There are many, many, MANY adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of four sisters growing up during and after the Civil War in Concord, Massachusetts. As we speak, a new film version starring Emma Watson and directed by Greta Gerwig is in the works, and only about a year ago the BBC released a miniseries based on the book.
I doubt any will ever touch Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version, starring Winona Ryder in the lead role of Jo March.
What’s so special about it? Unlike other versions, this one taps into not just the two volume book, but Alcott’s own life. The March family is a fictionalized version of her own family. Like Jo, Alcott wrote potboilers under pseudonyms to help supplement her family’s income. In the film, the family are Transcendentalists, just like the Alcott family, who lived in a Transcendentalist commune when Louisa was a child.
Their beliefs in abolition and social justice are touched upon in the film as well, such as when Meg (Trini Alvarado) explains to her friends why her dress isn’t made up of silk made up in text mills that employ children. Alcott was famous for her feminist beliefs. In the movie the March sisters’ mother Marme (Susan Sarandon) lectures her future son-in-law (Eric Stolz) about the need for young girls to experience exertions through exercise without the confinement of corsets, and advises her daughters that beauty is transitory, while the workings of their minds are what truly last.
I think what also sets it apart are Armstrong’s direction and Robin Swicord’s screenplay. Together, they manage to keep a costume drama from feeling stuffy and confining (just watch Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, released the same year, for comparison) and portray the daily lives of 19th century women with great detail, yet also with ease.
I also love the way they frame the film by using the changing seasons to denote the passage of time, from the girls’ long winter while their father is away, through the autumn when the war ends, to spring when Meg marries, to summer when Jo refuses her neighbor Laurie’s (Christian Bale) proposal and sets out to become a writer in New York.
On top of that is Thomas Newman’s superlative score, which signaled to me that this film would not be like the other versions of Little Women, nice as they are. I took my niece when she was five years old to see it in the theater mainly because I thought it was appropriate for her. Instead of hearing treacly, sweet music, the credits open with “Young Girls Facing Life and Growing into Women” music.
Then there is the to-this-day controversy over who Jo should have ended up with in the story—her devoted Laurie, or the older Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne)? For some reason there’s a faction of the audience that refuses to accept that she would reject Laurie, even though he himself realizes they would not have suited each other and instead marries her younger sister Amy (Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis).
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Professor Bhaer makes coffee for Jo and they talk about their literary preferences. Watching the two of them fall in love over Walt Whitman as they recognize they are each other’s soul mate is sublime.
Alcott herself never married (in fact, there is strong evidence that she was bisexual and perhaps even genderfluid—reflected in Jo’s penchant for dressing up as a boy when her sisters play act). But she created a character who understood that marrying for the good of her family (as Laurie was very rich, and her family was very poor) or even because she felt deep love, just not the right kind of love, would be a disaster.
Each sister finds her own path—even shy, ill Beth, who bravely faces death because she “never saw herself as anything much.” Watching them deal with her loss—which includes Jo writing a book like Little Women and seeing her first real literary success—and each alighting on her chosen place in life is always emotional and gratifying.