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