Thank you, Little Women

By Monday, May 28, 2018 , , , , ,

“A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” 

So wrote Mr. March to his beloved wife and daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s timeless classic, Little Women. While I’ve loved this book since childhood, I’ve been reminded this week of just how much I love it through the latest screen adaptation of it. BBC produced it and aired it in the UK over Christmas, and PBS just showed it in two consecutive weekends this month here in the US. I’ve read quite a bit of criticism of it online, but I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t think I expected it, but here it is… 

This is the best version of Little Women I’ve seen. 

The production is beautiful in its sweet simplicity, the cast is endearing, and the tone of the writing strikes a lovely balance between serious yet hopeful, realistic yet heartwarming. It has all the charm and beauty that makes the novel so loved, yet also doesn’t shy away from the growing pains and losses that the March sisters endure as they go from girls to women. Both the 1949 version with June Allyson and the 1994 one with Winona Ryder were staples of my childhood, but I was ready for another take on this story when I heard BBC was adapting it. I really applaud the writer Heidi Thomas for a lovely screen translation of this story that adhered to Alcott's novel better than either of those previous versions. A three-hour runtime was a definite advantage at the outset and she made the most of it by including many plot points that had been left out of the other adaptations and by more fully developing the characters. Here are a few categories of aspects about this version that have made it my new favorite.

Kathryn Newton as Amy, Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Annes Elwy as Beth, and Maya Hawke as Jo in BBC's Little Women
Photo Credit: Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

Development and Timeline Aspects

First, I appreciate that in this version, all four sisters are treated with equal worth in the beginning and then the story gradually becomes more about Jo. This mirrors the trajectory of the book very well. Previous adaptations brought Jo to the forefront at the beginning, as that was likely an easy way to deal with time constraints. But the story belongs to all four of them at the beginning, and then Jo becomes the clear protagonist by the end. I appreciated the screen time that the other sisters were given in this adaptation. 

Next, the order of events is much more accurately captured here, and a few seemingly smaller, yet significant, plot items that were omitted from previous versions were kept in. The Christmas dinner that Mr. Laurence sends over after he hears that they gave their breakfast to the Hummels, Beth's early shyness to go visit Mr. Laurence to play his piano, the snow maiden that Jo and Amy and Laurie build for Beth after her initial illness, and Laurie's conversation with his grandfather after Jo's rejection are some sweet, beautiful bits included this version that made me very happy. I also appreciated that the long separation in the middle of Meg and John Brooke's engagement while John fought in the war for a period was properly acknowledged. And during the sequence that notes this, there’s a positively exquisite rendition of "Land O' the Leal" sung in voiceover that brings ALL the feels. 

I also really enjoyed how much more character development was given to Mr. March than I would have expected since he had very little in the 1949 and the 1994 versions. We see snippets of his time away at war, and he has many conversations with Jo in the latter half of the runtime. I especially loved a scene they have together after Beth's death in which Jo feels paralyzed by grief, and her father tells her she needs to write again. And on that note, the scenes surrounding Beth's death were by far the most poignant interpretation of that storyline I've seen. Jo's seaside trip with Beth was included this time and I was so glad – the scene on the beach where Beth confides that she's slipping away is as raw and emotional as it's believable. Annes Elwy's portrayal of Beth's quiet strength and gentle dignity is beautiful.

Dylan Baker and Maya Hawke as Mr. March and Jo
Photo Credit: Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

Laurie and Amy and Jo

You knew this was coming because it always does. But, significantly, I honestly thought this version captured Laurie's relationships with both Jo and Amy in total respect of the book. Two detailed points:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, I have always agreed with Louisa May Alcott's decision to marry Laurie to Amy. However, the creators of the 1994 movie seemed to agree with many fans and perhaps tried to make their feelings known by giving Jo and Laurie a romantic connection for as long as they could before they just had to follow the book. Winona Ryder and Christian Bale did indeed have sizzling chemistry at times, so Jo's rejection could have understandably appeared off-kilter and confusing for some viewers. What's more, the order of events was changed by placing his proposal before her time in New York. Not so in this new version. Maya Hawke and Jonah Hauer-King have a heartfelt but clearly platonic connection from the get-go, and like the novel, it's obvious that Jo has a maturity beyond her years much earlier than Laurie does. From her perspective, he's always been her brother and when he tries to turn their relationship into something else (which he does multiple times before he actually proposes), she finds it incredibly awkward and unhelpful. And also like the novel, Jo's motive for going to New York is to put space between herself and Laurie in hopes that he’ll realize they're not suited before he does something rash like proposing, rather than trying to get away from him after he proposes.
  • All of that said, I honestly believe that Alcott intended for Laurie and Amy to be together from the beginning. The seeds are planted when he visits her every day during her extended stay with Aunt March while Beth fights her first illness. This version gives more screen time to those interactions. There's an absolutely wonderful scene that's also in the novel in which Amy writes out her "will" and asks Laurie to approve it. In this moment, they begin to share confidences and fears. Their time together in Europe is also well-handled in this adaptation. After the initial catch-up, Laurie is obviously struck by how sophisticated, thoughtful, and intelligent Amy has become, and later, when they've received news of Beth's death, they have a moving scene together where Laurie makes clear to Amy that he won't leave her to grieve alone. It's understood that they spend a lot of time together after this, so their subsequent marriage is the natural progression.
Jonah Hauer-King and Kathryn Newton as Laurie and Amy
Photo Credit: Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

Brilliant Casting Choice 

And finally, I think one of the most noteworthy casting and characterization decisions for this adaptation was in Emily Watson as Marmee and the writing for her. The screen time devoted to her and Emily Watson's performance made me realize how much material related to Marmee has been skipped over in previous adaptations, and it was honestly their loss. This version gives her amazing depth and allows us to see her in a more human and relatable light. She has many more scenes that are directly from the book and that reveal who she is as a person – a deeply kind and generous woman who also sometimes feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. And it’s only natural that she would because at first, she's holding down the home front while her husband is away at war, and later, she experiences many normal pains of motherhood in seeing her children grow up and become independent. Here are a few of the "Marmee scenes" in this version that I loved: 
  • After Amy breaks through the ice, Jo pours out her fears of never being able to govern her tongue or temper to Marmee. Marmee assures Jo that she too has an awful temper and has been working for 40 years to control it.
  • Marmee comes into the bedroom where the girls are getting ready for Meg's wedding, and the four of them strike a pose as they giggle excitedly. Marmee is clearly overcome for a moment at how beautiful and grown-up her girls have become.
  • As Jo becomes concerned over Laurie’s attempts to turn their friendship into romance, she confides to Marmee that she must get away for a while because she knows Laurie will only ever be a brother to her. Marmee assures Jo that her instincts are correct in this area and says that she too has always felt that Jo and Laurie are too much alike to get on as a married couple.
  • When Beth tells Marmee that she's sick and won't recover, Marmee makes a quick exit to cry. Jo follows, and Marmee breaks down in Jo's arms. Cue my own waterworks opening up. 
Emily Watson as Marmee with her girls
Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Are you convinced yet? I certainly hope so. This adaptation was good for my heart and made me feel all the nostalgia for girlhood. And to its credit, it has made me want to pick up the book again before too long. Thank you to all who made this story come alive again so beautifully for me. And thank you again to Little Women itself for reminding me of the beauty of womanhood in all its joys, pains, progressions, and turns. 

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  1. Beautiful! I felt the same. The best adaptation of Little Women I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many.