Review: Little Women on Masterpiece, Part One (spoiler alert)

Little Women on Masterpiece is a series that grew on me; it took two viewings to fully appreciate it. As mentioned in my previous post, this is an adaption worthy of reflection and study for there is much beneath the surface. In listening to Heidi Thomas describe her reading of Little Women, I was struck by her insight as a mid-50s woman reading it for the first time as an adult. That adult interpretation infuses this series with deeper meaning.

Things left out

There are sacred cows left out of the story, principally the theatricals. I found this jarring at first until I remembered that the theatricals always bored me. If something had to go, I’m fine with eliminating the theatricals.

The setting

There is a lot of wonderful visual detail in this film, from the warm candlelight  to the furniture and décor of the rooms (which in many ways resemble Orchard House), to the constant presence of mewing kittens. There is an intimacy to the series which made me feel like I was not only in the room but close to the characters.

The characters

Mr. March

I was pleased with most of the characters. Mr. March’s role in the Civil War is painted with stark imagery which increases his importance as a character. Although there is some historical inaccuracy (according to scholar John Matteson, there were no black soldiers in the armies around Washington that early in the war) the imagery is powerful. We hear Marmee reading his letter to the girls in the background while these images flash by. In reflecting on the terrible cost of war he reminds the girls that they can win the smaller battles by being kind to one other. Thus the faults that the sisters must overcome became personal battles to win before their father returns from the front.

Laurie

In Laurie’s introduction we are told he had just arrived at the home of Mr. Laurenc. The timing of his arrival was not clear in the book but for the purpose of the film, it sets the stage for his being lonely and wanting to connect with the March sisters. Laurie to me was perfection. He certainly looked the part and displayed vulnerability. I also found him to be a romantic hero. I enjoyed his various escapades with Jo and their arguments. There is a wonderful chemistry between the two.

Jo

Jo is exactly as I encountered her the first time I read Little Women – temperamental, impetuous, awkward and this, not entirely likable at first. For once she was not traditionally pretty. Her writing is front and center, where it belongs. I like the reference she made to her castle in the air needing a key by which to enter in and how writing could be that key. She’s already looking at it from a pragmatic point of view, as a means of escaping her limited life.

Beth

Beth comes across as less childlike, in some sense sharing the role of Meg in correcting her sisters. I appreciated the depiction of  her shyness as social anxiety, a problem that today can be mitigated with medication. Marmee pushed her to overcome this “bosom enemy” lest she lock herself away from the world, helping Beth to admit to the battle she must wage. Her “win” in going over to the Laurence home to play the piano was rewarded with his friendship. I loved Beth’s freckles and the constant presence of kittens.

Meg

Meg is so pretty, charming and funny; she has the most delightful lilt in her voice when she speaks. For the first time, she stands out as a main character, someone whom I wanted to see on the screen. I could feel Meg’s initial pleasure at being dressed up at Sally Moffat’s, only to feel humiliated when she realizes her friends thought Marmee was setting her up with the wealthy Laurie.

Amy

Amy troubled me. She looks old for the role and at times is rather mean. Her anger at Jo which leads her to burn the manuscript seems unjustified and petty. I feel little sympathy for Amy because she only seemed to be sorry because she had been caught and suffered the consequences; I’m not sure she was ever actually sorry for the deed. That being said, Jo’s reaction is shocking, accurately showing the depth of her temper.

Aunt March

Aunt March is terrific, a sheer joy to watch. The scenes with the parrot are hilarious.

Marmee

Marmee is portrayed quite differently than in previous adaptations; for the first time she is not the saintly mother we are accustomed to seeing. At first it was jarring to see her being harsh, judgmental and impatient. While we know she has flaws (her anger), we don’t necessary witness her struggle in keeping her feelings in check in the book. In this adaptation, we do. I could see the parallels between mother and daughter as they worked to control their feelings. Since anger is an issue in my life (it was Louisa’s temper that first drew me to her as a child) I recognize the various ways it can play out when it bubbles to the surface – the impatience, the grouchiness, the frowning, all the powerful emotions, good and bad, that sometimes boil over despite your best efforts. No other adaptation has so accurately captured the burden of anger that mother and daughter bore. This makes their conversation over Jo’s anger even more significant. Both characters show vulnerability and weakness which, despite the harshness, makes them real and relatable.

Realism

And that is what I am seeing in Little Women for Masterpiece – a gritty reality that has not been seen before. For the first time we see the darker (and more significant) side of Alcott’s classic novel. We witness this in Mr. March’s experience of war, the anger issues of Marmee and Jo, and we see it too in the desperate poverty of the Hummels. Giving away the Christmas breakfast was not just some charitable lark but a lesson in real life that took away not only food but perhaps a bit of the girls’ innocence and naivety.

As Heidi Thomas put it, this version of Little Women is not about tartans and bows. I, for one, am very glad.

