Cover artwork for Little Women
by Frank T. Merril, 1896
My daughter Megan and I have a Thanksgiving weekend tradition of watching the 1994 film version of Little Women. I first saw this particular screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel several years ago on television, on a night when I was looking for something to make ironing a large basketful of linens a bit less dreary. I lacked optimism about the movie’s ability to perform this little miracle, however, as I disliked ironing almost as much as I detested stories about angelic children and saintly mothers. For that was my idea of Little Women; I was sure it was one of those “preachy” books, an idea vaguely formed by what I had heard and read about the novel rather than by reading it for myself.
Yet as the pile of linens in the basket shrank, my interest in the movie increased, until I was sitting on the floor in front of the television, totally absorbed in the lives of the four March sisters. Much to my surprise, these “little women” weren’t one-dimensional angelic creatures after all, but normal human beings with fully developed personalities. It didn’t take long for me to recognize a bit of myself in each of the March girls. Like Meg, the oldest sister, I had always wanted a nice home and enough money to fill it with beautiful things. Jo and I both wanted to be writers, while Beth and I were both shy and derived pleasure from the things we could do right in our own home. Finally, with Amy, the youngest sister, I shared a keen appreciation of art and beauty that could sometimes lead to vanity.
Then there was “Marmee”, or Mrs. March, who did have a tendency to proffer bits of moral advice to her daughters. While I can’t say I easily identified with Marmee, neither did I find her to be quite so saintly as I had imagined. Much credit must be given to Susan Sarandon, the actress who played Marmee; it’s not easy to deliver lines such as “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” without sounding pious, but Ms. Sarandon managed to do just this. The same credit can be given to the four actresses who depicted the March daughters: Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as younger and older Amy; Claire Danes as Beth; Winona Ryder as Jo; and Trini Alvarado as Meg. In the hands of less capable actresses, scenes such as the one where the girls give their Christmas breakfast to a poor immigrant family could have been just awful.
In addition to endearing characters played by excellent actresses, I found the movie’s plot to be quite captivating. Exciting things happened in this movie, and at a swift pace, too, Romances and broken hearts, literary failures and successes, marriages, births, and deaths, were played out not just in the Marches’ hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, but also in New York City and Europe, where Jo and Amy went, respectively, to fulfill their literary and artistic aspirations.
At some point during the movie I noticed that Megan had wandered into the room and had begun watching it, too. Even though she was no more than five or six at the time, the experience must have stayed with her; at age ten, Little Women was the first book she chose to read when we started to homeschool. I read it, too, then finally, and discovered that my earlier prejudice against the book really could not, for the most part, be supported. While the book does have a tendency to wander a bit more into the realm of didacticism than the 1994 film adaptation of it does, it doesn’t do so to such an extent that it degenerates into a story about perfect angels and saints. Moreover, the appealing characters and interesting plot that first drew me into the movie years earlier are definitely present in the book, along with new insights into the March women and their story. For example, at one point in the book, Marmee admits she once had a temper as fierce as Jo’s, and that she still struggles each day to control it.
However, despite such new insights and the overall pleasurable experience I had reading the book, I still enjoy watching the 1994 film adaptation of it even more. While there are facets to Little Women that can only be found in the novel, in my opinion the aspects of the story that the film version emphasizes what is truly timeless about this tale of four girls growing up in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1860’s. Maybe you can improve a classic, after all.