Little Women Smackdown Part 1

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a rare book in that it attracts ardent fans from both sides of modern American Culture Wars. On the one hand, it’s considered something of a pioneering feminist book for focusing largely on the relationships between women and having its heroines be motivated by earning their self respect rather than the admiration of men.[1]When asked how they can reconcile this take on the book with its claim that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” most … Continue reading But it’s also beloved by many conservatives for its celebration of such values as hard work, diligence and modesty, and its positive, though not quite idealized beyond recognition, portrayal of an ordinary family,[2]I know I’m supposed to say either traditional family or nuclear family, but I refuse. Traditional is a hopelessly stodgy and unreal way to describe a family and nuclear makes it sound like a … Continue reading In the interests of honesty, I’d better lay my cards on the table. I’m less attached to Little Women than I am to any of the books whose adaptations I’ve analyzed on the blog so far. I don’t even consider it Alcott’s best book.[3]I prefer Eight Cousins, but that’s never been adapted. In fact, until recently, I’d never sat down and read the whole book, only bits and pieces of it. (I’d like to thank my paternal grandmother, for whom the book is a favorite, for lending me her copy.) But it’s no mystery to me why many people are attached to it. It captures many of things that people, at least lower middle class people like myself, deal with growing up. Chores. Envy. Peer pressure. Artistic ambitions. Getting friend-zoned. Losing a loved one. And anything that can unite liberals and conservatives in these tribalistic times is worth celebrating.[4]The only other thing I can think of that does it is despising the Oscars, which I can’t credibly do without sitting through them, so that’s a no go. So I’ll be looking at each of the movie adaptations of Little Women to determine which I consider the best, even if my perspective isn’t as important as that of less causal fans.

I should probably be looking at television adaptations since the book lends itself to that medium more than to film, but I’m not because, like I said, not that big of a fan.[5]I have seen the 2017 miniseries, and my memory is that it had its moments, but was rather meh on the whole, rearranging events in a way that didn’t make sense and feeling contrived in its … Continue reading And anyway, the very fact that Little Women doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a movie makes the movie adaptations interesting. There were two silent Little Women films from 1917 and 1918, but I haven’t been able to watch them.

Little Women (1933)

Little Women 1933 Katharine Hepburn Joan Bennett | Katharine hepburn, Woman  movie, Joan bennett

This was the first “talkie” of Little Women. It was directed by George Cukor (David Copperfield, Gone With the Wind) from a script by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman.

Pros

From the first ten minutes, a series of scenes showing what each March woman’s “burden” in life is, it’s clear that this is an adaptation made by fans for fans. All the characters feel like they’ve stepped off the page. Even when the dialogue isn’t drawn from the book, it sounds like it could have been. There are no attempts to make it sound more modern.

The acting is all great. Well, great on its own terms. See the cons for more information.

The relationship between Beth March (Jean Parker) and Mr. Laurence Sr (Henry Stephenson) is well developed and quite touching.

The almost-but-not-quite-romantic relationship between Jo March (Katharine Hepburn) and Theodor Laurence AKA Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) is probably the most fully developed in this version, so if that’s your favorite part of the book, this may be the adaptation for you.

Beginning with the 1949 movie, future movie adaptations would make Jo’s actual love interest, Prof. Bhaer (Paul Lukas) younger and hotter to varying degrees.[6]The 2019 movie would probably go the furthest in this direction, understandably so since it had less time to developing him than the other movies and needed to establish him as a possible romantic … Continue reading This professor, with his unconventionally attractive features and comical accent, feels the closest to the one in the book. While he’s not my favorite character there, Lukas is endearing enough, and has a quirky chemistry with Hepburn, that it makes me think future movies should consider staying truer to the text when it comes his character.

Cons

This movie was made when silent movies were a recent memory and people hadn’t quite figured out what kind of performance style worked best for the more intimate medium. All the acting is very hammy. It’s all high quality ham, but it’s more suited to melodrama than to the down-to-earth drama of Little Women, and the layer of unreality is distracting to modern viewers. On the other hand, this theatricality makes things like the twenty-three year old[7]and pregnant! Joan Bennet playing the adolescent Amy March work better than they otherwise would. If you’re in the right mood, the dated acting is great.

While I’ve praised how well this movie develops the Jo-Laurie relationship, it kind of hogs the movie. It gets more time than Jo’s relationship with any other character, except for Beth. Robin Swicord, the screenwriter for the 1994 Little Women movie, has accused previous adaptations of making the story all about whom the March sisters would marry. I don’t think this criticism is totally fair; there’s plenty of focus in this movie and the 1949 one on Jo as a writer, a sister and a daughter. But I can’t say I don’t see from where the criticism is coming.