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18 Replies to “Review: Little Women on Masterpiece, Part One (spoiler alert)”

  1. I totally agree with you on your assessment! I was lucky enough to be able to watch it twice last night as we get two public television stations and one is always an hour behind the other! I think the casting of this adaptation is phenomenal…the best yet! Also, I like how Orchard House isn’t all fancy schmancy as it’s usually depicted in other versions. The furniture is plain, nothing real fancy adorns walls, etc. Very well done! The girls look authentic…no makeup, clothes aren’t impeccable (usually they are pretty dolled up in other versions), and I’ve noticed that Jo’s hair is sometimes a mess (before she cut it) which is spot on. I’m with you in that I don’t care for the casting or character of Amy. Too old of an actress to be playing a child (the Winona Ryder version was the only one that got it right with casting Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis in the child/adult roles of Amy). I took an immediate dislike to Amy even before the burning incident. And I agree with your opinion that she came off as not truly sorry for her actions…just sorry there were consequences. This Laurie is the best one yet! While I liked Christian Bale as Laurie, this one really looks more as I pictured him years ago when I read LW as a girl.

    1. Someone on the FB group mentioned that Amy appearing older made the book burning incident more sinister. I noticed when viewing it this time that Amy was given a way out by going to the Hummels with Marmee and Beth but she declined. In fact, she fibbed when she said she wanted to work with her art box. At least that’s how I saw it — premeditation on her part to burn Jo’s book. Someone on Twitter likened her to the little girl in the movie “The Bad Seed.” A little harsh but I loved it. 🙂

      1. Wow, it did appear sinister now that you mention it. And the total lack of remorse was the icing on the cake. In the book, Amy really is contrite after she realizes what she really did by burning Jo’s manuscript. She does remind me of that kid in “The Bad Seed”. LOL!

  2. I don’t appreciate a freckle-faced Beth, but her acting is so good that it’s “growing” on me. I was surprised at a 28-year-old Marmee, but maybe makeup is making her seem older. I agree about Amy and I don’t like how messy her hair often was…Beth’s too. I was also bothered by Laurie’s big blue eyes. I was quite uncomfortable with where Part 1 cut off. I don’t love the music either but it’s better than “The Broken Road.” When Amy fell thru the ice, it didn’t look like she was really struggling. In the book the water seemed a lot deeper. I would have appreciated subtitles as I have trouble understanding the English of today’s young people. Of course I love Aunt March! Despite my criticisms I always love seeing a new take on Little Women! It’s my perennial favorite!!

      1. Emma Watson is 28. Susan Sarandon was 47. Not sure how old the other Marmees were at the time of filming. I do like the Meg in this version but Jo’s hair isn’t chestnut enough for me. Maybe I’m just too picky. I preferred Winona Ryder except for her being petite. I thought Trini Alvarado was the best Meg.

  3. I agree with those who think Kirsten Dunst was the best young Amy and that Samantha Mathis was a bland Amy. I liked Joan Bennett better than Elizabeth Taylor, and didn’t like Ann Dusenberry at all. Neither did my dad, who said, “I don’t like the Amy in this version.” (I thought a male opinion about Amy might prove interesting.) How many of you saw the BBC version in the 70’s and what did you think of those actresses? I thought they were all too blond/red but maybe that’s a cheap shot.

      1. Oh, gosh, I see YouTube is now charging to see that British version from 1970. It’s really not worth $2 an episode! The one thing of note in it is Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor) as Mr. March.

    1. The BBC version was very stagy and the wigs were terrible. I had to respond when you mentioned Ann Dusenberry. She is the worst thing about the NBC miniseries. What was that rabbity thing she did with her upper lip when she was upset? Very bizarre!

      One of my favorite LITTLE WOMEN adaptations was the radio version they did on BBC Radio 4X (previously Radio 7). They even presented it in two parts as LITTLE WOMEN and GOOD WIVES. The British actresses unfortunately drifted into southern drawls occasionally! I was amused to hear how they handled the big information dump at the beginning of GOOD WIVES/part 2: Jo bumps into Miss Crocker (the lady who comes to dinner in “Experiments”), who’s been away, and fills her in on the past three years.

  4. Now that I’ve gotten so attached to the real-life Little Women, it’s harder for me to enjoy actresses who don’t have long, thick, richly-colored hair. The 1994 actresses had the hair, except for Samantha Mathis who did not look like a grown-up version of Kirsten Dunst.

  5. I totally disagree about Amy! I’ve seen plenty of 12 year olds who look like adults and adult women who look like 12 year olds. As a museum educator I get nervous when schools bring older kids. 5th grade-which would be Amy’s age-is my limit of viewing their faces one-on-one. I always try to stand on something to make myself taller than the children. My cousin’s best friend teaches middle school and gets mistaken for a student. Amy WANTS to be grown-up. I can see a modern day 12 year old Amy shopping at teen stores at the mall and wearing makeup when Marmee isn’t looking!

    I still have yet to see an entire cast I like. Kate Hepburn was the best Jo but the script was not great. I loved Emily Watson’s Marmee. She’s frazzled trying to keep her family together and help those less fortunate. Raising 4 adolescent girls can not be easy.

    1. You’re right in pointing out that some twelve year olds are quite mature looking (if not acting) for their age. Still, I thought the negative aspects of Amy were over-emphasized. It took some time for me to adjust to Emily Watson’s Marmee but in the end, she was very real. And as I mentioned in my review, it was a much more realistic look at someone who had to constantly keep her anger in check.

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