cutting her hair in four versions .
And, to end this properly, I shall leave you with this bittersweet truth: