Warning: Little Women Spoilers Ahead for the next couple blog posts!
Well, it’s Christmas break, so the week has been filled with caroling, candlelight services, delicious ham and lasagna (courtesy of my brother-in-law), and (I’m slightly abashed to say) cookies and shortbread for breakfast every day. This is also the week that, for most of my life since 1994, I’ve watched the Winona Ryder version of Little Women.
As a child, of course, like many bookworms, I read the book and fell in love with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (well, tolerated Amy…we’ll get to her in a minute). And like many of my favorite books, I read it over and over again. I didn’t always make it to the end, but the opening scenes of Christmas I knew almost by heart (“If Jo is a tomboy and Amy a goose, what am I, please?” “You’re a dear, and nothing else.”).
As it happened, I was about the perfect age when the 1994 version came out for it to become part of my holiday tradition. I have wept at certain parts (Hannah with those flowers! Oh!) every time I have watched it.
As it happens, Little Women is having a bit of a moment. Masterpiece Theatre released a three-part miniseries of it in 2018, and Greta Gerwig is working on a version with Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson to be released in 2019 (there’s also some awful modern adaptation, but I’m pretending like that didn’t happen – sorrynotsorry, Lea Thompson).
So, despite it not being a 20th century work of women’s literature and despite it being young adult fiction which I typically don’t write about and despite this being a book blog and not a movie blog, I decided to binge watch all the major Little Women adaptations during the week between Christmas and New Year’s to compare and contrast them. This means I’m going to be crying a lot this week – but they will be glorious tears!
There are four (until the Gerwig version is released): Masterpiece Theatre (2018), the Katharine Hepburn/George Cukor version (1933), the June Allyson/Elizabeth Taylor version (1949), and the Winona Ryder/Susan Sarandon version (1994). Two silent versions were released prior to 1933, but according to imdb.com they are presumed lost.
I started with the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries first. The first episode, unfortunately, is the weakest. The opening scene, in fact, is awful. Possibly the worst scene of the whole series. The series in general is quite faithful to the book, but the opening scene is wholly invented, silly, and terrible. It does nothing to establish who each girl is (which is the point of the opening of the book).
What’s worse, the opening scene immediately makes clear this version’s weakest element, which is its cast of four: its Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are the weakest of any of the versions (the actress playing Beth doesn’t even have a headshot on imdb.com – I mean come on. *I* probably have a headshot on imdb.com, and my last role was Guildenstern in my college’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 2001).
Jo is played by Maya Hawke. Who? Check that last name again. She’s not great, but her parents are famous. She gets a bit better as the series goes on, but she’s never spectacular. Kathryn Newton plays Amy, and she has the most star power of the four, but her casting does a tremendous disservice to the character.
Look. I said I’d get to Amy, and here we are. People don’t like Amy. They just…they don’t. I never forgave her for burning Jo’s book. My mother never forgave her for getting Jo’s trip to Europe. She’s easy to dislike – prissy, simpering, “petted” – the March family loves her, but I never really met any girl or woman in real life who said Amy was her favorite. Like Danny in New Kids on the Block, she’s the one no one picks.
As a result, most film productions go into overtime to try and make Amy more likeable, but they always run into a problem: since she’s the youngest, do we cast a child for the young scenes and then switch to another actress for the later scenes, or do we cast an actress old enough to be an adult in the older scenes, and make her look younger in those early scenes?
Masterpiece did neither. Kathryn Newton looks like an evil, manipulative adult scheming against everybody in this version, and everyone is just going to hate her even more. She mellows out by episode three, as Amy does in the book, but by then everyone will just dislike her so much that no one will notice. My childhood distaste for Amy came back with a vengeance after watching this version!
The other major problems with the production are 1) it was clearly filmed in Ireland, which looks absolutely nothing like New England (pretty, but absolutely nothing like Connecticut – kind of like filming English Bond films in California), and 2) this version of Marmee, their mother, was all wrong.
Emily Watson plays her, and Emily Watson is brilliant and can do anything, so I have to imagine this was a decision of the production and not her failing, but this Marmee is so vulnerable and burdened that she seems broken all the time – you never see her as the kind, strong, wise woman the daughters see her as. She needs to be established as that in the beginning before you can show her growing burdened with her problems later.
Now, this production was not without its virtues. This is one of the best Laurie interpretations I’ve seen. He’s really nothing that noteworthy when you think about it – he’s just the boy next door – and this actor (who’s not much) gets it right, simply by not doing too much. Also, because it’s three hours long, they put so much in that usually gets left on the cutting room floor. Beth gets to go to the seashore! The English visitors have their boating outing! The ending at Plumfield is exactly – I mean, exactly – as Alcott describes it, down to Amy’s daughter.
And, of course, Beth’s death scene, which you HAVE to get right, if nothing else, is handled beautifully. The actress playing her isn’t up to the task (I mean, she can’t even afford a headshot), but Emily Watson is up to it, so they hand the scene to Marmee. I cried buckets, as I always do. Really well done.
Finally, we get to the best part of this version – Angela Lansbury as Aunt March. Angela. Lansbury. As. Aunt. March. She was divine! She has a parrot, she has one devastating line after the other, and she is divine. That is all.
I think I could recommend this version to 1) people who don’t know anything about Little Women (although I just ruined it for you) and 2) people like me who know EVERYTHING about Little Women and are interested in seeing even a flawed version. But the first episode in particular has a lot of issues, so it’s a challenge for me to truly recommend it to a casual fan. If you know the story well enough, skip to episodes two or three!