I am happy to present this interview with Clare Niederpruem, director and writer, and Kristi Shimek, writer for Little Women (a modern retelling) starring Lea Thompson. The movie premieres on September 28, 2018.
SPOILER ALERT: Some of these questions may give away parts of this movie.
1. Why did you choose to make the present day girls so much older than in the book? Aunt March said that Jo was 29.
When we introduce Jo in our movie, it would be considered the second half of the original novel of Little Women. We felt that it was more important to make the correlation between the idea that she didn’t marry at the average age of the community around her, and she was still focused on her personal goals, as she is in the book, rather than keeping strictly to the ages set in the book. This is really a bi-product of updating the novel to the modern era. In the novel, Jo struggles for awhile before finding a home for her writing. We wanted that feeling of a struggling artist that takes time to find herself, and we felt that the age difference would support that.
2. Given her age, why did Jo appear to be stuck in adolescence? She seemed much the same at 29 as she was at 15. I got the impression that Jo was running away from herself throughout the movie until the end. In critiquing her work, Professor Bhaer insisted that her writing reflect more of herself and she kept resisting. Is this a correct assumption on my part that you meant to show this about her?
Yes, this was an important theme throughout the novel that we realized needed to carry into the adaptation. Jo resists convention, and in the time of the novel the convention was to marry young, become a housewife, and support your husband in his work and successes. Because she resists these things she resists what a lot of people consider “growing up.” These were themes that easily translated into the modern adaptation, because she can also resist them in the modern era. She has a lot to learn about herself and her long term goals, and this is major arc for her throughout the novel and our adaptation.
In the novel, Jo resists growing up of any kind. She doesn’t want her sister to get married and move away, she doesn’t want to have to be a ‘lady’ or a ‘grownup’, and she continually tries to escape into her novels and be with her characters and write fantastical stories. She has to discover that the story is about amazing things are happening right in her home with the relationships between her family.
Professor Bhaer can see that she has had a special upbringing and that her fierceness and bravery are a result of that and so he urges her to write from her heart. Beth’s life is ultimately what inspires her to tell her own story, since Beth knew all along how special their lives and love for one another are. Jo fights against sharing her own story, and Beth’s simple but important life is what inspires Jo to move in that direction.
Jo is slowly growing up throughout the years. For instance, she has to give up her dream to go to her college of choice when she doesn’t get in, but she continues to write through her disappointment. She has always struggled to relate to Amy, but eventually realizes her rash actions need to be remedied. It’s the small lessons along the way that eventually lead her to “growing up.”
3. How did Jo and Professor Bhaer meet? What was his role exactly? Was he her editor out of friendship or out of an official capacity as a literary agent? Obviously he wanted to be more than friends.
Jo and Professor Bhaer meet in the second scene of the film where she is doing a reading for a panel of judges. She convinces him to help her with her novel, he agrees, and he becomes her unofficial editor. Because they are more contemporaries, rather than a teacher/student relationship, it turns from a mentorship to friendship.
Freddy is attracted to Jo because of her ability to say what is on her mind, her sense of humor, and her passion for life. She is someone whose energy fills a room and whose mind never stops working – and he admires that. Jo is attracted to Freddy because he calms her ever working mind and he is an intellect who understands the important things in life.
Jo initially is not open to the idea of a relationship, but Freddy is the one that opens her mind to the idea that a relationship may be something that she wants in life. Part of her arc is realizing how important Freddy really is to her and that she wants him to be a part of her life.
4. Why did you choose for Jo not to attend college until much later?
This is something that we went over extensively in the writing process, because in the novel Jo is barred from college for being a woman. This is something we knew we couldn’t get away with in this adaptation so though we knew Jo had to have this desire for education (which is essential to her character) we had to find ways to impede that goal. In the scene where Jo and Laurie open their letters Jo has made the rash decision to only apply to one school, which she doesn’t get into. This is a big blow for her and part of her journey to discovering what she really wants and who she wants to be is realizing that she has to think through things to achieve what she wants. Later, she is talking to Laurie after he has graduated and mentions that she is finishing night classes at Lowell (a community college), and this is a representation of her continuing her goals in a different fashion. It is subtle, but there.
