Little Women Smackdown Part 2

Little Women (2018)

Little Women' Review: Louisa May Alcott's Book Gets Modern Adaptation |  IndieWire

This Little Women was directed by Claire Niederpruem who cowrite the screenplay with Kristi Shimek.[1]This independently produced movie was distributed in part by Pureflix, a Christian company. However, no secular Little Women fans should be turned off by this. From what I can tell, the movie … Continue reading It resets the story in modern times and uses nonlinear storytelling, intercutting Jo’s life after leaving home with flashbacks of her childhood.

Pros

In my opinion, this has the greatest casting choices for the March sisters ever. They all feel like regular teenage girls who might live next door, not like actresses playing regular teenage girls, something even the best actresses from other Little Women films can’t completely shake off. Sarah Davenport captures the blustery, unsentimental spirit of Jo perfectly. Allie Jennings smiles sweetly throughout most of her role as Beth, but always feels like a real person who is sweet, not a caricature. Melanie Stone, unlike Trini Alvarado, makes Meg a girl who is nervous about people not liking her, but is capable of standing up for her beliefs and of having fun. Elise Clare Jones can whine with the best of them as the younger Amy, but also brings a vulnerability and insecurity to the character which no other actress does. While she has little screen time, I find Taylor Murphy more appealing as the older Amy than either Samantha Mathis or Florence Pugh of the 2019 movie.

This is the only adaptation to show that part of the Pickwick Club is for the March sisters to challenge each other to be better people, though sadly it does so by cutting the literary aspect of the club. See cons below for more on this.

This adaptation does the best job portraying Meg’s wealthy friends. In the 1994 movie, they’re so obviously snobby and condescending that it’s hard to understand why Meg would want to be friends with them. In the 2019 one, they’re so friendly that they don’t really register as negative characters at all. Here their friendliness feels genuine, but their worldliness and calculation come across as unappealing next to the more innocent Meg.

This movie also does the best job developing the relationship between Jo and Beth. We really get a sense of how, though they seem like opposites as far as personalities go, they fit together perfectly as people who don’t care what others think about them, unlike Meg and Amy, and would be lost without each other. All of which makes Beth’s death more heartbreaking in this version than in any other. And that’s no faint praise since that plot point is usually well done.

This film, the 1994 one and the 2019 one all have Jo and Prof Bhaer have an argument before she goes to take care of Beth to create suspense about their relationship. This is the only to have her apologize to him upon their reunion, which serves to demonstrate her character development very well.[2]The 1994 movie, I fear, loves Jo too much to admit she needs character development and while the 2019 one doesn’t have that problem, it has so many other plot threads to which it seeks to do … Continue reading

This is something that’s specific to me and won’t be a draw for many viewers, but as a homeschooler myself, I really appreciated this movie’s positive portrayal of it. And it’s not just that they portray it positively. I feel that this film really gets homeschoolers, with their roleplay, their camaraderie and their (generally) cheerful lack of coolness. In fact, it made me realize that Little Women is the ultimate pro-homeschooling story. Characters outside the home are only portrayed positively if they’re willing to adapt themselves to the Marchs, like the Laurences, instead of trying to get the Marchs to adapt to the outside world, like the Moffats.[3]This is true of the 1994 and 2019 movies but they feel the need to apologize for homeschooling by stressing the low quality of schools for women during the time period.

Cons

While the actresses playing the four March sisters are all my favorites in their roles, none of the other actors really are. That’s not to say any of them are bad. They’re all very good, but few, if any, strike me as definitive portrayals of their characters. Lucas Grabeel as Laurie, I feel, clearly has just friendly chemistry with Jo, which is arguably good since that’s exactly the kind of chemistry Louisa May Alcott wanted them to have, but so many readers have felt that they should end up together despite this that it feels wrong for their friendship not to feel like it could turn into romance.

