Hitting the Mark: A review of “Little Women” (a modern retelling) starring Lea Thompson

The newest addition to the Little Women movie library is a modern adaptation, bringing the classic story by Louisa May Alcott into the 21st century. Directed by Clare Niederpruem and starring Lea Thompson as Marmee and Sarah Davenport as Jo, “Little Women” is a mixed bag that ultimately hits its mark.

There are many liberties taken with the original text and the characters in order to bring about present-day sensibilities. Purists may be offended but there are interesting interpretations in this movie that shed new light on these characters.

Jo

Sarah Davenport as Jo

“Little Women” begins in the present and uses flashbacks to tell the story. It begins with Jo at twenty-nine making her pitch to editors for her novel. She is the “wild colt” as described in the book: brash, argumentative, brimming with life, creativity, energy and humor. Her “castle in the air” varies somewhat from the book where she wished to become rich and famous. In the movie Jo writes to express herself and wants to “do all things:” experiencing life in all its fullness; to travel, go to college and to be published. And as in the book, she wants to take care of her family.

Beth

Allie Jennings as Beth

Her “person” is Beth. Beautifully acted by Allie Jennings, Beth is portrayed not as pathologically shy but as a quiet, thoughtful introvert — the most “normal” portrayal of Beth yet seen. She is not only Jo’s emotional rock but also her creative collaborator. Jo brings out many aspects of Beth including humor and sass, finally making her the very human girl that Alcott wanted her readers to see.

There are many interesting parallels between Jo and Beth in this movie despite their being opposites; if anything, Beth is the more well-adjusted of the two. Both have trouble growing up. Beth lacks any aspiration of a life outside of the home and while Jo has big dreams, she seems perpetually stuck in a narcissistic adolescence that keeps her from leaving home and realizing her “castle.” She does manage to live in New York but with a family member – Aunt March. While it was a not believable for me to see her at twenty-nine acting as she did at fifteen, this portrayal of Jo is reflection of the extended adolescence many twenty-somethings experience.

Meg

Melanie Stone as Meg

Meg (portrayed by Melanie Stone) is a rather bland character who does not aspire to material wealth as she did in the book. She has limited, but as we later see, viable dreams. Her defense of her “castle” to Jo: to marry and have a family is passionate, believable and frankly, refreshing. Jo’s rebuttal, that women don’t need men in order to have a full life, comes across as hollow and immature, revealing her own fears about embracing adulthood rather than a defense of feminism.

Amy

Elise Jones as Amy

The younger Amy (portrayed by Elise Jones) is quite likable. One of my favorite moments was her lament after the family gives away their Christmas breakfast: “Why can’t we be a normal family on Christmas and just eat breakfast and open presents?” This movie lays out a far more plausible case than did the Masterpiece version as to her future relationship with Laurie: a teenage crush. The age difference prevents anything from happening but once she is older, that difference no longer matters. Her crush, however, figures into her dastardly deed of burning Jo’s manuscript — she is jealous because Laurie likes Jo.  Jo humiliates her in front of Laurie (practically inviting the deed) and Amy burns the manuscript on impulse. Their eventual reconciliation was believable and touching.

As usual though, too little time is spent on the older Amy (Taylor Murphy) so she comes across as flat. And as with most of the adaptations, her influence over Laurie to lead a more purposeful life is left out.

Laurie

Laurie is played by Lucas Grabeel.

And speaking of Laurie, he had to grow on me (and due to Lucas Grabeel’s fine performance, he does). I was put off by the fact that he does not resemble the physical description in the book; rather than seeming worldly, he comes across as a nerd. But there is a wonderful chemistry between him and Jo; he is both mischievous and thoughtful. Their scene when he declares his love and Jo rejects him is realistic and touching – this time I actually believe her when she says can only love him as a brother.

Papa March

Bart Johnson as Papa March

Mr. March is actually Doctor March (portrayed by Bart Johnson), a medic in the military; his absence is explained by his deployment overseas. We see very little of him and yet, as in the book, he wields great influence. It was this part of the movie that I found most intriguing: the military code provides the moral framework rather than religion. Although The Pilgrim’s Progress is referenced, there is no mention of religion save a pop religious song in the soundtrack while Jo is reading the book. In their Pickwick Club meetings the sisters act as a platoon. Jo’s devotion to Beth is likened to the deep commitment of soldiers to each other in battle.

The Pickwick Club

Marmee

Lea Thompson as Marmee

By far my greatest disappointment with this film was Marmee. Lea Thompson is a fine actress but the character she was given to portray was bland. Rather than being central to the story as she was in the book, Marmee is on the sidelines. The much anticipated anger management scene doesn’t happen; in fact it appears she has no anger issues. Only after Beth dies does Marmee assume a larger role, at least when it came to Jo.

Professor Bhaer

The other disappointment was Professor Bhaer (Ian Bohen), not because of the character, but because of the storyline. It was never clear to me how he and Jo met in the first place: how does a girl working for her aunt in New York meet a Columbia professor? Why does he take such an interest in her writing? It is obvious that he is attracted to her but Jo is too busy running away from herself to accept his overtures. Their relationship simply didn’t work for me, especially at the end.

