Exclusive interview with Heidi Thomas, screenwriter for Masterpiece’s Little Women

Heidi Thomas is an award-winning English playwright and screenwriter, whose previous television adaptations of classic novels include Cranford, I Capture The Castle, and Madame Bovary. She is especially known for her writing on the long-running PBS series, “Call the Midwife.”

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

I am thankful to Gabrielle Donnelly, member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who conducted the interview and shared it exclusively with Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. Little Women fans recall her recent novel, The Little Women Letters.

When did you first read Little Women?

When I was 8, which I now think is a little young, but it’s when I did. I was given it by my Mum, who saw that I was ready for it, and I fell in love with it. I’ve read it ever since as a comfort book, partly because it took me back to my youth, which was lovely but it did mean that I was still reading it with my child’s eye. It was very interesting, when I was adapting it for television, to read it for the first time with an adult’s eye – it meant I saw a lot of things in it that were completely new to me.

How did you come to do the adaptation?

The producer Colin Callendar approached me with the idea and I grabbed it with both hands! This was a passion project for both of us. The idea was very quickly greenlit and so we went to production very quickly. I’ve adapted other classic novels in the past, so I’ve acquired some skills along the way of how to adapt them – including knowing how to take liberties with them. It was a huge help to me on this one that I just had to jump in without thinking about it because otherwise the weight of expectations would have terrified me.

Heidi Thomas, courtesy of Masterpiece, PBS.

What was the biggest challenge about this adaptation?

Precisely that this is a book that is so well-loved by everyone, including me! And people can get quite possessive about the books they love – they have their own ideas about how a certain character was or how a certain scene played out – and there could be an assumption that by adapting it, I was ruining it. So my big question was – why have people been reading it for 150-odd years and still loving it, and what can I do to preserve that? And in tandem with that, what can I do to make it fresh and relevant today?

Why do you think Little Women has been so much loved for so long?

I think it’s very interesting that it was published at about the same time as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because I think the two books have a lot in common. They are both very character driven, they are both interested in probing deeply into the inner lives of their characters – and they both have wonderful dialogue. I often wonder how Louisa May Alcott, living in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century, managed to write such perfect television screen dialogue!

Was there anything you did to bring the sisters into the modern world?

Well, wonderful as the dialogue in the book is, you can’t just cut pages out of the novel, hand them to the actors and say “OK, here’s your script.” And one thing I did notice while I was reading the book as an adult, was that the characters are sometimes quite hard on each other, and I liked them least at those times. I know that that was a characteristic of the time and the place they lived in, but in my adaptation I tended to avoid those parts and have them be nice to each other all the time instead of lecturing or criticizing each other.

How much research did you do into the lives of the Alcott family?

In fact, I consciously avoided doing that because I knew how similar the Alcotts were to the Marches and I wanted to focus on the Marches. We were lucky enough on the set to have Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Orchard House, as our historical consultant, so she kept us true to the time and the place.

Can you take us through the cast and the characters they played?

Emily Watson – who is British acting royalty, of course – invested Marmee with a great vulnerability which I felt really brought her to life. She’s a mother herself, and I think she brought a lot of her experience of motherhood to the role. It’s very interesting to look at Marmee as an adult reader. There’s a danger with her that she can come across as overly saintly, or even a little bland, but I think that’s because people don’t dig deep enough when they first look at her. Her struggles are all there in the book, her struggle with anger, her struggle to keep the family together – it wasn’t easy for her. Can you imagine raising four adolescent girls all on your own? There’s a scene in the series that I’m very fond of, where she has Jo shouting from one room and Amy screaming from another, and she goes out onto the landing and just goes “Whoo.” She doesn’t say anything but you can really see what she’s going through.

And Dylan Baker as Mr. March?

Wasn’t he good! I think Mr. March is one of the most overlooked characters in literature. Bronson Alcott was such an outsized character in real life, and I think that in the novel, Mr. March is kept beautifully within the confines of being just the father figure: as such, he really is the perfect husband and father. One of the most telling things that we learn about him in the book is that Jo goes to him for help after Beth’s death – Louisa writes quite straightforwardly that Jo calls their conversations the “church of one member”, a place where she goes when she needs to, and finds great solace there. To bring him a little more into the 21st century, I’ve written into the series a confrontation he has with Jo, where he tells her “you have to let your writing marinate,” and she points out that he has been working on his own writing for too long!

