Part three of Polite Poverty (part one is here and part two is here) asks what happens when you put a story about genteel poverty, written by a woman who experienced poverty at its harshest, into the hands of other people with varying degrees of heightened privilege? Looking at film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a fine opportunity to explore this question.
There have been three speaking film versions made of Little Women—the first two directed by men, and the latest one directed by a woman. How do the adaptations, interpretations and performances of the four central March sisters stack up against each other?
Is there a definitive adaptation to date, or did they all just repurpose the narrative and miss the point of the source material?
Little Women was first published in 1880. Alcott didn’t particularly want to write it but she agreed to on the condition that a book by her father, Bronson Alcott, would also be published. The rest is history, as immediate demand exploded for more stories about the March sisters, and Alcott understandably obliged.
The original obituary of Alcott in the New York Times explained that, “For a long time Miss Alcott had been ill, suffering from nervous prostration,” and that she would eventually die as a result of contracting spinal meningitis.
The obituary also recollected on her shift in fortunes due to the success of her famous debut novel:
“Miss Alcott’s life was in its beginning one of poverty, struggles, vicissitudes, and discouraging experiences. Fame, honor, and a comfortable fortune came in its later years. There was probably no writer among women better loved by the young than she. Her fame rested chiefly on her first successful story, “Little Women,” and it was that story that endeared her to so many hundred thousands in this country and Europe alike. Its merit lay in its pretty pictures of the simple home life of the author and her little sisters.”
The first ‘talkie’ film adaptation came in 1933, and was directed by George Cukor. It was well received and attracted one of the biggest stars of the time, Katherine Hepburn, to the role of Jo March. The screenplay won an Academy Award and the film received a further two nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
It began a tradition of mischaracterising the role of Amy March, preferring to paint her as innately shallow and vain as opposed to desperately romantic and ambitious, which is how she reads on the pages of Alcott’s story.
This misstep is most apparent in the re-writing of the chapter where Amy engages in the trading of spiced limes with the rich girls in her school during recess. Instead, Cukor’s adaptation opts to have Amy punished for drawing a Charlie Hebdo-like etching of her teacher, Mr Davis, on her learning slate. Here’s why that’s annoying:
- Amy is not a French white supremacist. She is poor and doesn’t understand why she can’t have nice things too.
- The limes are so extremely important if you follow Amy’s narrative throughout the first two volumes of the books.
Amy is constantly being punished by elite society for attempting to “rise above her station.” She idealizes about belonging within the circles that she sees as “deserving” and “valuable.” She consistently makes sacrifices in order to put herself into avenues of opportunity that she identifies as being associated with privileged people and their privileged preoccupations.
The limes are simple social currency in a childhood social system and the fact that Meg makes the sacrifice on this occasion and spares her the money to play the lime game, shows that her family understand and empathise with what essentially drives (even young) Amy: leveling the playing field.
It is her horrible classmate Jenny Snow who tattles on Amy, yet only Amy who is subsequently punished and struck for trading the limes, even though all of the girls were participants in the game. This nuance is so crucial to Amy’s story. Also relevant is that she goes through the same thing again with renting the carriage for her party that no one bothers to show up for, and once again at May Chester’s art fair, where she is excluded and put out of the way, selling flowers that no-one wants.
Otherwise, this version is enjoyable. Hepburn is the showiest and the starriest of all, which is evident in the promo photography for the film. Hepburn mostly hits the right notes as Jo and the rest of the cast is solid.
|George Cukor (1933)||Jo: Katharine Hepburn
Meg: Frances Dee
Amy: Joan Bennett
Beth: Jean Parker
|1 Academy Award- Adapted Screenplay.
2 nominations- Best Picture, Best Director (George Cukor).
The 1949 adaptation by Mervyn Leroy was the worst. Instead of adapting Louisa May Alcott’s book, it decided that it would adapt George Cukor’s film version instead. It begins bizarrely, with all characters except Janet Leigh’s Meg, behaving like SNL caricatures of themselves. Jo is more shrill and domineering than independent and tomboyish. Amy is even more conceited and vapid than in the 1933 version. And Beth? Well Beth is just simply creepy.
Laurie is kind of cute in this one but Mr. Brooks is even cuter, so that’s nice. Jo, however, is annoying. Elizabeth Taylor is awful as Amy, once again forgoing the limes story for drawing racist anti-Semitic artwork on her chalkboard. The bright spot? Janet Leigh as Meg. She’s lovely and perfectly measured and is probably the best Meg out of all the versions.
Side note: Before LeRoy took over as director, David O. Selznick was poised to direct. His version would have included Jennifer Jones (Jo), Diana Lynn (Amy), Bambi Linn (Beth), and Rhonda Fleming (Meg).
|Mervyn LeRoy(1949)||Jo: June Allyson
Meg: Janet Leigh
Amy: Elizabeth Taylor
Beth: Margaret O’Brien
|1 Academy Award- Set Decoration.
1 nomination- Cinematography.
Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation in 1994 is regarded as the most faithful adaptation (as well as the best) to date. The strengths are very apparent:
- She attracted a stellar cast of some of the most talked about young actresses at the time, Trini Alvarado being the most obscure name out of the four actresses playing the March sisters.
- She played it really close to the original story and made the all-important inclusion of the limes narrative.
- She doubled up on the casting of Amy (Kirsten Dunst played young Amy and Samantha Mathis played older Amy) to acknowledge the passing of time between Little Women and Good Wives.
It’s pretty close to the perfect adaptation, with Winona Ryder securing her first (and only) Best Actress Oscar nomination, having been previously nominated as Best Supporting Actress for The Age of Innocence. Ryder is very good here. She’s spirited and appropriately brash, as opposed to just shrieking her way through the role. Her scene where she refuses Laurie’s proposal is almost pitch perfect but no one is talented enough to portray why the hell Jo wants to marry Friedrich Bhaer—not even Winona.
Claire Danes is a wonderful actress and she brings a lot of poignancy and beauty to her portrayal of Beth. I don’t know why they call it the “ugly cry face” because when Claire Danes is pulling that trick out of the bag, she usually seems to be in the process of defining a role. I didn’t even find book Beth’s death as affecting as I found it through Danes’ performance, so can we start calling it the “raw emotion cry face” instead of the “ugly cry face,” please?
Dunst and Mathis are perfect at juxtaposing the evolution of Amy March from soppy, romantic little Amy to accomplished and compassionate older Amy.
|Gillian Armstrong (1994)||Jo: Winona Ryder
Meg: Trini Alvarado
Amy: Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis
Beth: Claire Danes
|3 Nominations- Best Actress (Winona Ryder), Costume Design, Original Score.|
Although my favourite line from the book is directly omitted—it does belong to Amy, where she tells her new husband Laurie:
“Ambitious girls have a hard time, Laurie, and often have to see youth, health and precious opportunities go by, just for want of a little help at the right minute.”
Even though this dialogue omission is a missed opportunity, Dunst and Mathis do manage to embody exactly why Amy became my favourite March sister over the course of two books. Dunst portrays the struggle and the bubbling frustration and Mathis displays the same young woman finally at peace with her former exertions. As the Amy in the book puts it:
“People have been very kind to me and whenever I see young girls struggling along, as we used to do I want to put out my hand and help them up, as I was helped.”
This is in contrast to Jo, who not only marries horrid Professor Bhaer but then uses the inheritance that Aunt March left her, to open up an exclusionary school for boys at Plumfield. Any future film versions should have Malala make a cameo appearance and stoically tell Jo off for not realizing that girls should have access to education too.
So who came out on top?