Book Adaptations: Little Women

Screenshot from ‘Little Women’ (2019) starring (from left) Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen. Copyright of Columbia Pictures.

Hi! It’s Annie!

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m definitely a classic literature fan. ‘Little Women’ was one of those books that I would just pick up for fun as a kid because, even if I forgot a book and was staying at a relative’s house, they would always have a copy of ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott for me to read. I didn’t quite understand just how impactful this book was for many of my friends too until I heard someone call themselves a Jo girl, and then my perspective on this novel changed. Just like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen, this novel was ahead of it’s time in the depiction of women as they really think and act, rather than how men have always written us to think and act. This was one of the only books on my school reading lists that meant something to me and changed me, and it’s like that for many of the women that I know too. This novel was one of the starting points that made me start to consider how women are portrayed in media. For this too I have seen multiple adaptations, and hopefully I’ll be able to provide some insight on what adaptations to watch and what adaptations are better to skip.

Little Women (1933):

Katherine Hepburn stars as Jo in this version of ‘Little Women’ and, as much as I love Katherine Hepburn, there is really nothing memorable about this adaptation. It focuses so much on Jo that the other sisters feel very sidelined and nobody in this movie feels well cast. Jo is here to be pretty instead of smart and all the other girls feel like they fill similar roles. This one isn’t that worth watching.

Little Women (1949):

This movie adaptation is probably most known for starring the late, great, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy March. There is nothing inherently wrong with this portrayal of ‘Little Women’. It sticks pretty close to the book and leaves out what most film portrayals leave out because of only having so much time. So, why is this one of the worst film adaptations of ‘Little Women’? It’s entirely to do with old Hollywood acting and romance styles. None of the girls really feel spunky or fiery (though they try to make them that), they are all portrayed how Hollywood portrayed women at the time. The biggest example of this, and probably the most painful to watch in this movie, is Jo. This version of Jo is nothing like the Jo you’ve read about and fallen in love with. The best way I can describe this is by saying her character is very watered down. Where Jo normally gets angry in the novel, she cries instead in this version. It almost feels as if they were trying to make the character more palatable for male audiences. This isn’t a horrible movie by any means, but it hurts so much to see Jo portrayed like this.

Little Women (1994):

This is one of the best adaptations of the novel. Before the 2019 version came out, this was THE version of ‘Little Women’ to watch. This stars Winona Ryder as Jo, and she is definitely one the best actresses to play the character. Jo does not feel here as though she is watered down or a caricature of a “fiery woman”. She is a real life human being and exactly the character you fell in love with. Christian Bale is also in this movie as a very charming Laurie. Everything you felt was important in the novel is in here and the girls are all themselves. Also, the chemistry between the sisters in this movie is excellent and only makes the movie feel so much more believable. This is among the must-watches when it comes to adaptations of the classic novel.

Little Women PBS Series (2018):

If you liked Maya Hawke as Robin in ‘Stranger Things’, you will love her here as Jo. This PBS series is incredibly well-cast and the most detailed and close to the novel of the adaptations out there. Partly because this is a series instead of just one singular movie. The only place that this version of ‘Little Women’ does suffer, is actually how close it is to the book. Many of the adaptations to come out more recently change a few things about the book or the sisters to make it somewhat more relatable and modern. This does not do any of that. Despite this feeling less modern, you might appreciate that it stays so close to the novel. That’s entirely up to you, but it is worth a watch if you can get access to it. If not, there are better adaptations to watch.

Little Women (2018):

DON’T. This incredibly bad adaptation starring Lea Thompson and Sarah Davenport is a modern retelling of ‘Little Women’ apparently for a modern audience. I generally find modern adaptations of novels like this to be pretty bad with only a few exceptions. (One of them can be found in my ‘Pride and Prejudice’ adaptation post.) This movie is definitely not an exception to this. None of the characters feel true to the original novel, the sisters have no chemistry to the point where you wonder if the cast ever bonded on set, and the sheer amount of out-of-character moments in this movie is horrifying. In the confession scene between Jo and Laurie in this movie, Laurie non-consensually kisses Jo after she has already rejected him. If you ever wondered if there would be any version of the story to make charming Laurie completely dislikable, this movie is your answer. This movie advertises that it is for a modern audience, but tries to force you to like a character who non-consensually kisses the main character. How modern! This was created in 2018. Do yourself a favor and skip it.

Little Women (2019):

Please forgive me as I rant about what is by far the best adaptation on this list. This was directed by Greta Gerwig (A female director! Yay!) and is just the right mix of modern ideas and the original work. This is the version that Louisa May Alcott would love, but I’ll get more into that later. Saoirse Ronan is an inspiring version of Jo that represents what we all loved about the character while also providing an amazing insight into the mind of a modern woman. However, the stand out of this movie may just be Florence Pugh as Amy. If you were anything like me, you didn’t like Amy when you first read the book. I’ve always been very into writing, and when Amy burned Jo’s manuscripts I could not help but be angry right there with Jo. Amy is completely likable in this version and even one of the best characters. Not only that, but this movie leaves it up to your imagination if Jo ended up married or not. This is important because Louisa May Alcott never wanted Jo to be married. The book was written based off of her and her sisters, she was Jo, and she was not interested in men. Evidence suggests that Alcott was actually more interested in women. She was forced to marry Jo off in the books to make them more “publishable” and she absolutely refused to marry Jo off to her best friend Laurie, hence Bhaer. This movie keeps true to what Alcott originally wanted. I personally believe that this movie is one of the best for female representation in media in general. Everyone should watch this movie at least once. Lines such as;

“Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I’m so lonely.”-Jo

and

“I’m just a woman. And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”-Amy

are so incredibly relatable and heartbreaking that I cried several times in this movie.

If you want to see a good version of the novel or even if you want to see a good movie for women in media in general, this is a great watch. This is a must watch for everyone no matter what your opinion on ‘Little Women’ is.

There are so many versions of this already, but I honestly believe that this story will continue to grow and change as the years go by. It already has more than most other classic novels. It always has and always will have something relatable for everyone. I like to think I’m a Jo girl, but I am often the Meg in my friend groups. But the brilliance is that any sister you relate to is ok! Every single woman in ‘Little Women’ feels real and is an incredible role model and will continue to be for years to come. This story deserves all of the love it’s gotten over the years and I love seeing all the versions of it as it continues to live on.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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