In fact, Jo herself kind of hogs the movie, which was clearly intended to be a vehicle for Hepburn. It feels like it should have been titled Little Woman. But even ignoring the title, the beginning of the movie feels like it’s going to be an ensemble like the book was. Then halfway through, if not before, it just stops being one. Meg (Frances Dee) is a supporting character during the first act, suddenly becomes the focus of a dramatic scene when she stands up to Aunt March (Edna Mae Oliver), and then gets almost completely dropped by the wayside. Laurie’s romance with his eventual wife, Amy, is almost entirely offscreen. If the acting weren’t so good in its dated way, this would come across as ridiculous given how much time is spent on his ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Jo. I can’t say I entirely blame the screenwriters for this. The main thing that makes Meg’s struggles as a young wife and mother, in the book’s second half, entertaining is Alcott’s humorous prose, which the movie wouldn’t have, rather than the incidents themselves. And Amy’s romantic adventures in Europe, while technically well written, aren’t even that entertaining. For most readers, Jo is the most fun of the four heroines and I’m not about to argue with them.[8]I’m an aspiring author with anger management issues and a dislike of Society. Of course, Jo is my favorite! But the movie ends up coming across as extremely random in its structure. (The book may have been episodic, but it didn’t feel random.)

The script focuses on the moments from the book, which are either the most fun, like the amateur play the Marches put on for their neighbors, or the most dramatic, like Jo selling her hair to help her father. After the first handful of scenes, it doesn’t really show the day-to-day grind of living, which was arguably the heart of the book. (To be fair, that first handful really does do a great job of capturing that.) It also leaves out nearly all the book’s sermonizing, which for many viewers may be a relief, as the most common criticism of Little Women is that it’s too preachy. But while this makes the movie less didactic, it also means it lacks the original’s philosophic and thematic depth. I’m reminded of this quote from a blog post about a Roger Rabbit cartoon, of all things. “Imagine a ten year old boy watching Star Wars for the first time and it instantly becoming the only thing he ever wants to watch, or talk about, or think about for the rest of his life. And you give that boy the money and crew he needs to make his own Star Wars. That movie would just be wall to wall spaceship battles and lightsabre duals and it would last ten hours and be absolutely unwatchable. Because the boy knows that those are the parts of the movie that he enjoyed the most but doesn’t understand that the talky bits were what gave narrative and emotional context to those battle scenes which is what makes them satisfying on more than a surface visual level.” This Little Women adaptation is very far from unwatchable. But it’s not so much a retelling of the story as a Greatest Hits Version of it. On that level, it works.

Traditions Started

The 1949 Little Women would be as much a remake of this one as a fresh adaptation of the book. Mason and Heerman would even get screenwriting credit for it.

The 1949 and 2019 movies would, like this one, have Amy be the one to get in trouble for drawing a caricature of her teacher in class. (In the book, she credits this to a classmate.) This fits in with her being an artist and is easier to explain than trading limes[9]See? You want an explanation, don’t you?, which is what she gets in trouble for in the book.

All of the future Little Women movies would have Prof. Bhaer encouraging Jo in what she should write rather than just telling her what she shouldn’t write.[10]In the book, it’s actually ambiguous whether he knows that Jo is the author of the sensational stories he condemns. In the 2018 movie, this would actually define their whole relationship. And all but the 2019 movie, would also end with him helping her get her work published.

Future movies would also all have Jo reject Laurie’s proposal before she meets the professor. I’m not sure if this is a good idea, as it risks prejudicing Jo-Laurie shippers against him, but I can understand why it’d be difficult to have Jo going continually back and forth between Concord and New York in a movie.

They would also all have Aunt March be the character who takes Amy to Europe rather than the book’s Aunt and Uncle Carrol and Cousin Flo. While it’s debatable how in character such a trip would be for Aunt March, this change means fewer characters to introduce and she’s such a fun crank that the more of her there is in the movie, the merrier.

The 1994 Little Women movie would arguably combine two scenes from this one: Prof. Bhaer translating song lyrics into English for Jo, the romantic nature of which reflects their feelings, and him taking her to the opera.

All of the movies, except for the 2019 one, would start out as being about all the sisters and end up being mainly about Jo, though happily this wouldn’t come across as an artistic problem in any of them as it does here.

Little Women (1949)

Enchanted Serenity of Period Films: LIttle Women (1949)

This Little Women was directed by Mervyn Leroy (The Wizard of Oz, The Bad Seed) from a script by Andrew Solt. It happens to have been my introduction to the story.

