Page To Screen: Little Women

littlewomenfrontispiece
Library of Congress

Few books have been as influential to women’s literature and for that matter, American literature as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. There’s a saying among Englishers that the American literature canon is more than twelve dead white guys and Emily Dickinson, but I think it should be “more than twelve dead white guys, Emily Dickinson, and Louisa May Alcott.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Little Women from cover to cover, savoring the relationships between the sisters, the beautiful language, and the realness of it all. These sisters are completely natural with each other; they don’t spout psycho-speak or fall into the formulaic moralizing that was so popular at the time in young adult literature, in which bad characters pay the consequences for their actions and good characters are rewarded.

Louisa_May_Alcott-1
American Writers Museum

Little Women is not so stratified. The Marches talk like real people with individual thoughts and feelings in a time that can be all too easy to see as a stiff, posed, museum piece. They’re not wholly perfect or wholly degenerate. They invite us to care. Fans, of course, have fun seeing themselves in the family and picking out who they most relate to.

Alcott based the novel on her own family. Her dad, Bronson, was unable to provide for his wife and daughters, so Louisa’s mother, Abby, became a social worker. Her sister, Anna, despite a talent for acting, married because she felt that was her only option in life. We don’t know much about Alcott’s sister, Elizabeth, except that she was musical and died at twenty-two of scarlett fever. Abigail, nicknamed May, was a respected artist whose work was displayed in Paris.

Alcott’s writing desk. (Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House)

At first Alcott was reluctant to write Little Women. It wasn’t that she hated the idea; she just didn’t feel it. It took encouragement from her mom and sisters, not to mention interest from her publisher, before she decided to push through her block. Little Women was a quick write for Alcott after that, who warmed to her book as it took shape, and since it was such a runaway success, the sequel, Good Wives followed in 1869.

Naturally, the story has been brought to the screen numerous times, but to keep things manageable I’m only going to look at the feature films. Here we go…

1917

Vulture

The first known onscreen iteration of Alcott’s novel, the 1917 film starred Mary Lincoln (Meg), Daisy Burrell (Amy), Muriel Myers (Beth) and Ruby Miller (Jo), but is unfortunately lost.

1918

Vulture

This version has the distinction of being filmed at Orchard House less than a decade after it was opened to the public, but it’s also, unfortunately, lost and no one knows why. According to Vulture, after its first screening it disappeared and has never been found. Not even on YouTube.

1933

Toronto Film Society

I know a lot of people absolutely love the 1933 version, and I get it, because George Cukor was a fantastic director and Jo was a natural part for Katharine Hepburn, but it’s actually my least favorite of the Little Women movies. In my opinion, the actors were absurdly too old for their parts (Joan Bennett, who played twelve-year old Amy, was twenty-three at the time and pregnant) and their voices are bitingly shrill in many scenes. I saw this film once in high school and that was enough for me.

1949

The 1949 version has a great cast–Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, June Allyson, Mary Astor, Peter Lawford, and C. Aubrey Smith. I was introduced to this film years ago by my mom and have loved it ever since. One of my favorite things about it is that Mary Astor’s Marmee talks like my Grandma Miller, which I like hearing even though it makes me miss her. The only thing I would say is that this movie has the same problem as the 1933 film–June Allyson was thirty-one when she played Jo and was apparently pregnant during filming as well. Oh well.

Side note: One of the baskets Beth carries in the movie was also a prop in The Wizard of Oz.

1994

I don’t know about anyone else, but I think this film is really beautiful. In my opinion it’s the definitive version in terms of accuracy–the sets are on point, as are the costumes and the music, not to mention the way the actors conduct themselves. Don’t even get me started on the cast–they are awesome, not to mention this is one of the few Little Women casts that are actually somewhat close in age to their literary counterparts. If it’s not a classic, it should be.

