January 2nd is always tough – dragging yourself back into the grind of winter. I always find myself hanging onto the holidays for as long as I can. I still turn the lights of my tree on until Epiphany is over, darn it!
I always related to Jo March’s sentimentality. She might have been the tomboy of Little Women, but the character still deeply treasures her childhood and her family, and so she resents Meg’s betrothal deeply – it threatens to break up her family as she’s always known it. I get you, Jo. And Winona taps into that part of the character really well in the 1994 film. She’s no Katharine Hepburn (well…), but she holds her own against Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne, and Susan Sarandon (what a fine Marmee she made!).
Gillian Armstrong, as a director, knows how to serve up the homey, comforting, New England-y Christmas feeling throughout the film. And the four sisters are really strong. Claire Danes can cry better than anyone, Trini Alvarado manages to be vain and kindhearted at the same time, and Kirsten Dunst is the best Amy (even better than Elizabeth Taylor) of any of the films – yeah, I said it! By casting a girl instead of an adult, you forgive her a lot, just as her family did.
Gabriel Byrne is the Professor Bhaer the world has been waiting for. He’s the only principal male in the cast who had read the book before filming began because, well, he’s Irish, and his mother read the book to him and his siblings (of course) when they were children. This surprises me not at all.
Much has been written over the years about how much Louisa May Alcott “struggled” to write a believable lover for Jo and how forced the romance with Prof. Bhaer feels to readers. Well, that may be, but no one told Winona and Gabriel. They’ve got chemistry that every casting director looks for! So their friendship blooms very naturally on screen.
And one of the 1994 version’s best weapons is the iconic character actress Mary Wickes as Aunt March. Mary was devastating in White Christmas as Emma the Housekeeper, she was hysterical in Sister Act, and she did dozens of movies in between. She was a treasure, and she serves up savage side eye in every scene she’s in as Aunt March.
It was funny to see how little overlap there was between all four of them. Even something as basic as their “acting” troupe doesn’t appear in all four films, or even major events like Amy falling through the ice while skating.
Aside from major plot points (Father falling ill, Beth getting scarlet fever, Meg marrying), the only vignette items to appear in all four films were 1) Christmas breakfast with the Hummels, 2) the ball (although sometimes it was given by the Gardners and sometimes by Laurie), and 3) John Brooke taking Meg’s glove. That’s it!
It was a deep comfort to me, watching all of the Little Women versions this year. Don’t get me wrong, certain scenes (ahem) were really devastating to watch four different times, but even then, it was a wonderful sadness. Some books are like best friends, and revisiting them is like seeing someone you haven’t seen in a long time. Like at the end of the holiday season, it’s sad to have to say goodbye. Until next Christmas, Jo March!