A Look Back At Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (And Its Movie Adaptations)

Little Women – Book covers. Image Credits: Penguin Books

In my Five Books To Read During The Holiday Season article I have mentioned Little Women, one of the most beloved classics of all time written by Louisa May Alcott and originally published in two volumes (1868-1869).

I first read this novel when I was about ten years old because my mom gifted me a collection of literary classics that included Little Women and its sequel, Little Men. Since I was born and raised in Italy, my first copy was an Italian edition which I still own, even though it now shows many signs of wear and tear because I have read it multiple times over the years. A few years ago I also bought a beautiful American edition which is part of the Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics and I have already read it twice since then.

What is it about Little Women that has made the book so precious for so many different generations over the decades? Probably this is also due to the fact that it was one of the first books to focus on female characters; it seems that men are more like supporting characters in the lives of the female protagonists, and, even though it is narrated in the third person, the book tends to tell the events mainly from the point of view of the March sisters.

The March sisters – Little Women (2019). Image Credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment

The story is set in the 1860s and begins during the American Civil War; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March live in the small town of Concord, Massachusetts (where Louisa May Alcott also wrote the book), and the first chapter introduces the sisters who are preparing to face a Christmas of hardships because of the war, with many concerns due to the fact that their father serves as chaplain for the Union Army. The March sisters have very distinct personalities but are united by the deep affection they feel for each other; Meg, the eldest (she is sixteen when the story begins), is very rational and feels responsible to the other sisters. Together with Jo, she works to support them all; while she is employed as a governess by a family in the neighborhood, Jo assists her wealthy aunt March, who lives alone in a mansion. Jo is stubborn and very outspoken; she loves writing stories, some of which will be published by local newspapers to provide financial support for the family.

Beth and Amy, the two younger sisters, are still studying and are very protected by Meg and Jo; Beth is shy and quiet, loves music and playing the piano, as well as taking care of her cats and dolls. Twelve-year-old Amy is the youngest of all the sisters: she is artistic and very ambitious. Although she is still very young, she is opinionated, always wanting to have her say, and she resents feeling excluded from the activities of her older sisters, which leads her to clash frequently with Jo’s character because they both have very strong personalities.

Over the course of the novel, many characters enter the scene and interact with the four sisters; their beloved mother, Mrs. March, who lives with them and is always ready to support and follow them in their daily struggles, providing her own point of view but at the same time allowing them to make mistakes and come to the right conclusions on their own. Aunt March is both funny and sullen, and she influences the lives of the girls (especially Jo and Amy’s, as will be seen later in the book) to some extent. Other characters include Theodore Laurence (known as Laurie), a neighbor who is almost the same age as Jo and with whom the girls befriend, coming to consider him an integral part of the family over time; Mr. Laurence (young Laurie’s grandfather and legal guardian) and Mr. John Brooke ( Laurie’s teacher, slightly older than Meg) are also significant characters who will act as support for the girls during the tough moments they face throughout the story.

A scene from Little Women (1949). Image Credits: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

It is a book full of good feelings and of those American values of the old days, such as resilience, doing one’s duty without complaining, and not being discouraged by difficulties, combined with hope and faith in God that everything will work out for the best.

The March sisters suffer, struggle (against others and themselves), rejoice, and find their way, forming such a close bond with the reader that by the end of the novel it feels as if we know them in real life. Women and girls who have read Little Women surely will have connected with one of the four March sisters. While I think many of us would like to identify with Jo for her strong, rebellious character that pushes women not to be relegated exclusively to the role of wives and mothers (Jo the writer, Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego, called to represent independence and freedom for women), it may well be that over the years you have been led to change views and now identify with a different March sister. As for me, at the moment I believe Amy is the “little woman” I connect with the most (probably also influenced by Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation and by the way she and actress Florence Pugh were able to reinterpret Amy’s character, making her also very realistic and pragmatic despite her own artistic inclinations). Although Amy may be initially seen as the most vain and capricious of the March sisters, her character is rendered by Gerwig as rich in depth and nuance beyond mere appearance. I think she can be considered a feminist character on par with Jo, with the difference that while the latter often feels stuck with her own beliefs and unable to fit into the world around her, Amy, on the other hand, is well aware of her feminine role and believes that love and self-fulfillment can still coexist, without bending her will but feeling equal in her relationship with a man. In my opinion, Amy is the character who most of all accomplishes an evolution as the story unfolds and I love the way she has been reinterpreted through the years.

