Page to Screen: Little Women (1994)

Here’s a new column that will be a little irregular–Page to Screen, where I talk about the film adaptations of novels!

Little Women
based on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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I have a handy set of little tests to determine if someone and I will get along. One of them is a very simple question. If they’ve read Little Women, who did you think Jo should have ended up with?

The correct answer, of course, is Laurie. Even as an asexual girl who professes as much experience in love as a walrus does in flight, I could see that from miles away–it is that blindingly obvious. Even in 1869, fans wrote to Louisa May Alcott begging for her to write a sequel wherein Jo and Laurie got married. (The original Little Women was written in two parts, but is now published with both parts as a single volume–hence the opportunity to appeal to Alcott.) She did not quite concur with the consensus, and married her off to Professor Bhaer and Laurie off to her sister Amy.

Ouch.

The fact that Jo and Laurie are obviously meant to be is one of my firm beliefs concerning literary characters, and the fact that the 1994 film version of Little Women actually made me root for Bhaer and Amy is nothing short of a miracle.

Jo sends no mixed signals to Laurie in the film (as she does in the novel), and her growing horror at Laurie’s proposal is dead on, as if such a dreadful thought had never, ever occurred to her. Laurie and Amy are well set up while Amy is young, making it seem quite believable that Amy sees Laurie as the white knight (and filthy rich gentleman) she’s always dreamed of. Even Bhaer, who I am not fond of in the novel, endeared himself to me. Watching Jo fall in love with a man who loves opera, transcendentalism, and couldn’t bear to sell his books when he direly needed money was downright enjoyable. It was quite a revelation. I may have to stop accusing Jo of turning down Christian Bale for a tweedy professor. (I doubt I will.)

This isn’t to say that Little Women is without its faults. Claire Danes (Beth), caught in what must have been a very fleeting awkward stage, reminds me of nothing so much of Gollum occasionally, with her wide eyes and trembling mouth. It was quite odd, as I loved Claire Danes in Stardust. The scene where Beth is handed the infant who infects her with scarlet fever involves so much wide eyes and quivering chin that I burst out laughing. Samantha Mathis, who plays the older Amy March, is quite good, but it takes a while for the effortless selfishness of Kristen Dunst in the role to dissipate and stop overshadowing her actually quite lovely and subtle performance. The effort to raise the political conscience concerning feminism in the film is hit or miss–Marmee’s little spiel about corsets to Brooke falls flat, but a round table discussion where Jo is the only woman works splendidly.

Despite those flaws, the cast is, for the most part, wonderful. Susan Sarandon is graceful and warm as Marmee, and Winona Ryder is sparkling as Jo, who cheerfully and determinedly goes through life as a avowed spinster writer until love sneaks up on her while she’s not looking. Trini Alvarado is a superb little imitation of Marmee as Meg. The men are equally well cast, especially Christian Bale as Laurie. The best, however, is Mary Wickes as the fearsome Aunt March, whose rare appearances are a delight, deflating Laurie’s hopes with a single phrase and snapping at Jo in the rough, thoroughly American manner of a New England society matron. It’s sublime.

The film deftly picks and chooses the best pieces of the novel to commit to film–those that make the most sense from a narrative standpoint. There’s not a lot of wasted time in the script. My only complaint was how Beth was written. While Claire Danes had an especially thankless job, her death scene fell fully flat due to the writing, which made Beth sound selfish and a little touched in the head. As the death of Beth is one of the pivotal moments in the novel, it really weakened the film. There’s also the metafiction of it all–while Jo is obviously meant to stand in for Louisa May Alcott herself, having herself write Little Women itself in a single night (!) and having it published is a bit too meta for an otherwise completely earnest film.

I was quite glad to have watched this. I’m reading Boneshaker at the moment, and the visualization is a bit off for me, as I’ve never read much steampunk before. Now that I have a fairly normal view of late 1800s life in my head, I think my reading will be just a little more richer.

I rented this DVD from Netflix.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Little Women (1994)

  1. Great review — though I disagree: Jo should absolutely have ended up with Friedrich. Teddy is practically her brother. 😛

    I just watched this again tonight. It’s my favorite movie.

      • Meg and John Brooke kissed breathlessly on the stairwell. I don’t remember any kiss between Jo and Teddy, except when he proposed and she pulled back?

        Maybe I missed something…

      • Jo grew quite white, flew out of her chair, and the moment he stopped speaking she electrified him by throwing her arms round his neck, and crying out, with a joyful cry, “Oh, Laurie! Oh, Mother! I am so glad!” She did not weep again, but laughed hysterically, and trembled and clung to her friend as if she was a little bewildered by the sudden news.

        Laurie, though decidedly amazed, behaved with great presence of mind. He patted her back soothingly, and finding that she was recovering, followed it up by a bashful kiss or two, which brought Jo round at once. Holding on to the banisters, she put him gently away, saying breathlessly, “Oh, don’t! I didn’t mean to, it was dreadful of me, but you were such a dear to go and do it in spite of Hannah that I couldn’t help flying at you. Tell me all about it, and don’t give me wine again, it makes me act so.”

        From Chapter Eighteen. It’s always stuck with me.

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