Pros

The casting is generally fine. June Allyson kind of comes across as a discount Katharine Hepburn[11]It’s probably less noticeable if you don’t watch the 1933 movie and this one in the same week., but on that level, she’s fine. And I think I like Mary Astor’s Marmee better than Spring Bytington’s, though that may just be because she’s better developed. I don’t like Janet Leigh’s Meg better than Frances Dee’s, but that’s because she strikes me as less the character’s type, not because she’s less charismatic. (The character suffers in both films from being underdeveloped.) While Margaret O’ Brien was obviously too young at eleven to be Beth, she’s endearing in the role and her youth arguably makes the character’s courage in the face of death even more moving. I have issues with Amy in this movie, but I’m not sure how much of them are Elizabeth Taylor’s fault.

This script reinserts a speech from Marmee that wasn’t in the 1933 movie, about what her plans are for her daughters (that they be happy, useful and pleasant rather than rich) and how she’d rather see them as “the happy wives of poor men, or even respectable old maids, than queens on thrones without self respect.” This arguably makes for a nice happy medium, giving this movie more thematic depth than the 1933 one, but being less consistently didactic than the book.

Cons

I distinctly remember being angry, when I first saw this movie as a kid, that Jo didn’t end up with Laurie. Rewatching it as an adult, I’m not sure why I felt that way since Peter Lawford comes across as way too old and stodgy to play the lively young character. Allyson is older than Jo too, so it probably made sense on paper to cast another older actor as her best friend. But to her credit, she comes across as young in a way he doesn’t.

Speaking of Laurie, Allyson’s performance in the scene where Jo rejects him doesn’t quite work the way it should. She doesn’t necessarily play it differently from how the character acts in the book. But the book was slower paced and had the opportunity to establish that Jo sensed this unwanted proposal was coming and had been dreading the sad task of turning her friend down. In the movie, her sadness threatens to come across as her actually wanting to accept but not doing so for….unclear reasons.

For some reason, the young Amy is portrayed as more of a brat here than she is in any other version. She becomes the only one to object to giving the family’s Christmas breakfast to the destitute Hummels (though you could argue that also makes her the most relatable March), and even when she gives in, she stills makes sure she gets some of it. The movie includes a scene from the 1933 movie, in which Amy tearfully begs her teacher not to punish her and then when he relents, pompously boasts to her curious classmates that “he wouldn’t dare” punish her when her mother threatened to remove her from the school. In that movie, the whole thing was played for laughs and Amy’s chutzpah was rather endearing. Here, it’s played weirdly earnestly and her twofaced behavior comes across as simply ungrateful, especially since this movie adds the detail of her teacher being about to cane her, but changing his mind. In the book’s equivalent of this incident, he does cane her and her mother does remove her from the school. Neither Marmee nor Alcott pretend Amy doesn’t deserve punishment, but the overall effect of the book’s scene is to gain sympathy for her. Why was it necessary to change it so much? The overall effect of all this is to make it infuriating that Amy ends up with the story’s most appealing young male character, especially since their romance is entirely offscreen. At least, the 1933 film had one scene of them together, even if it was more about them grieving for Beth. (Actually that’s something else of which this movie could have used more.)[12]All the Little Women movies suffer dramatically from not focusing on Amy’s quarantine at Aunt March’s, which in the book is where her most dramatic character development happens. Without … Continue reading When Jo jokingly says to the adult Amy, “to think you were such a horrid little girl,” it’s hard not to agree with her in earnest.

Traditions Started

The 1994 movie would, like this one, have Prof Bhaer (Rossano Brazzi) come to Jo’s house and, getting the impression that she was married to Laurie, leave without seeing her. In both movies, Jo runs out after him into the rain to clear things up.

Both the 1994 and the 2018 movies would also portray Amy as being more reluctant than her sisters to donate her Christmas breakfast, though happily she wouldn’t come across anywhere near as unlikeable as she does in this one.

Little Women (1994)

This Little Women was directed by Gillian Armstrong from a screenplay by Robin Swicord. For 90s kids, this is The Little Women.[13]I’m a 90s kids but I didn’t actually watch it much growing up. It’s a favorite of my mother’s though.

