In October Louisa May Alcott: The Woman behind Little Women hit bookstores. The book, written by Harriet Reisen, reveals a courageous, driven woman much like the heroine, Jo, in Alcott’s famous novel, Little Women.
In an interview with The Arlington Advocate, Reisen states that “just about all of Little Women is autobiography” apart from “the grueling poverty of her childhood”, which Alcott made into “the genteel variety” in Little Women (“Louise May Alcott Uncovered”, by Andy Metzger, 01 November 2009).
Alcott called her writing, “moral pap for the young”, but Little Women is anything but. The book explores familial relationships, particularly the complex bond between the four March sisters who start out young in the book and struggle throughout their lives to overcome personal flaws.
Sixteen-year-old Meg is nervous and uptight; 15-year-old Jo, who is the book’s main protagonist, is stubborn and temperamental; 13-year-old Beth is painfully shy; and 12-year-old Amy is vain and selfish. When the girls befriend their next door neighbor, Lawrence (nicknamed “Laurie”), he becomes an integral part of their lives and becomes involved with each of the girls in some important way that helps them see these flaws and attempt to resolve them.
The novel about four sisters growing up in a close-knit family was first published in 1868 and immediately became a sweeping sensation. At the time, it sold over 2,000 copies. It has never been out of print. It has not only sold countless copies, but has been translated into 50 languages and been made into movies, plays, television adaptations, operas, and ballets.
One of the most well-known adaptations is the 1994 version of Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong. Like Alcott’s novel, Armstrong’s film was well received and was Oscar-nominated in 1995 for best actress in a leading role, costume design, and original score.
The plot stays roughly true to Alcott’s novel despite some glitches. Set at Christmas time in Concord Massachusetts in the harsh winter of 1862, the movie opens when Mrs. March, known as “Marme”, (Susan Sarandon) and her four daughters, Jo (Winona Ryder), Beth (Trini Alvarado), Meg, (Claire Danes), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst), receive a letter from their father who is out serving in the Civil War. The four girls gather around their mother as she reads the letter, and the shot looks like a Kodak ad. If this was the film’s opening, I worried about the schmaltz fest about to ensue.
But as the movie unfolds and the girls sit around the house acting out Jo’s plays, sewing, singing and playing the piano, I remembered that this is what appealed to me about Alcott’s story when I read it at 12-years-old. It provided the lure of family and simpler times. Having since read it again, I can appreciate Alcott’s lovely language. I can also recognize that the book stirs up an emotional response much more realistic than the clichéd sentimentality present in the film.
While the accolades the film received were impressive, I don’t think they were all deserving, certainly not where Winona Ryder is concerned. She wasn’t a good candidate to play the role of Jo. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan or Ryder despite her acclaim, yet apart from my bias, it’s evident that she doesn’t look like Jo. There’s nothing that suggests that she’s “very tall” with “big hands and feet” and “a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes” as she is described in the novel. Instead, Ryder is pretty, petite, and innocent-looking—quite unlike the rough and tumble Jo of Alcott’s novel.
While she does convey Jo’s ambition and wild temperament, her passion seems forced. Watching her, I’m always aware that she’s acting. There’s a scene in which Amy is struck by her teacher, Mr. Davis, and Jo and Marme are outraged. Here we see the differences in the acting abilities between Sarandon and Ryder. Sarandon is effortless in her anger, gliding across the floor in her long skirt, her eyebrows knit, her voice curt and restrained while Ryder’s indignation feels contrived. She beats her hands at her sides and paces the floor dramatically, shouting, “I could strangle Mr. Davis.”
If Ryder is a less-than-perfect actress, the rest of the cast makes up for her shortcomings despite some more “prettied up” characters. A very young and adorable Kirsten Dunst is a likely Amy. Like the Amy in the book, she feels her flat nose is unattractive and tries to correct it with a clothespin. But there’s nothing about Dunst that suggests a flat nose like that of the Amy in the book. In fact, Dunst’s pert little nose is perfect. Meanwhile, Claire Daines’ looks are downplayed in the film and she is virtually absent until she catches scarlet fever.
Trini Alvarado isn’t “plump” as she’s described in the book, but tall and thin, yet she does a great job of playing the quiet insecure eldest March sister. Eric Stolz who plays her husband, John Brooke, is excellent as well. Laurie played by Christian Bale is also a superb male addition to the cast as is Gabriel Byrne who plays Mr. Bhaer—the professor who eventually marries Jo. Despite his solid performance, Bhaer is described in the book as old, bearded, and unattractive, unlike handsome Byrnes. Mary Wickes is a convincing Aunt March. Although her role in the film is shaved down to a fraction of that in the book, she nails the uptight, older matron who sees her nieces as unsuccessful and flippant.
Susan Sarandon is wonderful as Marme, but her storyline is a bit off-putting. She spouts about the restrictiveness of corsets and long skirts, and how men can do whatever they wish. This is not to say the book doesn’t address issues of feminism. Jo struggles in the novel with not being able to do the things men can do, and she endures the pressure to marry a suitable man. But there are no obvious shout-outs concerning women’s constrictive garments or blasted men, which feel written into the movie’s script in order to appeal to a modern audience’s sensibilities about feminism. These additions, of course, contradict the addition of the physically-enhanced characters.
Screenwriter Robin Swicord had to leave a lot of the book out for time’s sake, and rearranged the order of scenes to help the flow of the film, but there were certain plot points that I couldn’t get past. An example of this would be the altered relationships in the film.
In the book, there is trouble in Meg and John’s marriage. At one point she complains, “Oh dear, married life is very trying, and does need infinite patience… I’m getting old and ugly. John doesn’t find me interesting any longer…” When she tells her mother her concerns, unlike what the Marme of the movie would probably say, the book’s Marme replies, “Don’t you neglect him?” This more realistic portrayal of marriage is never shown in the film and instead we see a perfect couple raising perfect twin babies.
An enormous amount of Laurie and Amy’s relationship is left out the movie. In the book, Laurie spends a great deal of time courting Amy, but in the film he suddenly realizes he’s in love with her and they get married immediately.
(Sony Pictures; US DVD: Apr 2000; UK DVD: 31 Dec 1969)
Finally, the film makes a major revision to the story. In the novel, Jo never publishes a book that she is happy with and decides that her former passion for writing is just “selfish, lonely, and cold”. She goes on to say, as she points to her family members:
“I haven’t given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I’m sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these.”
In the film, Jo publishes a book called My Beth after Beth succumbs to the long-term effects of scarlet fever. A scene in the film shows Ryder blissfully tying up the manuscript to be mailed and putting a rose under the string. This reminds me of what Armstrong and the screenwriters did to the film: tied it up neatly and put a pretty flower on it.
Despite its faults, the film certainly isn’t bad. I found it entertaining and full of gorgeous cinematography. The brownish hues on screen reminded me of the dark wooden house that I imagined while I read it.
Yet in the end, the film has the mood of a Hallmark card, whereas the book has sentiment, but also manages to possess sincerity and substance. Alcott’s Little Women is funny, much more realistic, and filled with her talented turns of phrase—something that can never adequately be translated to the screen.