Last night, at 7:55 p.m., my 13-year-old daughter burst into the house from spending most of the day at her grandma’s for Mother’s Day (I was still recovering from some unholy stomach bug). She was all enthused about some show that had just dropped on Netflix, that we should watch immediately.
Except, no way was that going to happen, not when the new “Little Women” adaptation was about to debut on television! “Noooooo,” I said, as if she suggested we watch cage fighting or “Pitbulls and Parolees”. “I’m sorry, but “Little Women” is on in five minutes and I’ve been waiting YEARS for this!”
(Maybe “years” was a bit of an embellishment.)
Well, she huffed and puffed and took her cute-but-oh-so-young-teen-self up to her room, where she did who knows what.
I don’t know, because I was glued to “Little Women” for the next hour!
So, then, may I present…
12 Little Musings about the New “Little Women”
1. Many of you are fiercely devoted to the 1994 version, starring Winona Ryder as Jo March, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, and Claire Danes as dear, DEAR Beth. I thoroughly enjoyed that version, though when I rewatched it in the last year, after having reread Little Women, I saw many off-book departures. Of course, that’s not always a terrible thing. A classic story as strong and enduring as Little Women should bring many adaptations and retellings (see: my numerous blogs on CBC and Netflix’s “Anne with an E”). But…I rather do like it better when an adaptation is true to the book–right? RIGHT? So, on that count alone, I thought the new PBS version wins points for being closer to the book.
2. This is Little Women with a bit of grit, and I like grit. I won’t say “darker,” but I will say there is more reality here, as in one of the early scenes, of Papa March, experiencing the horrors of life as a Civil War chaplain. I always did think Papa needed more filling in, and here he gets some context.
3. I was struck by the sisters’ visit to the Hummel house on Christmas morning when Marmee gently but firmly steered her girls to give up their Christmas breakfast and serve it to a destitute immigrant family. Marmee, bless your heart, I thought. You are showing your girls how to ‘welcome the stranger.’ I thought of today’s immigrants in refugee and border camps. They aren’t German, like the Hummels, but they still need the Marmees of this world to serve them.
4. Laurie seems lonelier and more orphaned in this adaptation. This, I think, is true to the book. My heart pinged for him when Jo opened the curtains to wave across the street and he was just standing there, all alone, watching their family joy at the Christmas dinner his grandfather had provided.
5. I am super picky about my Jo’s, and Maya Hawke is worthy of the role. Now, don’t throw tomatoes at me, but I never totally bought Winona as Jo (although I buy her completely as the mom on Stranger Things). I was always super conscious that she was Winona Ryder, and isn’t she too pretty to be Jo? I think they cast Maya Hawke as a newcomer (despite her famous parents, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke), to create a blank slate for Jo. This Jo is part rogue, part sweetheart, and all fiercely herself, devoted to those she loves and struggling to be comfortable in a world that doesn’t quite get her. She had me at that first glower, at the dance she was forced to go to with Meg. In fact, she reminded me of my daughter, who hates wearing dresses and anything “pretty,” and loves playing with the boys above all.
6. Emily Watson’s Marmee is a triumph. She had me at “Let Jo write in peace,” a revolutionary mindset in those days. This was the Marmee of the book, a quiet feminist like her creator, Louisa May Alcott, and a staunch defender of her girls’ rights to pursue their dreams, even if they are, in Jo’s case, a scandalous writing career.
7. Listen to what Elise Hooper says about Marmee: (SHE is the author of “The Other Alcott,” a novelization of Louisa May’s younger sister, May Alcott, on whom Alcott based Amy March. Goodness! An Alcott expert!)
“I thought Emily Watson as Marmee was excellent. she showed the stress and difficulties inherent in raising those four daughters on her own in the 1860’s.”
I agree. Here is a more realistic, less perfect mother on Mother’s Day, struggling with fear and loneliness for her husband at war, yet trying to be strong for her kids. A perfect role model for everyone who mothers: genuine, brave, vulnerable and compassionate.
8. Aunt March! Those puckered lips! Those rolled rrr’s! You think she has doddered off to sleep–poor, dear old lamb–when she pops back awake, ready to rrrrrumble with Jo. She reminds me of one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s crusty, hilarious, tyrannical old birds. (Aunt Josephine springs to mind! What is it with great aunts? I myself am the great aunt of NINE human beings now. You’ll tell me if I am becoming crusty, won’t you?) Really, Angela Lansbury KILLS it as Aunt March.
9. We have to talk about Amy. It has to be said. Amy March is a Mean Girl. Does she wear pink on Wednesdays? Because she should. I agree again with Elise Hooper (who wrote a whole book on the character, after all), that Amy’s casting as a teenager was a misfire.
“Although I think Kathryn Newton did the best she could, I think Amy is best with two actresses. A younger girl should start off in the role.”
YES. Whereas when child Amy burns Jo’s manuscript (a scene that always gives me hives), it seems petulant and immature, an older Amy torching her sister’s life work just seems cold and menacing.
10. We don’t know him well yet, but I like this Laurie. I enjoyed the way he lounged around in Jo’s decrepit writing lair, taming a rat, watching his girl work. “The rat is in the book,” I told my husband, who seemed impressed.
11. Oh, Beth, you doomed angel, you! Annes Elwy sold me on Beth’s crippling shyness, inherent sweetness, and overall strength of character shining through physical fragility. That moment where she smiles shyly at Mr. Laurence, as she is playing his beloved daughter’s forbidden piano? Could’ve melted an iceberg!
12. Finally, another nod to Marmee. What a hope-filled, faith-strengthening cliffhanger to this episode when Marmee gathers her girls one last time before departing to nurse faraway, gravely ill Papa. She is scared. They are scared. No one knows if Papa will live through this, but it doesn’t seem very likely. And then she says the perfect thing: “You can never be fatherless under Heaven.” True, and the ideal way to wrap up the episode until next week.
Well, what did you guys think? Love it? Like it? Do you prefer this one or 1994’s version?
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