Little Women (2017), image c. BBC
Little Women, the book Louisa May Alcott is most well known for, is a story that has touched readers all over the world since its original publication in 1868. The story of the four March sisters as they grow from girls to young women still remains relevant today because of the timeless themes that play out within its pages: sisterhood, perseverance, hope, and the wisdom gained through experiences both precious and painful. Many readers also find parts of themselves reflected in the March sisters, and draw courage from their lives. Meg’s desire to fit in with her peers and Jo’s struggle to overcome her shortcomings, for example, have always struck a chord within me. It is hard to read about Beth and not think of people who serve just as selflessly, and wonder what I can do to show them that they are seen and loved, too. And whenever I watch Amy make mistakes in her childhood and mature from her experiences, I am reminded that I am still learning, too, and that it is a blessing to have people in your life who can guide you, reprimand you, and forgive you.
As with other well-loved works of literature, Alcott’s timeless story has spawned various stage productions, spinoffs, and films. And as Little Women has comforted and encouraged me time and again during difficult moments, I thought it might be a good time to return to the story I have loved since childhood through some of these adaptations.
The two I would like to recommend are not only my favourite adaptations of Little Women, but are also two of my favourite book-to-screen adaptations in general. Like any other adaptation, there have been minor and major changes to the original story during the book-to screen translation process, but I felt that both the 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder and the 2017 BBC miniseries starring Maya Hawke capture the spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s novel perfectly when it comes to themes and character.
What I appreciated most about Little Women (2017) was the fact that the story was bookended by beautiful scenes of family life. The first episode begins with the March sisters, and the last episode ends with the March sisters. These two scenes, when compared, show the Marches at different stages in their life: first in girlhood, waiting anxiously for their father to return from the war, and then in adulthood, spending time with their parents, husbands, and children. It is clear from the very beginning that the story is about the March sisters themselves, not about their later romances. Similarly, Little Women (1994) also starts by showing the sisters together, and though the last scene of the movie is a romantic scene, the sisters’ lives take centre stage for most of the movie.
“I could never love anyone as I love my sisters.”
—Jo March, Little Women (1994)
The movie and the miniseries both read as coming-of-age stories, so change plays an important role in the sisters’ lives. Meg longs for change when she compares her life with her friends’ frivolous, comfortable lives, but finds that possessions and luxuries cannot make a person truly happy. Amy seems to run toward change with open arms despite the consequences, and as she grows up, travels Europe, and learns more about the darker side of human nature, she learns to slow down and take change in her stride. And Beth, whose quiet and loving nature never falters despite the events that shock, disconcert, and worry other people over the course of the story, is the only one who does not live to see the other major changes that take place in her sisters’ lives: Meg’s children and how they grow, Amy’s married life with Laurie, Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer, and the transformation of Plumfield into a school.
It is interesting how both adaptations examine Jo’s fear of change, compared to how Meg accepts and Amy embraces it. The movie and the miniseries show how Jo’s fear of change is directly connected to her fear of losing her sisters, whether suitors or sickness take them away from her. There are many close calls—Amy falling through thin ice, for example—but the irreversible changes to the familiarity of Jo’s home, like Beth’s death and Meg’s marriage, are changes that Jo takes time to become accustomed to. Jo eventually learns that change will come, whether she likes it or not, and—much like Amy—she learns to embrace it and to keep her eyes and her heart open to the new opportunities it may bring her way.
Other themes are expanded upon and developed within the larger story (social issues such as racism and child labour in the 1994 version, the difference between classes in the 2017 version, etc.), but at the very heart of both adaptations is the March family, and the love that carries them through the ups and downs of life.
Every adaptation of a book emphasises different plot points or themes, and the decision of which ones to develop is made with the limitations of time in mind. With Little Women (1994), details and subplots (such as timid Beth getting to know the elderly Mr. Lawrence) are omitted to create a more streamlined narrative. However, in a miniseries with multiple episodes, there is more freedom to include details and subplots from the book, as well as spend more time developing the characters.
With more time, there are more decisions to make concerning what and what not to focus on. Little Women (2017) chooses to explore the details and subplots related to relationships—Beth and Jo’s close friendship, Mrs. March’s struggles as a mother and a wife, Jo’s lack of social awareness (and, as a stark contrast, Amy’s hyperawareness), Mr. Lawrence’s character, Amy’s growth, and Beth’s decline—all of which unfold naturally. These insights allow for a deeper connection to the characters. For instance, the scenes between Jo and Beth make the impact of their part of the story more profound. Their understanding of each other—Jo seeing Beth’s love and compassion for the people around her, Beth seeing the vulnerability Jo hides from most people—is given room to grow in tenderness and strength, which in turn, deepens the on-screen relationship between them.
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Both adaptations spend time on developing the March sisters’ personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which they change and react to society, love, and loss—though the length of the miniseries can sometimes give it the upper hand. Meg’s vanity, Jo’s temper, Beth’s social anxiety, and Amy’s naïveté are explored over a longer duration in the 2017 adaptation. But that does not necessarily mean the 1994 adaption is the lesser of the two when it comes to expressing character and relationships. Though there is less time to explore every sister’s distinct personalities, personal struggles, and close bond with each other, they are expressed as clearly and eloquently in two hours as it is inthe 2017 miniseries’ three hours. This is in part due to choices in scriptwriting and direction, and partly due to the actresses’ interpretations.
The acting and directing choices differ between two versions, but it is still evident that the characters share the same heart. For example, Winona Ryder’s Jo is a lively creature—she is passionate and mischievous, but also brave and brash. Maya Hawke’s Jo is also passionate, as well as blunt, socially awkward, and fervently driven by ambition and love for her sisters. The two interpretations of Jo March make for two characters who are like two different people, yet these qualities can all be found in Louisa May Alcott’s Jo. Both versions of Little Women touch upon each sister’s internal conflict and relationships beautifully, and though certain aspects were omitted because of time or story direction (Meg wanting to fit in and be admired in the series, Amy’s growth during her travelling years in the movie, etc.), the essence of the March sisters—their love, their dreams, their mistakes, their hopes for the future—is captured to great effect on screen.
“Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”
—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Despite the fact that a little over a century and a half separates the March sisters from today’s readers, Little Women still speaks to the hearts of many people, and continues to do so in both its original and adapted forms. The number and variety of its adaptations speaks to the timeless quality of the story, with all the hope and encouragement it brings to each new generation it reaches. I would highly recommend both the movie and the miniseries, not only for their cinematography and beautiful soundtracks, but also for their faithfulness to the heart of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and by extension, for their ability—like their source—to continue to touch the hearts of readers and watchers alike.
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time talking to her plants, reading to her little sister, scribbling frantically in her notebook, and baking muffins (most likely banana bread). You can also find her in her little corner of the world:
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Random House, 2001.
Gillian Armstrong. “Little Women.” 21 Dec. 1994.
Heidi Thomas. “Little Women.” BBC, 26 Dec. 2017.