Pros

This movie probably has the most consistently great casting of any Little Women. That’s not to say every cast member gives my favorite depiction of their character, but there’s fewer nongreat actors than in any other Little Women movie. Winona Rider’s hair is obviously not her “one beauty” but she’s captivating as Jo. This is the first movie to have Amy be played by a young actress in the first half and an older one in the second. While I didn’t have a problem with having the same actress throughout in the previous ones, Kirsten Dunst’s performance as young Amy still feels like a breath of fresh air. She makes the character’s drama queen tendencies and malapropisms charming in a way only a child can. Samantha Mathis, as the older Amy, isn’t nearly as fun, but I blame that on the script, not her.[14]To be honest, I kind of blame it on Alcott. Christian Bale is the best Laurie and Claire Danes is at least one of the best Beths. She’s certainly the best one so far.[15]The record will show I enjoyed both Jean Parker and Margaret O’ Brien in the role, but the former was just a little too smiley and the latter was just a little too grim. Gabriel Byrne’s Prof. Bhaer really does have “the kindest eyes (Jo) ever saw”[16]He’s also the only cinematic Bhaer with a convincingly German accent. The professors in the 1933 and 1949 movies were more Italian, the one in the 2019 movie would be more French and the one in … Continue reading and Susan Sarandon was born to play Marmee. The only major performance I question is Trini Alvarado’s as Meg. She mostly comes across as nervous and unsure of herself, which works great in some scenes, but gets old in every scene. Perhaps since previous adaptations hadn’t focused on this aspect of Meg’s character, this one felt compelled to overcompensate.

The score by Thomas Newman is the best in any Little Women movie and frankly it’s not even a competition.

This movie is also the best looking Little Women to my eyes. On the whole, it does the best job of capturing the warm, cozy feeling we associate with the book.

The script covers new ground by showing more scenes of Amy and Laurie together in Europe. It doesn’t really sell their romance,[17]I’m not even sure if the book manages to do that. but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Cons

As much as I enjoy this movie’s warm, cozy atmosphere, I sometimes feel it’s too warm and cozy for it’s own good. Despite the best efforts of the cast, which are considerable, moments like Amy nearly drowning in icy water don’t pack the emotional punch they should. It’s hard to believe in something seriously bad happening in the Christmas Card world of the film, though when Beth dies, it does get a little easier.

After the 1933 one, this is the Little Women movie with the least use for the book’s moral themes. While Marmee sermonizes more here than in that one, her philosophy boils down to “be someone you can be proud of.” (Not an exact quote, but a good summary, I feel.) This is certainly what she teaches her daughters in the book, but she was much more specific there about what kind of people should be proud of themselves. This Marmee doesn’t talk much about the need to be hard working or uncomplaining or humble or self disciplined, though, to be fair, she does demonstrate those qualities from time to time. It feels like these filmmakers had so much affection for their heroines and were so eager to affirm/encourage young girls that they couldn’t bring themselves to criticize them or challenge them to be better people.

While it may not be preachy when it comes to the things the book was preachy about, this Little Women is plenty preachy about other things, mainly gender and racial equality, and not to good effect. When we cut from Marmee decrying restrictive corsets to Jo complaining about her skirt, it’s safe to say that subtlety has been killed. But that at least makes sense. Amy’s negatively portrayed teacher, Mr. Davies, is quoted as saying it’s “as useful to educate a woman as to educate a female cat.” If that’s his opinion, why is he teaching a school for girls? Instead of making me hate him more, this line actually makes me feel sorry for the man since he’s apparently slaving away at a job he considers a ridiculous waste of time.[18]Adding a bit of tragedy to a minor antagonist would be interesting, but I don’t believe it’s what the movie had in mind with that line. Then there’s Meg’s boycotting silk made with child labor…yeah, that relates to the story.[19]Ironically, we don’t get Amy helping with a benefit for freedmen, something from the book! Most of this comes across as the filmmakers feeling guilty about positively representing people from a culture where racism and sexism were prevalent. I’m not asking for a gritty Little Women with the Marchs using the N word, but these constant assurances that the main characters aren’t sexist or racist, like they realistically would be, tend to awaken my cynicism rather than quiet it, especially when they feel tacked on and don’t connect to the story at all.[20]To the movie’s credit, a scene discussing the Women’s Suffrage Movement does a nice job of developing Prof. Bhaer’s character. While another man advocates giving women a say in … Continue reading The 2019 Little Women would also incorporate modern liberal/feminist commentary[21]Both movies would even have Prof. Bhaer intend to go West because people there would be more openminded about his immigrant status, but would happily do so with more craft.

Probably no one cares about this besides myself, but at one point, Jo refers to the character “Smee in Nicholas Nickleby.” There is no character called Smee in Nicholas Nickleby. Smee is the name of a character from Peter Pan![22]I can only assume she meant to say, Smike.

Traditions Started

The 2018 and 2019 movies would generally choose the same episodes from the book as this one to adapt, including all the Pilgrim’s Progress themed chapters (Jo Meets Apollyon, Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, etc) of which, only Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful was included in the 1933 and 1949 movies.