Despite the updated setting, the writers wished to reference the same books as Alcott did, The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Pickwick Papers. But they didn’t wish this strongly enough to actually read either of those books or even skim them. Thus the Marchs give the name Apollyon to a completely unrelated Pilgrim’s Progress character and, even more cringeworthily, make the Pickwick Club an army platoon rather than a literary group. Fortunately, despite my love of Dickens, I’m not a huge fan of either of those works, but I still wince a little at the stupidity of these mistakes. A glance at Wikipedia could have cleared them up![4]Along similar lines, a quote decorating Jo’s wall about storytelling restoring through imagination is credited to Walt Disney. I’m pretty sure it was only said by the fictional Walt … Continue reading

This movie borrows a scene from the 1994 Little Women in which young Amy worries she’ll die before being kissed and Laurie assures her that won’t happen. I can understand the appeal of this bit since there’s not much else to foreshadow a romance between the two characters. But it really doesn’t work well with other changes made to the story. In the 1994 film, both Amy’s father and sister were in danger of their lives, the latter with a contagious disease, and it made sense for her to start worrying about her own mortality. Here with only Beth being sick (with leukemia rather than scarlet fever), she comes across as selfish for worrying about herself instead of her sister.

Some viewers may be disturbed by the way this adaptation changes the time period, but keeps the dated detail of having the love interests for all the sisters be significantly older than them, Meg’s less so than the others. In particular, some may raise their eyebrows over Prof. Bhaer (Ian Bohen) being Jo’s actual professor at college. For what it’s worth, their relationship doesn’t become romantic until it seems Jo is no longer a student. I actually think the actors do the best job of selling the romance than any other Little Women movie, but your mileage may vary.

In general, some fans of the source material may feel the fact that this adaptation is set in the wrong time period disqualifies it from ever being the best. I can certainly understand that though I feel it allows the movie to focus on the story and characters without the burden of establishing a historical context. Still, some plot points do get lost, like Jo opening Plumfield Academy, which was arguably her main achievement in the book rather than any literary success or her marriage to Bhaer.[5]Actually, the 1933 and 1949 movies drop this plot point too despite having less of an excuse.

Traditions Started

The scripts for this movie and the 2019 one were being written independently of each other around the same time, so technically we can’t say one was influenced by the other. But there are a number of similarities between them by coincidence. Most notably, they both use nonlinear storytelling, intercutting the adult half of the book with flashbacks to the teenage half.

Both begin, or nearly begin, with the older Jo presenting her work to a professional editor and being told it needs to have a love story in it to make it marketable.

Both would also have an early scene of Aunt March (Barta Heiner in this movie) scolding Jo for her being too idealistic in her plans for the future and not practical enough.

Jo and Prof. Bhaer attend a Shakespearean comedy together in both, tying in with the volume of Shakespeare’s complete works he gives her. This movie has them see As You Like It and the 2019 one Twelfth Night.[6]I’m guessing this is a nod to Jo’s wish to be a boy since the heroines of these comedies are able to impersonate young men so convincingly that women fall in love with them. But Twelfth … Continue reading

When Jo and the ailing Beth are at the seashore, both films have Beth encourage Jo not to give up on her writing, even after she(Beth) is gone.

In both, Jo is portrayed as being less comfortable with Laurie and Amy’s relationship than she is in the book, though both scripts draw on the book for this part.[7]The 2018 takes inspiration from Jo wondering “why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing.” The 2019 takes inspiration from Jo saying, possibly with her tongue in her … Continue reading

Little Women (2019)

LW_2019_0749.jpg

This Little Women was written and directed by Greta Gerwig.

Pros

This movie has the best screenplay of any cinematic Little Women or at least the one that’s the most fun to analyze.[8]The fact that it cuts back and forth between the past and present storylines more frequently than the 2018 one may turn some viewers off. It requires you to pay closer attention than the other movies … Continue reading It uses far more dialogue from the book than either the 1994 or the 2018 scripts, but it also feels more creative than any of the Little Women movies, with the arguable exception of the 2018 one, and more personal than any of them bar none.

A big appeal of this adaptation for fans of the book is that it tries to give equal attention to all the sisters. In the other movies, Meg (here played by Emma Watson) is pretty much finished as a character once she puts aside all chances of marrying into money and gets engaged to a poor tutor. Here we see her deal with the reality of life after her wedding. This not only makes her a more interesting character but also makes Aunt March (Meryl Streep) more interesting since her dire predictions about the marriage aren’t totally wrong though they certainly aren’t totally right either.[9]I’d rather have seen the incident of Meg’s failed attempt at making jelly, which would have actually fit in perfectly with this movie’s overarching theme of “life’s … Continue reading

