Part 1: Who played Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy best?
As a former entertainment writer, I relish reviewing movies and TV shows almost as much as I adore evaluating books. And when a favorite book comes to the screen, I am irresistibly drawn to reviewing it. Even better? When a dearly loved story comes to life onscreen more than once, I can compare and contrast the treatments (see my first blog on this, 12 Little Musings on the New Little Women,” and my “Who played it best?” blogs of Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert Blythe--one of my most read blogs, of course, Marilla Cuthbert and Matthew Cuthbert. By the way, news coming soon on Season 2 of Anne with an E!)
When I first heard that Heidi Thomas, the showrunner of “Call the Midwife,” was making a three-hour treatment of my beloved “Little Women,” second only to in my heart to “Anne of Green Gables, I could not wait. In the last year and a half I have both reread “Little Women” and rewatched the 1994 movie, starring Winona Ryder as Jo, so I felt well prepared for whatever Thomas had in store. I liked that this would tell the story in three hours, not two, as the 1994 movie attempted to do. Although, really a 600-plus word tome deserves a six-hour miniseries at least to wring the last juicy drops out of it.
So, Who played our Little Women best?
I thought Trini Alvarado (1994) as Meg was perfectly fine until I watched Willa Fitzgerald (PBS) embody the Meg of my imagination. This Meg is warmer, sweeter, but with more substance and pluck, too. This Meg is one of the gang but in a firstborn, responsible kind of way.
Winner: PBS’s Meg
Winona Ryder’s Jo was all warmth and passion, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, after all. She plays a very good Jo March, but Maya Hawke is Jo March in every scowling, naked look of disappointment and enlightenment and love. She boasts a bristling, bubbling creative energy and irrepressible spirit that to me is unfiltered Jo. Hawke is also warm and passionate but adds a gangly awkwardness and tomboyish zest that rings true to the character. All of these qualities work for the scenes with Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King, we’ll definitely get to him next week). Now, this is debatable but as one who has always been firmly #TeamBhaer, it’s important that Jo’s chemistry with Laurie is sisterly. We know as readers that Jo is simply not ready for love, and that her soul mate awaits. Indeed, according to a fabulous article on Indiewire, director Thomas, Hawke and Hauer-King worked to lessen the romantic chemistry in their performances. Meanwhile, the Winona /Christian Bale chemistry crackles, something I don’t believe the book intended. Of course, THAT’s a slippery slope. Louisa May Alcott never really wanted Jo to fall in love with anyone but felt pressured by her publisher and readers to make it happen. I’m not gonna lie: I’m glad Jo fell in love…but not with Laurie.
Winner: PBS’s Jo
Beth is so important to the story. She not only brings sadness and a dark backdrop for everything else to shine brighter, but she shows how to be a selfless sister and a friend. She shows us a certain kind of person who cares more about the needs of others than she does for herself. We do have some angels among us and Beth March is one of them. Both Claire Danes in 1994 and Annes Elwys in the PBS version were deeply compelling. Gentle, sweet, and strong underneath it all–that’s our Beth. I did love Elwys’ freckles and the palpable closeness of her Beth with Hawk’s Jo, but overall felt that both actresses played Beth with great tenderness.
Winner: A tie.
The one big mistake made by the new PBS adaptation is that they chose to cast one Amy, not two. So when an actress (Kathryn Newton) is 21 (two years older than Maya Hawke’s Jo!) and we witness her torching her sister’s manuscript, it’s hard not to abhor her with the heat of a 1,000 suns. That scene is a lot easier to take when the actress is 12 or whatever. In 1994’s version, Kirsten Dunce was cast as young, childish Amy and then Samantha Mathis assumed the role midway through. I think that’s the way Amy should be cast–twice.
Still, Newton’s Amy did grow on me in the second and third hours. Maybe it’s because I am reading “The Other Alcott” by my Instagram buddy Elise Hooper, a rich and sumptuous novelization of May Alcott, Louisa May’s younger sister and the basis for Amy March. I understand Amy much better now. Last time I blogged about this I said Amy March was a mean girl. I still think she had her mean moments, and I’m not suggesting we forgive her completely for burning Jo’s manuscript. But I get now that Amy is really an artist, too, and loves her family dearly. She’s much more complex–in a good way–than we give her credit for.
1994 child Amy AND PBS grown-up Amy!
Well, what did you think of the four (or five) actresses who portrayed our girls Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in each production? Who got it right? Do you have strong feelings either way?
Comment below for your chance to win “The Other Alcott”!
PS: Next week: Who played Laurie, Professor Bhaer, Marmee and Aunt March best?