The 2018 movie would copy this one by having Marmee tell one of her daughters that “the workings of her mind” are more important than her physical appearance, though it would be a different daughter and in a different scene. It would also have Beth be given her new piano at Christmas after her initial recovery rather than earlier.

The 2019 movie would also have Amy initially reject Laurie’s advances on the grounds that he’s really still in love with Jo and she doesn’t want to be his consolation prize. Laurie would also be depicted as falling into drinking and flirting while moping over Jo. (In the book, he’s mostly criticized for being lazy at this point.)

This movie, the 2018 one and the 2019 one would all end with Jo writing a book about her life and her family, which takes the function of the much praised magazine story she writes towards the end of the book, and which is all but stated to be Little Women itself.[23]It’s an open secret that Alcott based on Jo on herself and the other Marchs on her family, but it should be noted that the events and the supporting characters of the book were fictionalized. … Continue reading The similarities between how the writing of the book is staged in this film and the 2018 one are particularly noticeable.

Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. (1947) Little Women. New York, Grosset & Dunlap Inc.

Rioux, Anne Boyd. (2018) Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. New York, W. W. Norton & Company.

ship_manifesto | Some Things Never Change: Jo/Laurie (Little Women) (dreamwidth.org)

Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) | unshavedmouse

References

References
1 When asked how they can reconcile this take on the book with its claim that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” most feminist fans would say that Alcott had to write things like that because Society demanded it, not because they represent her real opinions. And there’s good biographical evidence that this is true. The contentedly single Alcott was irritated by fan letters asking “who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.” However, the aspect of the book I just described as feminist was also something forced upon Alcott by her editor. Like Jo, her most beloved heroine, she preferred boys to girls, except for her sisters, and didn’t want to write a book about the latter. I guess if ever a classic was written in spite of its author, it was Little Women.
2 I know I’m supposed to say either traditional family or nuclear family, but I refuse. Traditional is a hopelessly stodgy and unreal way to describe a family and nuclear makes it sound like a dangerous science experiment. I expect the term was coined to be a polite slur.
3 I prefer Eight Cousins, but that’s never been adapted.
4 The only other thing I can think of that does it is despising the Oscars, which I can’t credibly do without sitting through them, so that’s a no go.
5 I have seen the 2017 miniseries, and my memory is that it had its moments, but was rather meh on the whole, rearranging events in a way that didn’t make sense and feeling contrived in its attempts to be different from previous adaptations. The 2019 movie, which managed to be different from previous adaptations in a way that felt natural and closer to the book, rather put it to shame.
6 The 2019 movie would probably go the furthest in this direction, understandably so since it had less time to developing him than the other movies and needed to establish him as a possible romantic partner as soon as possible.
7 and pregnant!
8 I’m an aspiring author with anger management issues and a dislike of Society. Of course, Jo is my favorite!
9 See? You want an explanation, don’t you?
10 In the book, it’s actually ambiguous whether he knows that Jo is the author of the sensational stories he condemns.
11 It’s probably less noticeable if you don’t watch the 1933 movie and this one in the same week.
12 All the Little Women movies suffer dramatically from not focusing on Amy’s quarantine at Aunt March’s, which in the book is where her most dramatic character development happens. Without it, she seemingly goes from being immature to mature in the blink of an eye. Boy howdy, does this adaptation suffer from that!
13 I’m a 90s kids but I didn’t actually watch it much growing up. It’s a favorite of my mother’s though.
14 To be honest, I kind of blame it on Alcott.
15 The record will show I enjoyed both Jean Parker and Margaret O’ Brien in the role, but the former was just a little too smiley and the latter was just a little too grim.
16 He’s also the only cinematic Bhaer with a convincingly German accent. The professors in the 1933 and 1949 movies were more Italian, the one in the 2019 movie would be more French and the one in the 2018 movie would simply be an American.
17 I’m not even sure if the book manages to do that.
18 Adding a bit of tragedy to a minor antagonist would be interesting, but I don’t believe it’s what the movie had in mind with that line.
19 Ironically, we don’t get Amy helping with a benefit for freedmen, something from the book!
20 To the movie’s credit, a scene discussing the Women’s Suffrage Movement does a nice job of developing Prof. Bhaer’s character. While another man advocates giving women a say in government, he’s the only one who bothers to include Jo, an actual woman in the room, in the discussion.
21 Both movies would even have Prof. Bhaer intend to go West because people there would be more openminded about his immigrant status
22 I can only assume she meant to say, Smike.
23 It’s an open secret that Alcott based on Jo on herself and the other Marchs on her family, but it should be noted that the events and the supporting characters of the book were fictionalized. Little Women wasn’t as strictly autobiographical for Alcott as it is for Jo in these movies.
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