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.
“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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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