Little Women (1994)

Little Women 1994This Robin Swicord adaptation of Luisa May Alcott’s classic novel is very good, considering that the movie comes in under two hours. I will not detail the story itself as that is already covered in my review of Little Women in my book section.

Briefly, including spoilers, this is the story of the March sisters, ranging in age from 12 to 16 at the beginning of the novel, living with their mother in Cambridge, MA during and immediately after the Civil War. Their father is a pastor to Union soldiers during the conflict.  The central character, Jo, aspires to become an author and she befriends a wealthy boy, Laurie (Teddy), who lives nearby.  As they grow up, her older sister, Meg, marries Laurie’s tutor, father returns home, younger sister Beth dies of a heart problem carried over from scarlet fever, and Amy grows up.  When Laurie finishes college, he proposes to Jo, but she turns him down, so Laurie goes with his grandfather to Europe, where he dissipates, while Jo moves to New York to become a governess.  Amy goes to France with their Aunt March, where she meets Laurie.  As Jo falls in love with a new acquaintance, Professor Bhaer, Laurie fall in love with Amy and marries her.

This film features a superb young cast. Wynona Ryder stars as Jo and she carries off the girl’s naiveté and yearning with a youthful vigor that is completely believable.  Young Christian Bale is perfect as Laurie.  Amy is played by two actresses: Kirsten Dunst plays Amy as a girl and Samantha Mathis plays her as a young woman.  Although both of them are good, there are several problems with the arrangement.  First, they don’t look enough alike to be believable as the same person and second, by jumping four years into the future, the film does not let us see Amy grow and change, so the character differences between the two Amys is stark and does not feel natural.  The script completely leaves out how Amy replaced Jo as a companion for Aunt March, leading to changes.  It does not let us see how Jo offended Aunt March, which was what led to the Aunt taking Amy to France instead of Jo.

Trini Alvarado as Meg and Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, the man she marries, are both very good and Susan Sarandon is perfect as the mother of the girls, Marmee.

Clare Danes sometimes shines as Beth. The scene where Mr. Laurence presents her with the piano is excellent, although the film doesn’t take the time to show her practicing on the piano at the Laurences, which is part of what makes the gift so special.  However, during the scene where Beth dies, director Gillian Armstrong allows Danes to play the scene with a certain fear and regret of death, whereas in the book, Beth embraces her death.  Beth’s character is built around her being a homebody and so certain of Heaven that she dies with a kind of splendid peace.  Danes performance negates the character she has so carefully built.

One of the things the movie didn’t do as well as the book was the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo and she refuses him. It is probably the best scene in the novel and it seems to flounder a bit in the film, so that what should be a major crisis on which the story pivots just doesn’t bring the heat.

However, the movie clearly improves on the book with the character of Professor Bhaer. As played by Gabriel Byrne, he is more romantic and open-minded, certainly clean-shaven.  This redrawing of the character to make him more likable is connected to a new ending that makes the story work much better.  In the book, Bhaer goes into a fit over Jo writing sensational stories for yellow press and she gives up writing entirely, but in the movie, he merely feels that she should write from her own heart and do better.  Following Beth’s death, Jo, in the movie, proceeds to write a novel about her own family and that novel then becomes Little Women and gives us a real parallel with Luisa May Alcott, who wrote the book originally about her own family.  Bhaer then finds a publisher and delivers the galleys to Jo, which is how they get together.  This ending is so much more satisfactory than the novel.  It is unreal that Jo would give up writing for good and it feels entirely wrong that she would marry such a closed-minded old fool as Bhaer in the book.

One more improvement really gives the movie a lift over the novel. Throughout the book, Alcott preaches to her readers, giving many little examples of how girls can make their own family lives better if they only behave properly and completely trust in God.  The movie removes almost every single instance of preaching and tells the story without a moral hammer.

Overall, it is a very good film. This is the fifth adaptation of Little Women to the screen.  There were two silent versions, in 1917 and 1918, a film in 1933 directed by George Cukor with young Kathryn Hepburn as Jo, and one again in 1949 with June Allyson as the main character, but also featuring Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien.  The 1949 version is the only other one I’ve seen and it is also very good, but for modern viewers I would not hesitate to recommend this 1994 movie with Wynona Ryder.  It is a solid adaptation, well directed and–for the most part–very well acted.

Book Reviews by Author: A – M

Alcott, Luisa MayLuisa May Alcott

(November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888)

Friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, Ms. Alcott had to work to help support her family, and like Jane Austen before her, she spun stories for her supper. Well known for her one transcendent novel, she also contributed sequels to the well-loved classic.

Little WomenLittle Women Norton Critical Edition

This is the story of four American sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, during and just following the Civil War.  Shepherded by their mother (Marmee), they become friends with their neighbors, Mr. Laurence and his grandson, Teddy (Laurie).  The book follows their lives, as well as various men they become involved with, but the book is concentrated in the person of Jo, the bookish second daughter, who is fifteen at the beginning of the story.


