A modern take on Little Women: Behind the scenes of the YouTube series, “The March Family Letters”

I’ve been so enjoying The March Family Letters and I hope you have been too. Naturally, I was curious to learn more about how it came about.

the march family letters header

I recently had the pleasure of chatting via email with the series producer and showrunner Sarah Shelson; in part one of the interview she shares how the series came to be and how the March sisters were re-imagined for the present day.

What made you decide to produce this series? What is your connection to Little Women?

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).I have loved the Little Women novel ever since I was little. It was one of my mom’s favourite novels as well. I love how unique all the sisters are and their bond for each other, I love Marmee’s loving advice and I love the way that when I would reread the book, it was like returning home. I wanted to produce this series because I selfishly wanted modern little women to exist. There are also a lot of themes in the original novel that were appealing to me to explore from a modern perspective.

Were you concerned at all with re-imagining the March sisters for the twenty-first century? How did you decide on the various physical and character traits for each sister? For example:

  • Why did you imagine Meg as a workaholic and perfectionist?
  • Why is Beth portrayed as sullen as well as thoughtful when in the original story she was cheerful?
  • Why does Amy wear glasses?
  • Why is Jo a blond?

Very concerned! The March sisters are such beloved characters that we wanted to make sure that we were true to the spirit of the characters in the novel. So that’s how we decided on the character traits. By looking at the original novel and imagining how the character’s desires and journeys translate into the modern age. As for physical traits, these were less important to us than an actor’s ability to portray the character well. To address your specific questions:

the march family letters

In the novel, Meg is a hard worker and aspires to behave like the higher class. Our Meg has had a lot of pressure put on her by being the oldest child and having to take care of her sisters a lot. Just like in the book, she is very driven to realize her dreams and follow through on her plans. She hasn’t learned yet that she doesn’t need to try so hard all the time.

Beth hasn’t been on camera much yet, so I think the audience has only seen a small glimpse of her. And cameras make Beth nervous, so in the first couple videos we see her, her behaviour is shaded by that. As the series goes on and Beth becomes more comfortable on camera, we’ll get to see her open up more.

march family letters episodes 4 and 5

Amy aspires to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult. She has adopted the hipster aesthetic and behaviour to try to come across as more mature. In her eyes, the glasses complete the ensemble. We call her our little faux-hipster.

Jo is a blonde for the simple reason that the actress we cast for her is a blonde. We are both a low budget web series and a project filmed over a long period of time. It wouldn’t be fair to our actors to ask them to dye their hair for the role and we don’t have the resources to pull-off a convincing wig.

What kind of research did you need to do in order to get into the heads and hearts of the sisters?

little women in the garretReading the original novel more times than I can count was definitely high on the list. I also spent a lot of time reading commentary on the book and its characters. The sorts of critiques people have had about it, interpretations of the characters, thematic analyses, that sort of thing. And the last bit of big research I did was for character aspects that I don’t have any lived experience for. For example, I don’t have social anxiety, but it was very important to me that we portrayed Beth’s social anxiety in an authentic way. So I read a lot of information sites as well as first person accounts from people sharing their own experiences.

How long did it take to get The March Family Letters into production? What characteristics were you looking for in your actors? How did you decide on YouTube as the place for viewing the series?

the march family letters logoIt’s been a long journey to production! We decided to produce the series pilot in December 2013. We released that video in March 2014. And then we didn’t start filming the main series until October 2014. And we’re still in production right now, filming the second half of the series! For our actors, we looked for people who were passionate about the project, were comfortable addressing the camera directly, had energies that complimented and contrasted each other, resembled sisters and of course, brought the characters to life the way we envisioned. And finally, YouTube seemed like the best place to distribute the series because of both the engagement opportunities, our target audience’s familiarity with the platform, and the fact that our series has such strong ties to YouTube video styles.

Should the series prove successful, are there plans for a sequel?

For sure! This current run of episodes won’t take us through the whole ‘Little Women’ novel and we would love to get the chance to adapt the whole story.

Stayed tuned!

In part two of this interview, I get to ask questions of the sisters themselves! Coming soon …

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