Jo (Sarah Davenport) explains her recent novel to Freddy (Ian Bohen), a literary professor, in the movie Little Women.

The saving grace

The greatest parts of this movie (and the one that saves it) are the scenes with Beth and Jo. I wept when Beth dies as I always do but this Beth really spoke to me. Her influence over the family is quiet and powerful, just as it is in the book. Her relationship with Jo is well developed and nuanced – they are equals. Jo has hang-ups (many more than Beth) and Beth provides her port in the storm. Her virtue is real and never imposed on anyone.

The garret

Castles in the air

One other favorite part is the garret – it is to die for! Every scene, from the sisters proclaiming their “castles in the air” to the Pickwick Club to sharing secrets from notes stashed in the hidden-away post office box, was a joy.

And the verdict is?

All in all, “Little Women” (a modern retelling) was a very enjoyable mixed bag. Although plagued with holes, the most important messages get through. I highly recommend it.

“Little Women” will be in theatres beginning on September 28. Enjoy! Let me know what you thought of it.

 

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15 Replies to “Hitting the Mark: A review of “Little Women” (a modern retelling) starring Lea Thompson”

  1. Does Beth have a “diagnosis” in this modern retelling? It seems like people don’t die so mysteriously nowadays unless they are murdered.

  2. Susan, I enjoyed your review, and I mostly agree with you. I expected to hate this version, but I didn’t. Enough liberties were taken with the text that it seemed more like an adaptation of the novel than a retelling of the story, and that kept my purist sensibilities under wraps..
    This was the most tempestuous Jo I can remember seeing and the most immature. I liked her and I loved her relationship with Beth. When she “cut her hair,” it was both believable and stunning, worthy of Amy’s reaction.
    Speaking of Amy, I loved this kid. She wasn’t the prim Amy of the novel, but she was believable. Jo was downright nasty to her, and for the first time I was actually cheering Amy on when she burned the book. Served Jo right.
    I had more of a problem with Meg than with any of the other sisters. She didn’t seem wise or prudent or nurturing to me, but perhaps that change was necessary for the update. Meg has never spoken to me as much as the other sisters have, so their getting her “wrong” in my view didn’t matter all that much to me.
    As for Beth, I thought this was an excellent tribute to Elizabeth Alcott. She wasn’t dependent on anyone, she wasn’t pathologically shy, she was just a quiet girl who loved her home and family and didn’t aspire to much else. I loved the relationship between Beth and Jo.
    Laurie was more of a disappointment to me than Professor Bhaer was (I refuse to call him Freddie). He was considerate and almost timid (as at the party with Meg). I couldn’t find any reason why anyone would fall in love with him. The professor, on the other hand, was very appealing.
    Anyhow, I enjoyed this movie. I do think that any 12-year-old who decides to read “Little Women” after viewing this movie will be in for a big surprise.

    1. Hah, oh yes, ditto on “Freddie” – eesh! And I totally agree about the manuscript burning incident – maybe not totally justified but Jo certainly provided fuel for that fire! The whole teen crush element with Amy about Laurie adds to the scene in a big way, I think, because Jo was humiliating Amy in front of Laurie!

      This was by far my favorite depiction of Beth and her relationship with Jo. And yeah, this Meg was a bit bland but I did like the way she stood up for her “castle.”

      Glad you liked the movie!

      1. Interesting that it’s a challenge to present a believable Meg and Beth nowadays. Meg used to be hard to ruin but now they have done it.

  3. I absolutely agree with you that Amy was not totally justified in burning Jo’s manuscript. Destruction of someone else’s property is never totally justified. But I do think it was understandable, just as I think it was understandable in the book. I think this movie got that more right than any other that I’ve seen. I don’t think Amy’s teen-aged crush was true to the novel, but it sure worked well in this film.

    I also agree with you on Meg’s spirited defense of her “castle.” However, her throwing up in the parking lot just didn’t work for me. That just isn’t Meg.

    Jo is a pistol in this movie, possibly more like Louisa than like the character. She probably could have used a talk from Marmee about controlling her temper.

    I have liked both Claire Danes and Annes Elway as Beth, so I’m not sure this is my favorite portrayal of her, but I did love this depiction of Beth.

    I hope this movie makes it onto Netflix or Amazon Prime or something. I need to see it one or two more times, but I’m not sure I want to buy a DVD. I have too many already.

    Thanks for your response, Susan. I’m glad we both liked this movie.

      1. Re: too much alcohol at the Moffat’s. The book said “…for the splitting headache had already begun…she was sick all the next day (Friday) and on Saturday she went home…” —leaving us to imagine as to how sick she was and how embarrassed she was to be ill at the Moffats’ house in front of Mrs. Moffat, no less. But I will bet that the producers and directors of this current movie used this hangover as a graphic teaching moment for today’s young people…what a predicament even a very nice and usually sensible young lady can get herself into via underage drinking. Reminds me of a letter in Dear Abby many decades ago where the mother of the kid who hosted the party said, “Get that rum bucket out of here!” after said rum bucket “bucketed” all over the carpet. A young lady who was very regretful afterwards.

    1. I didn’t get to see it yet. Why did Meg throw up? Was she pregnant like Demi Moore in the Scarlet Letter? (“Goody So-and-so saw her get sick at the market…”)

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