This is the adaptation that really, really tries to sell the romance between Amy (Florence Pugh) and Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and to the extent that it fails, I’m inclined to blame this more on the acting choices than the writing.[10]I do sometimes wonder if it was a mistake to have them argue so much since the most specific reason we’re given that a marriage between Jo and Laurie would be a bad idea is that they fight too … Continue reading It uses nonlinear storytelling to shrewd effect, introducing them as a potential couple early on, and developing their love story alongside the relationship between the youthful Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie. This gets around Little Women‘s inherent dramatic problem of spending so much of the first half developing Jo and Laurie’s relationship only to have them end up with other characters.[11]In the book’s defense, friendship doesn’t always translate into romance, being fun to be with doesn’t translate into being a good spouse, and there’s nothing unrealistic about … Continue reading In general, this is the script that does the best job keeping Amy’s sympathetic and admirable qualities in focus, even if it arguably cheats by emphasizing the Jo-like (her struggles as an artist) and Meg-like (the pressure she’s under to marry into wealth) aspects of her character.

Speaking of romance, this movie does the best job making Meg’s eventual husband, John Brooke (James Norton), an appealing character.[12]For my money, the 2018 one does the second best job. Not that he’s unlikeable per se in the other films, but it’s hard to disagree with 1994 Jo’s assessment of him as being “dull as powder.” Here we get a sense of his own struggles with poverty and his compassion for the March family. This also makes Meg herself a more engaging character as we understand what she sees in him.

I love the way this movie humanizes Marmee (Laura Dern), showing that she’s not just a supermom. This is the first Little Women movie since the 1933 one to show her needing Jo to comfort her over Beth (Elizabeth Scanlen)’s death.[13]The 2018 one does show her crying, but it’s not a big focus of the scene and it’s her husband, not her daughter, who comforts her. It’s also the only to include her confiding in Jo that she struggles with the same anger issues that she does.[14]Though Susan Sarandon’s Marmee does show this controlled anger in the scene where she writes to Amy’s teacher. Including Jo’s dialogue leading up to this, in which she fears that her seemingly uncontrollable fury may someday ruin her life, is also a plus as it shows a dark side to the beloved character that the other films don’t.[15]The 1994 and 2018 movies include the conflict between Jo and Amy that leads up to this, but they focus on their heartwarming reconciliation rather than Jo’s guilt over her grudge endangering … Continue reading

What the movie does with the ending is kind of brilliant. (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled.) When she wrote the first half of Little Women, Alcott imagined Jo growing up to be “a literary spinster” like herself. When the public demanded she wrote the second half, literary convention also demanded she give Jo a romance. Right before this movie’s version of the romantic finale between her and Prof. Bhaer (Louis Garrell), it cuts to a future discussion between Jo and her editor. (Remember that tradition I mentioned in the last post of these movies ending with Jo writing Little Women and getting it published?) She argues that it would be out of character for her heroine to ever marry, but he convinces her it’s the only way the book will sell. Only then do we see the Under the Umbrella scene, implying it’s fictional. This allows the movie to pay tribute to Alcott’s original conception of Jo while still (theoretically) pleasing fans of the story as it is and to get in a rant about writers being forced to include romance in their stories to make them marketable. As an aspiring author myself, I relate to that.[16]The 2018 Little Women also humorously raises the question of whether Jo getting married is out of character in a more subtle way and includes some other pleasingly meta jokes.

Cons

You’ll notice that all my pros for this movie have to do with the script, not with the music or the cinematography or any of the other aspects. None of those things are outright bad, but none of them are particularly inspired either, including the cast. Saoirse Ronan is probably the blandest cinematic Jo and Timothee Chalamet is definitely the most wooden Laurie, though he does have his moments, mainly the scene of Jo rejecting his proposal. In fact, he does that scene-and that scene only-better than any other Laurie. Florence Pugh is good as the older Amy and brings an entertaining gusto to the younger Amy, but she’s about as convincing as a twelve-year-old as I’d be playing a goldfish. Having an adult actress play the character throughout worked for me in the 1933 Little Women because of that movie’s generally theatrical feel. It doesn’t work with the realism for which this film strives. The younger Amy never feels real and since she’s in so much of the past storyline, this becomes a pretty major distraction. A scene of her in a classroom with a bunch of actual young girls, who are supposed to be her peers, looks especially ridiculous. I wish I could praise Eliza Scanlen since she’s the least famous actress with a major role in this movie. I will say that her facial expressions convey her character’s crippling shyness better than previous Beths have done. But they don’t really convey anything else. Only Laura Dern’s Marmee and Emma Watson’s Meg are candidates for the best cinematic versions of their characters and in the case of the latter, that’s more a comment on how underwhelming Meg usually is onscreen than on how good Watson is in the role.

