The March sisters live and grow in post-Civil War America in Little Women (IMDb).
Adapted by Robin Swicord from the novel by Louisa May Alcott; Directed by Gillian Armstrong
115 min, Rated PG, Released 25 December 1994. Available to purchase in digital and physical formats.
There have been a few film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, but in my life I have never needed any other than the 1994 film. Where do I start on the abounding enjoyment and intelligence of this film?
Well, for starters it is both written and directed by women. The 1933 and 1949 film adaptations share a co-screenwriter in Sarah Mason, but both are helmed by male studio filmmakers. We also have 90s (and forever) goddess Winona Ryder as the lead, Jo March (perhaps an excellent equivalent of the 1933 Jo, Katherine Hepburn?), as well as other still-regarded actresses filling out the rest of the March family: Kirsten Dunst as the younger (and better, in my opinion) Amy, Claire Danes as Beth and Susan Sarandon as the glorious matriarch Marmee. Then there’s Christian Bale as lovesick, entitled boy-next-door Laurie and the general perfection of the production design, score and emotional moments that combine to create a heart-warming and indelible experience.
The film takes the best and most memorable moments from the novel and strings them together in scene after scene, leaving you with the profound emotional experience you would have from the book, but without any filler. I watched the film a lot (on VHS, no less!) as a child without even being aware enough to understand what it was, and what the story was – but as I grew older flashes of the most memorable moments would come to me and bowl me over. Wow! Remember that?! Can you imagine burning your sister’s hair? Or falling through ice? Or, omigosh, what if I got so angry I burned some of my sister’s stuff?! And then she attacked me?! Yes, those are all scenes in this film! But as I recalled them – the hair-burning! The burning of the pages! Jo’s face as she turns on Amy, and her face when she sees her fall through the icy lake the next day. “Teacher struck me” and “I feel so strange.” These little moments stick with you long after the film has ended. But, as I re-watched the film as I was older and could actually track the progress of the story I realized that nearly every scene is one of these moments.
That’s the amazing feat of Little Women – the story is made up of so many seemingly “small” events that come and go, but are treated with such emotional gravity in the moment. The genius of Alcott’s story is that it is simply about life in the March family, getting by and trying to live a life they can be proud of in Concord, Massachusetts. The stakes are not as high as so many dramas, but because these “little things” are important to those involved, the story and the film treats them as equally dramatic and critical. Jo’s relatively “frivolous” adventure novel being burnt to a crisp is the second-most tragic moment of the film (Joey Tribbiani can tell you about the first one).
Another reason the story of the March women has persisted and remained touching and relevant through the years since its publication in 1868 is that it depicts these women as living full and passionate lives, in a time when society did not so readily permit them or want them to have such things. (“In a time” might actually be “in every time”).
If you have daughters – sons, too, but daughters will “get” some of the struggles slightly more – I recommend sitting down and watching this with them as soon as possible, and never stopping. Many films we watch as kids are disposable or silly, meant to entertain for the moment and act as a visual toy to distract us from bothering our parents. These movies don’t often hold up to enjoyable viewing as adults, despite our best efforts to watch them through a nostalgic haze. Little Women, however, holds up. I was almost shocked to watch it when I was older and discover that it is intelligent, mature and feminist as hell and that I was so lucky to have seen this at such an impressionable age.
Besides being feminist in that the film “dares” to feature four female protagonists, with a few male love interests sprinkled in, the liberal torch that is Susan Sarandon is used for good in the role of Marmee. Nearly every thing she says is a glorious statement of independence and womanhood, delivered with the classically “don’t mess” tone of Sarandon. When we first meet her she is returning to her daughters after volunteering at Hope House on Christmas Eve. When she first meets the neighbors, she casually shuts down Laurie’s tutor who is judging the girls for rough-housing alongside Laurie, with “it is my belief that feminine weakness and fainting spells are the direct result of keeping our girls indoors,” bent over needlework and in corsets. She encourages her girls to play outdoors like the boys do so they don’t become weaklings. When Amy’s misogynist teacher Mr. Davis (“Mr. Davis said it was as useful to educate a woman as to educate a female cat”) strikes Amy for taking part in trading limes with the other students, Marmee writes a strongly worded letter in the tradition of all Moms and takes Amy out of school to be taught at home by Jo. When the girls first meet Laurie, she slyly warns them “I won’t have my girls being silly about boys.” After Meg has a confusing, slightly shameful taste of the Good Life – dressed up by her high society friends in corsets and bows – she despairs to Marmee about what she must have looked like. Marmee says “nothing provokes speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself,” but warns against Meg thinking of herself as only being “purely decorative.”
Following the guidance of such a strong maternal figure, the other women are equally strong role models for young children of all ages and contexts. They aren’t saintly (well, Beth might be), but they are always trying to be good, and to do good. On Christmas Day they swoon over their hot and flavorful breakfast – often a rarity, as they’re in the midst of the Civil War – before hearing about their poor German immigrant neighbors who have very little. With a little bit of sadness they gradually offer up most of their food to them – Amy, the youngest, and frequently the unabashed id of the group, initially tries to hide her orange – but by the time they leave the house they are in good spirits again, ready to share the joy they are lucky to possess.
The girls also embrace one another above any one else, and forgive and understand all of their individual “quirks.” Jo is bold and quick to anger, and stubborn, but she isn’t shamed for that. They even encourage the writing of her exotic adventure tales and help act them out together in their attic. Beth is the most fragile and timid, but she is secretly the glue that holds them all together and they know it. Amy is a flighty painter, unashamed about her goal to marry rich no matter what, and Meg just wants to live a proper life with a respectable husband and family. Neither sister looks down on the goals of any of the others.
If you are looking for the warmth that comes with a family that supports and nurtures one another, or the glowing pride that accompanies women being strong and bold in the face of men and a society that don’t want to hear them, Little Women is the thing for you. As the first part of the film features two memorable Christmas scenes, I particularly love to watch the film in the winter and holiday season, when the desire for the kind of warmth it offers is at its highest. If you aren’t up to reading the full novel, don’t fret – Gillian Armstrong’s film, at just under two hours, can give you the full and detailed journey of the March sisters in one warm, hopeful evening.
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