Laurie and Amy in Little Women (2019). Image Credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Little Women has been adapted cinematically several times over the decades (the first adaptations being the 1918 silent movie version and the 1933 Academy-Award nominated movie starring Katharine Hepburn), but the recent adaptations are the ones that the audience is most familiar with. I once saw the 1949 version in which Elizabeth Taylor also stars (as Amy); the film has excellent cinematography and also won an Oscar for Art Direction and Set Decoration. The story puts a lot of emphasis on family values and makes it a good classic film, characterized by a grace that distinguishes many films of that era. However, each adaptation of Little Women is a reflection of the time in which it was created and reflects much of the zeitgeist of the time. I am more familiar with the 1994 adaptation because I have seen it plenty of times throughout the years (I own the DVD and the film has also been shown several times on TV). It stars many famous actors who we have seen again and again over the years in other roles; Susan Sarandon plays the girls’ mother, Claire Danes is Beth, and Winona Ryder’s performance as Jo remains one of her best roles to this day. I remember having a crush on Christian Bale as Laurie and he is still one of my favorite actors of all time. Although both adaptations of Little Women (Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 and Greta Gerwig’s more current one from 2019) are really well done, the two transpositions have multiple differences between them. I have already talked about how Gerwig breathed new life into the character of Amy, who tends to remain on the margins in the 1994 movie, especially as an adult.

In Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women, Amy is more austere, while Greta Gerwig’s version of Amy has retained a fresher, more youthful air combined with great self-awareness.

The character of Beth is also well represented by Gerwig as a rather silent but significant element in the family balances, while in the 1994 version it is her strong bond with Jo’s character that gets emphasized above all.

The mother’s role is also very different in the two adaptations; while in the 1994 film Susan Sarandon’s Mrs. March is meant to symbolize the head of the household, the one who has the responsibility for the most important decisions, in the 2019 film Laura Dern plays a version of her in which we get to see her headstrong character and intrepid spirit, emphasizing her similarities with Jo’s character, same as in the novel. In a way, the mother’s character is more effervescent in Gerwig’s movie, while Susan Sarandon plays a slightly somber version of this character because more emphasis is placed on the problems caused by the American Civil War.

The March sisters with their mother in Little Women (1994). Image Credits: Columbia Pictures

Although Christian Bale and Timothée Chalamet’s portrayal of Laurie are both very faithful to the novel, Greta Gerwig’s film gives the character much more freshness especially in his younger years, and more depth is also given to the relationship Laurie has with Amy thanks to the brilliant dialogue written by Gerwig, which can also be seen in the modern way she envisions friendship between man and woman through the relationship Laurie has with Jo. A modernity that is present in the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer as well, which mirrors the book even more ( in the 1994 film the Professor looks older than his actual age, whereas in the book he is about 40, although in the 1800s one was already considered old at 40). Meg, played by Emma Watson in Gerwig’s movie, is portrayed as a determined and perfectionist girl who has to face comparison with wealthier girls, and this is very truthful to the novel.

The two film transpositions are markedly different in structure; the 1994 version follows the novel closely, starting with the March sisters’ Christmas scene in their Concord house. The Greta Gerwig-directed movie begins with Jo (played brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan) presenting a manuscript she would like to publish that represents an early draft of Little Women, and the scene is followed by a beautiful sequence in which Jo runs to the boarding house at which she is teaching in New York. This movie version focuses more on the sisters as adults while Jo March recalls a few episodes of their life, starting seven years prior, so some of the major events in the first part of the novel are told through flashbacks.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on the figure of the writer through Jo’s character, with a whole series of fascinating sequences devoted to the writing and printing process toward the end of the film. Although I love both film versions very much, I came to prefer Greta Gerwig’s film slightly more, since the brilliant dialogues and the portrayal of the strong bond among the March sisters fully represent how Little Women stands the test of time and how the director was able to enhance the modernity of the book, whose values and feelings still apply today. She included in the movie certain parts of the novel that most touch the reader’s (and in this case, the viewer’s) sensibilities, such as for example Mrs. March’s dialogue with the man who lost all his children to the war; this highlights a resilience that can apply even in modern times. The movie received excellent reviews from both critics and audiences, and I think Tim Robey’s review for The Telegraph pretty much sums up all the work behind it: “It would be near-impossible to love Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women more than Greta Gerwig does.”

This also encapsulates how much Louisa May Alcott’s novel has meant for readers of different generations around the world over the centuries. It is one of the books I love the most and I hope it will continue to be loved and cherished by future generations for many years to come.

Little Women movie adaptations. Image Credits: RKO Pictures / Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures
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