Even the script isn’t perfect. As great as it is to see justice done to characters who are usually underdeveloped in Little Women movies,[17]In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, there’s Mr. Laurence Sr (Chris Cooper). the downside is that Beth gets the short end of the stick. In particular, we don’t get a sense of her close relationship with Jo until she’s dying and even then the focus is almost entirely on Jo’s character, not Beth’s. Gerwig the screenwriter does give Beth plenty of good dialogue, but Gerwig the director doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. In the scenes of the whole family together, the camera avoids focusing on Beth specifically as much as possible. The impression we get is of her being perpetually pushed into the background by her three livelier sisters. Maybe they should have gotten another Big Name actress to play this part, if only to attract the audience’s attention to her somehow. This would all be less of a problem if she wasn’t the character the movie really wants us to cry over. It basically succeeds in this, but because of the audience’s investment in the characters who care about Beth, not Beth herself. It’d have been nice if we could have mourned the character for her own sake.[18]Then again, given her selfless personality, maybe Beth wouldn’t have had it any other way.

While the ending is kind of brilliant, it’s also very frustrating. (Again, skip this paragraph if you don’t want too many spoilers.) Alcott may not have originally wanted Jo to have a love interest, but when she resigned herself to it, she clearly prepared for it with Jo feeling lonely and depressed at being the only woman in her family who’s not, in this movie’s words, married or dead. And the movie doesn’t cut any of this setup. In fact, it depicts Jo’s desperation more dramatically than any other adaptation. Arguably more dramatically than the book does. So if Jo isn’t really married to Bhaer at the end, we’re left wondering just how happy she is. (It’s hard not to read the apparently fictional romantic scene as, not only a concession to the market, but wish fulfillment on her part.) It’s perfectly possible for someone to feel desperate to be married at one point and sometime later to decide that they’re really better off single. But since we don’t see any of this implied character arc for Jo, it’s not very satisfying. If that’s even supposed to be the implication. Maybe we’re meant to assume in retrospect that the scenes of Jo being lonely and in love with Prof. Bhaer were just part of her book. If so, it’s annoying that we spent so much time on them.[19]On some level, the film’s ending is a critique of the book’s conclusion. It’s an oddly harsh one for such an affectionate adaptation. Prof. Bhaer in the book was less of a … Continue reading And this isn’t the only thing that this ending throws into question. Since the final scene at the school Jo opens features Bhaer, we aren’t sure if Jo was able to accomplish that either. Since it’s also our final glimpse of Meg, Amy, Marmee and their husbands, we don’t know if their happy endings are real either. This even undoes some of the goodwill this adaptation has earned by giving equal weight to the protagonists besides Jo, as the only triumph we can ultimately be sure of in the movie is hers. Not even all of hers actually. Just the one specific triumph of writing Little Women and getting it published. I don’t have a problem with ambiguous endings in theory. But as there’s pretty much nothing ambiguous about this movie until the end, it feels like a betrayal.

There is one thing that foreshadows that the scenes set in the past may not be entirely accurate. They tend to have bright, warm, inviting art direction while the scenes set in the present are duller looking. The contrasts created by the cuts back and forth between the past and present emphasize this. (For example, we go from Meg enjoying herself at the Moffats’ ball to her worrying about finances with her husband.) While I’d say it’s true that the first half of the book was more fun and the second half was more serious, this is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s not as if everything was perfect during the first half or nothing bad happened then like, I don’t know, the American Civil War. The idea behind this, that the happiest memories in life are only happy because they’re memories, also strikes me as hysterically morbid.

Conclusion

So which Little Women movie is the best? For me, it’s…The 2018 one.

Little Women (2018) - IMDb

I know it’s not a classic from the golden age of cinema or an Oscar darling or even particularly nostalgic. But this is the Little Women movie I find most satisfying on the whole and I believe it deserves a wider audience then it’s gotten.

It’s true that being set in a different time period disqualifies the movie from being an ideal introduction to the story for newcomers, but I’d argue that none of the movies are that. The 2019 Little Women has the most thoughtful script, but it ends up being as much of an interpretation of/commentary on the book as a retelling of its story, making it better for openminded fans.[20]The same could be said of the last Peter Pan movie I covered. In general, the fact that the three most recent movies are more modern in their female empowerment themes than the book may leave some newcomers disappointed when they read the source material. And the two older movies end up distorting the text in other ways. But what all the Little Women movies capture is the appeal of the Marchs themselves. They’re personalities are clearly differentiated from each other, but they feel like real people, not types. They have high ideals yet also feel like fun people with which to hang out. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a family like that?