Angela Lansbury as Aunt March?

What an interesting character Aunt March is. Of course, Louisa was an aunt herself and there’s a fascinating paragraph in the book where she actually steps out of the narration to address the reader directly, saying, “Be kind to your aunts because they’re special people.” I thought that was a very important passage, so I gave a version of it to Aunt March to give Jo – who was also a childless aunt at that point – some words of encouragement when she was feeling particularly low. We were all immensely excited when Angela Lansbury arrived on the set. The younger actresses asked her what they should call her, and – because she is quite old-school – she said “Miss Lansbury,” which they loved doing. Because I was senior, I was invited to call her “Angela,” which I secretly found a little disappointing because you don’t often have the opportunity to be so formal these days!

Let’s move on to the young actors – starting with Willa Fitzgerald, who plays Meg, and Maya Hawke as Jo.

They were all wonderful! We deliberately chose relatively unknown girls because we wanted fresh faces to tip up the apple cart, and we were delighted with the girls we found. Willa Fitzgerald found a way to be as admirable, charming and elegant as Meg is, while also making her much funnier than she sometimes is. Meg was actually quite a modern sort of girl – she liked boys and clothes – and Willa showed that. Maya Hawke as Jo – my goodness, what talent. I had no knowledge when I met her of who her parents were (she is the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) – I did know that she had never been in front of a camera before, and I was blown away by the intelligence and passion she brought to the role. She also has a very interesting look – she can look just a little odd from one angle, and stunningly beautiful from another. Jo is a very difficult role because who doesn’t want to be Jo? But Maya brought it off beautifully.

How about Annes Elwy as Beth and Kathryn Newton as Amy?

Annes was actually the first of the young actresses we cast – she gave such an exquisite audition that we never considered anyone else. We needed someone extraordinary because I think Beth is a fascinating character – there is a tendency to think of her as someone who just comes along and dies, but there is much greater complexity to her than that, and there are many layers to her personality. I hadn’t taken in, when I read the book as a child, quite the extent to which her shyness was a handicap – there’s that very potent image of her “feet chattering” on the floor when she tried to go into the Laurence house. These days, this would have been diagnosed, taken seriously, and possibly treated with medication, but of course that wasn’t available then. So she had this extraordinary fragility, but along with it she was also very intelligent emotionally. One scene I took more or less straight from the book was the scene by the shore when Beth tells Jo that she kept it a secret that she was dying because she didn’t want to worry the family. That says it all.

And Amy?

Kathryn was an excellent Amy. She nailed the comedy perfectly and got just the right balance of dreadful and droll, which was what we wanted – I never know with Amy whether I want to wring her neck or run up and shake her by the hand. It has been commented that she looked a little older than 12 in the beginning of the series. That was a conscious choice, because we obviously knew that Amy was going to marry Laurie, and we wanted to give some veracity to that relationship from the beginning. We decided that when Amy stays with Aunt March and Laurie visits her, there should be a spark of something between them, some hint of romantic interest, and it would be inappropriate to have that with a 12-year-old, so we went a bit older with her. We wanted to get the relationship with Laurie right, because let’s face it, he is the first love of an awful lot of girls and we wanted to do it justice. Besides – I happen to think that Laurie and Amy were a perfect match from the beginning!

And talking of Laurie …

Jonah Hauer-King brought a lovely sense of youth and vulnerability to him. He’s a very intelligent young man – like a lot of boys he hadn’t read the book but he did go off and read it, and I thought he brought a very romantic aspect to the character, along with being willing to have a dorky haircut occasionally. In real life, he became great friends with Maya, which was very pleasing.

It sounds like quite a few friendships were forged on this set.

Yes, and it’s lovely! None of the girls had met at all before they made this series but they’re the best of friends now. At the very first opportunity they had after the shoot, they all met up in New York. They said they needed some sister time!

Little Women will air on Sunday, May 13 and 20, beginning at 8pm EST on your local PBS channel.

 

 

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