Isaac Asimov

Foundation


Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Mansfield Park

Sanditon and Other Stories


Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre


Truman Capote

In Cold Blood


Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game


Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth


Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist


Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games


Deborah Kay Davies

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful


Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time


Nicholas Evans

The Horse Whisperer


John Fowles

The Collector


Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust


Barbara Holland

Katharine Hepburn


Katelan Janke

Survival in the Storm:

The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards


Stephanie Kallos

Broken for You


Rebecca Kanner

The Sinners and the Sea


Jack Kerouac

On The Road


Barbara Kingsolver

Animal Dreams


Ron Koertge

Stoner & Spaz


Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird


Billie Letts

Where The Heart Is


Anne McCaffrey

An Introduction to the World of Pern

Dragonsdawn

The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy

Dragonflight

Dragonquest

The White Dragon


The Harper Hall Trilogy

Dragonsong

Dragonsinger

Dragondrums


The Renegades of Pern


All the Weyrs of Pern


Jack McDevitt

The Academy Novels

An Introduction to the Series

The Engines of God

Deepsix

Chindi

 

 

Little Women by Luisa May Alcott

Little Women Norton Critical EditionThis review contains spoilers.

I read this classic American novel, first published in 1868, in the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein.  In addition to the original text, published with very few corrections, the volume also contains a timeline, excerpts from Alcott’s journal, copies of letters with her first publisher, excerpts from texts cited in the manuscript (such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) and other writings by Alcott that relate to the book, including some of the juvenile plays that the Alcott sisters performed.

The original version, it should be noted, underwent significant revision in 1880 to “modernize” the text, so this original version is much closer to what Alcott intended when she wrote the book.

The story concerns the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, their family, including their mother (Marmee), father, Aunt March, their neighbors, Mr. Laurence and his grandson, Teddy (Laurie), as well as various men involved in their lives, but the book is concentrated in the person of Jo, the second daughter, who is fifteen when the novel opens.

Their father has just gone off to Union Army to serve as a pastor in the Civil War after a reversal of fortune has left them in some degree of poverty.  Living in a small town just outside of Boston, the girls still give time to the local poor, help keep house, and perform various plays that Jo writes.  They have their own little “Pickwick Club” that published a small paper that they all contribute to and they play the parts of men from the Dickens classic.

Noticing that the neighbor boy must spend much time alone toiling with his tutor, John Brooke, Jo decides to make friends with him.  Laurie becomes friends with all four girls and they induct him as a member in the Pickwick Club.  As time passes, their father returns home, Meg and John Brooke become a couple and eventually marry, and Laurie goes off to college.  Upon his return, he proposes to Jo, but she tells him that she only likes him as a friend.  Aunt March takes Amy off with her to Europe and also goes there to get over his rejection.  Jo moves to New York City and begins her life as a writer, meeting Professor Bhaer, a German man looking over his two nephews in the boarding house where Jo serves as governess.  Writing sensational stories for the newspaper, Jo finds herself upbraided by the Professor for writing vulgar tales and gives up writing altogether.  At home, the always weak Beth, due to an earlier bout with scarlet fever, falls very ill and Jo returns to nurse her.

In Europe, Laurie courts the now womanly Beth and wins her heart.  When Beth dies and Aunt March decides to stay in Europe, Laurie weds Beth so that they return to the family, but Beth dies before they can make it back.  Aunt March also eventually dies, leaving her estate to Jo who married Bhaer and starts a school for boys in the old house, eventually having two boys of her own.  Laurie and Amy have a girl, whom they name Beth, after the deceased sister.

Although there are a number of issues with the book, there are parts of it that still remain among some of the best written American prose ever.

There are a number of issues, especially to a modern reader.  The purpose of the novel was to serve as an instruction guide to adolescent girls in how to live their lives, so it carries a heavy moral burden.  Girls must not only love and support their parents wholeheartedly, but they must have a regular devotion to the Christian god.  Indeed, page after page harps on these points over and over.  All this preaching really gets in the way of the story that’s being told.  The author frequently steps from behind her wall and speaks directly to the reader, telling us how she feels about the story, how the girls should behave, and so on.

Beyond that, the story has a few issues of its own.  Alcott spends a great deal of time setting up Jo’s relationship with Laurie so that the reader expects it work out and it is quite a letdown when it doesn’t.  They seem perfect for each other.  Then, Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer seems really forced.  He reveals himself to be a very shallow, narrow-minded man.  When his actions result in Jo giving up writing, I really lost respect for her.  That is a serious issue in a book where she is the protagonist.  I believe the issue is compounded by her falling in love with him.

I don’t think that I’m the only one to see this.  The movies adapted from the book have all changed not just the character of Professor Bhaer to make him more likable, they’ve actually changed the plot so that Jo continues to write.  In the book, he is 40 years old and she is 19.  I personally have no objection to the age difference and the people of that time had no objection to it, but I think that today’s audience might have some qualms.  The movies almost all picture him as younger.

In spite of these various drawbacks, the scene where Jo rejects Laurie must be among the best ever written. It is heart-wrenching.  Likewise, the love and care of the four girls for each other is so endearing that it literally makes the book successful on its own.  Although Alcott seems self-deprecating about the poetry in book, I found it to be extremely well-written and a strong hit to the heart.  Although I admit that I am prone to my Irish sentimentality, I am also quick to reject overt sentimentality and I found myself tearing up many times during the reading.

So, problems and all, I have to admit this is an amazing and wonderful book that everyone who is interested in American literature must read.  If you are lucky, you will find that place in your heart that it is willing and waiting to touch.