5. Marmee’s part appeared reduced in the movie; why was that?
Marmee is an important character in the novel and we see her as an important character in our adaptation. We chose to focus on the four sisters in our adaptation and their various dreams and goals, because they are such a great example of four very different personalities navigating life together, but Marmee is a special influence on their lives and their home. Marmee is not experiencing the same journey as our four sisters since she is already established as the constant in their lives, but she acts as a guiding force and appropriately in our adaptation appears when the girls need guidance.
6. Am I correct in assuming that the religious moral framework of the book was replaced with the military code of conduct? Cleverly done, by the way. Mr. March was a doctor, correct?
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a huge influence in the novel and still inspired many things in the adaptation. Ultimately, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a hero’s journey which Jo reflects, learning many lessons by taking different paths (similar to Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress). She ultimately overcomes her obstacles to find her “castle in the air” by realizing she had what she needed all along within her. There is inherent moral value weaved into the story that it came from, that we felt was integrated into the way our characters interact with their world.
There is also a military influence, Papa March was an army Chaplain in the original novel which we changed. We made him an army doctor in our adaptation because we felt it was a little more easily explained in the modern context, and his influence over the family while away is represented in The Pickwick Club with the military theme that ties them to their dad in a way that is very powerful and sweet.
7. Regarding Laurie, it took me a while to warm up to him because he looked so different from the way he was described in the book. He seemed geek-like. But Lucas Grabeel did a great job with him and I was soon won over. I am wondering why you chose to portray Laurie the way you did.
We felt very strongly that Laurie should match Jo in personality, and of course it came down to chemistry between our Jo (Sarah Davenport) and Laurie (Lucas Grabeel). We could tell that they would be great on screen together, and of course they were. Laurie and Jo grow up together and so of course they will share some “nerdiness’ because those are the things that they both love. Ultimately, we need to show that Jo has moved on from her childhood passions which is represented by Laurie, and so our Laurie had to be different from our Freddy (who represents our future) and they are different in every way. All these roles are iconic, and Lucas brought his own fresh version to the role of Laurie.
8. I loved what you did with Amy! Finally, a sympathetic portrait. And the premise that she had a crush on Laurie when she was 12 worked perfectly into their eventual grown-up romance. Why did you decide to portray Amy in this way?
Something that was very important to us in the writing process was that we wanted to be sure to portray every sister as relatable in some way. We all have parts of these sisters within us, and that is what makes Little Women so timeless. It is easy to portray characters as stereotypes rather than take the time to explain their motivations and passions, but that is why we wanted to focus on the four sisters to be able to spend the time in these areas and show why they are acting and responding the way that they are ultimately portray their individual journeys. I often refer to myself as a Jo/Amy and my writing partner, Kristi Shimek, refers to herself as a Jo/Beth, because the pieces of these characters are written within each of us.
9. Final question: did you incorporate facts or phrases from the real life Alcotts into the movie? How much did the real life Alcotts influence the script?
We did research on the Alcotts while we were working on the script, and one of the main things that we kept coming back to was how inspiring and progressive Louisa May herself was. She went through a lot of hardship in her early years, and her independent behavior was often a conflict in the home, but she just felt so much passion and was so sure of herself and we knew that we had to show that side of her through Jo. We talked extensively about what we thought she would want us to portray in the modern setting and for the modern audience. That is one of the reasons we’re both so passionate about the project, we just really felt deeply that it had a lot of resonating ideas for modern women and we wanted to share that.
I want to thank Clare Niederpruem and Kristi Shimek for the time and thought they put into their answers to my many questions. And thank you to Icon Media for allowing me to pre-screen this movie. My review will be coming out on September 27.
In the meantime . . .
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