2018

The 2018 version, of course, is set in the present day. I think it’s a sweet movie, it’s well-cast, and the basic line of Alcott’s story is recognizable. They did have to tweak some things, such as Beth dying of cancer instead of scarlett fever, and the Marches are a homeschooling military family, which accounts for Meg wanting to talk to boys her own age. It’s also told in flashback, with Jo living in New York and working for Aunt March while revising her book with Professor Freddy Bhaer, but the scenes play out long enough to allow the audience to acclimate.

This film wasn’t received all that well by the public, though, and even less favorably by the critics, probably because the flashback structure didn’t go over and some may have found it weak. I liked it in a “meh” kind of way the first time I saw it, but the second time it all felt pretty good. I did find Jo to be a bit mean for most of the movie, but it gives her an emotional journey to take, so I think it ends well.

2019

OK, I’m going to ramble here, because this is the version that a lot of people wax lyrical about (Here’s one example). I didn’t want to see it in 2019. I couldn’t explain it, but something rubbed me the wrong way. Still, I watched it for this piece because I knew if I didn’t, a lot of people would no doubt ask me why I left it out.

Sadly, my reservations were proven correct, although I think the film looks beautiful. The production nails the look and feel of Orchard House. The acting is fantastic. Problem is, the film’s structure doesn’t allow much to resonate. A lot of the lines and story points are so squished together that they’re hard to understand. Instead of taking a journey with these characters, the film hops all over Alcott’s arc like a pogo stick. And as Emily of the Emiloid YouTube channel so beautifully pointed out, Victorian women did not talk like 2010 college students or frustrated third-wave feminists.

The part when Laurie and Jo met bugged the heck out of me, too, because the score and the dancing were horribly matched. I mean, it was really, really bad. Even though the music had a nice, vigorous andante tempo, the characters jumped around like it was the “Sabre Dance.” My musician’s brain was cringing and I could have sworn I heard Robert Alton banging on his coffin lid. There’s a way to do busy choreography and this wasn’t it.

And (spoiler alert) director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig presents a dual ending because Alcott was strong-armed by her publisher into marrying Jo off. One ending is the ending in the novel, and the other is how Alcott herself ended up–married to her profession. I get that, but I think it would have been better to juxtapose the novel’s plot with biographical scenes of Alcott writing and hashing things out with her publisher, leaving the accepted canon more or less intact.

Kudos to Gerwig for thinking outside the box, but it just doesn’t come off as well as it could.


Everyone seems to have their own angle on Little Women, and seeing as these characters continue to be loved, there’s no doubt others will try their hands at bringing this beloved novel to the screen.

I don’t think Alcott would be surprised to see how her book has lived on. When the first volume went to press, she said, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds that will be the reason for it.”

The John Williams Blogathon is coming up on Saturday, all. Thanks for reading, have a good one, and I hope to see you in a few days…


The 1933 (DVD), 1949 (DVD), 1994 (DVD and Blu-ray), 2018 (DVD), and 2019 (DVD and Blu-ray) versions of Little Women are available from Amazon. Louisa May Alcott’s original novel is also available.

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Bibliography

Gormley, Beatrice. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Aladdin Books, 1999.

8 thoughts on “Page To Screen: Little Women

  1. The 2019 version was a critical darling when it was released, I had a feeling not really my cup of tea, so didn’t see it until the DVD was out. I’m not quite as zeroed in on a movie (sometimes) at home as the theater, so was thinking maybe the problem was me, but my impression is similar to yours. The chronological jumps were confusing to me, I think they detracted from the story rather than adding, had no context for some of the early scenes, in the movie that is, not by the timeline of the story. I think it was a trick that didn’t work. I also felt, maybe wrong, that the movie was designed for someone who already knew the story. Anyway, by the end I was very puzzled at what I thought I saw versus what the critical consensus was. Pogo stick is a good description.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for an excellent survey of all the feature films of this enduring classic. Like you, I prefer the 1994 version. It captures the warmth of family relationships and while it has it’s share of feminest messages inserted, they seem to work. Also agree about the chaotic structure of the 2019 film.

    Liked by 1 person

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