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)

References

References
1 This independently produced movie was distributed in part by Pureflix, a Christian company. However, no secular Little Women fans should be turned off by this. From what I can tell, the movie wasn’t made for Christian audiences specifically. The studios just felt that it was too clean to be marketed to anyone else and just dubbed over any offensive language, incidentally making it closer to the spirit of the book. If anything, secularists should be more turned off by the source material which has Beth worrying she’ll even be homesick in Heaven. Here she just refers to “other side.”
2 The 1994 movie, I fear, loves Jo too much to admit she needs character development and while the 2019 one doesn’t have that problem, it has so many other plot threads to which it seeks to do justice that it doesn’t have time for Jo to apologize to Bhaer.
3 This is true of the 1994 and 2019 movies but they feel the need to apologize for homeschooling by stressing the low quality of schools for women during the time period.
4 Along similar lines, a quote decorating Jo’s wall about storytelling restoring through imagination is credited to Walt Disney. I’m pretty sure it was only said by the fictional Walt Disney of the (excellent) movie, Saving Mr. Banks, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.
5 Actually, the 1933 and 1949 movies drop this plot point too despite having less of an excuse.
6 I’m guessing this is a nod to Jo’s wish to be a boy since the heroines of these comedies are able to impersonate young men so convincingly that women fall in love with them. But Twelfth Night was totally the wrong choice since Viola, its heroine, hates having to pretend to be a man. As You Like It‘s Rosalind has more fun with it and has a personality more like Jo’s, but she doesn’t appear in the scene we see Jo and the professor watch. Go figure.
7 The 2018 takes inspiration from Jo wondering “why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing.” The 2019 takes inspiration from Jo saying, possibly with her tongue in her cheek, “perhaps if Teddy had tried again, I might have said yes, not because I love him anymore, but because I care more to be loved than when he went away.”
8 The fact that it cuts back and forth between the past and present storylines more frequently than the 2018 one may turn some viewers off. It requires you to pay closer attention than the other movies do, but if you’re willing to pay that attention, it pays off.
9 I’d rather have seen the incident of Meg’s failed attempt at making jelly, which would have actually fit in perfectly with this movie’s overarching theme of “life’s never going to be as perfect as you want, but it can still be pretty great,” adapted rather than the less fun incident of the greatcoat. But I can see how the latter fit in with the contrast this movie seeks to draw between the “childhood” part of the story and the “adult” part. See the cons for more on this.
10 I do sometimes wonder if it was a mistake to have them argue so much since the most specific reason we’re given that a marriage between Jo and Laurie would be a bad idea is that they fight too much. Here it doesn’t seem like Amy and Laurie fight any less. Still, the lack of conflict is arguably what makes the Amy-Laurie relationship less interesting than the one between Jo and Laurie in the book, so I can’t blame this movie for wanting to emphasize how they challenge each other.
11 In the book’s defense, friendship doesn’t always translate into romance, being fun to be with doesn’t translate into being a good spouse, and there’s nothing unrealistic about Jo marrying someone she meets as an adult rather than someone she’s known from before then. On the other hand, realism doesn’t always make for satisfying storytelling.
12 For my money, the 2018 one does the second best job.
13 The 2018 one does show her crying, but it’s not a big focus of the scene and it’s her husband, not her daughter, who comforts her.
14 Though Susan Sarandon’s Marmee does show this controlled anger in the scene where she writes to Amy’s teacher.
15 The 1994 and 2018 movies include the conflict between Jo and Amy that leads up to this, but they focus on their heartwarming reconciliation rather than Jo’s guilt over her grudge endangering her sister’s life.
16 The 2018 Little Women also humorously raises the question of whether Jo getting married is out of character in a more subtle way and includes some other pleasingly meta jokes.
17 In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, there’s Mr. Laurence Sr (Chris Cooper).
18 Then again, given her selfless personality, maybe Beth wouldn’t have had it any other way.
19 On some level, the film’s ending is a critique of the book’s conclusion. It’s an oddly harsh one for such an affectionate adaptation. Prof. Bhaer in the book was less of a conventional romantic hero than he is here and the scene of him and Jo confessing their feelings to each other was less of a romantic cliché.
20 The same could be said of the last Peter Pan movie I covered.
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