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Throughout the history of television and film,
countless adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women
have retold the tale for each generation.
This coming-of-age classic about four sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts
has resonated with readers since 1868.
Over the years, Little Women has been transformed in various ways,
with each subsequent adaptation altering different aspects of how the story is told.
Let's take a look at five screen adaptations of Little Women.
This is Little Women, by the book.
"$25? Where did you get this?"
"My dear!" "Oh, it's mine, honestly."
"I only sold what belonged to me."
"Your hair!"
Enormously popular with critics and audiences alike,
the first sound film adaptation of Little Women was released in 1933.
At the height of the Great Depression, audiences yearned for an escape to simpler times
but also gravitated toward the film's portrayal of frugality and resilience of spirit.
The movie opens with Mrs. March providing aid to the less fortunate,
not unlike Alcott herself, who served as a volunteer nurse for the Union Army.
This adaptation, however, avoids some of the harsher elements of the novel
leaving out incidents like Amy burning Jo's manuscript or falling through ice.
In fact, there is minimal friction shown between Jo and Amy,
and no mention of Jo's struggle with her temper.
Katharine Hepburn's theatrical, larger-than-life portrayal of Jo
dominated the film and informed later characterizations of the role.
Her exaggerated boyish manner, however, results in a marked contrast
when she becomes wistful and soft-spoken after meeting Professor Bhaer.
And unlike his description in the novel, the professor is a hesitant, quiet man
who sounds vaguely Italian rather than German.
"I have no courage to think that,
but could I dare hope, I know I shouldn't make so free as to ask..."
Because the majority of the film follows Jo's point of view,
the other sisters oftentimes are relegated to the background.
The progression of Jo and Laurie's relationship is accelerated,
while Laurie and Amy's romance takes place entirely off-screen.
Meg's character arc is limited to her courtship and marriage to John.
"My John wouldn't marry for money any more than I would.
I'm not afraid of being poor, and I know we shall be happy because John loves me and-
I love him!"
Although the film starts out establishing the theme of woman's capability and independence,
it largely focuses on their home and family lives.
By the 1930s, the right of women to earn a wage was being challenged
due to the economic depression.
This adaptation, like many other movies of the time,
promoted the idea of women in the home,
with marriage and motherhood as requisites for a happy ending.
"Where did you get it?"
"I didn't beg, borrow, or steal it.
I only sold what belonged to me."
"Your hair."
In 1949, MGM sought to capitalize on Little Women's continuing popularity
by remaking the RKO film in Technicolor.
Alterations to the screenplay further advocated domesticity and
consumerism in the aftermath of WWII.
Audiences no longer wanted to be reminded of war or deprivation
so the film caters to a nostalgia for a bygone era
with rosy scenes of home and family life.
With their opulent costumes, the actresses at times look more like fashion plates
than girls experiencing genteel poverty.
Scenes were added to make Meg appear even more affluent after marriage.
Another deviation it takes from the novel
is to change the birth order of the sisters so that Beth is the youngest.
The majority of the scenes are patterned nearly word-for-word after the 1933 film.
This included using the exact same lines, character actions, and musical score.
At the end, Professor Bhaer brings Jo her published novel, now entitled My Beth.
Originally, Jo achieves considerable literary success on her own,
but here, as in the 1933 film, she loses her independence as a writer.
"My friend published it, he has big hopes, he thinks--"
"Oh, never mind what he thinks, did you like it?"
Like many Hollywood period films at the time,
the filmmakers emphasized the romance while staying in line with the Motion Picture Production Code.
A visually stunning film, this adaptation captures something of the spirit of Little Women
while presenting a highly romanticized view of the 1860s.
"25! Can Aunt March spare this?"
"I couldn't bear to ask her.
I sold my hair."
"Jo, how could you? Your one beauty."
Considered by many to be the definitive adaptation of Little Women,
the 1994 film conveys a sense of warmth and familiarity through an authentic depiction of the story.
Although Jo is still very much the main character,
the film further explores Meg, Beth, and Amy's storylines.
Major plot events that were missing from the previous films are finally depicted on-screen.
In this version, the role of Amy was shared by two actresses
in order to realistically portray her as a 12-year-old and later a young woman.
We see Amy and Laurie's romance play out on-screen,
albeit in a condensed, dramatic manner.
Professor Bhaer and Jo's friendship also receives more screen time and development.
However, the film continues to depict the professor
as being instrumental in Jo's career and the realization of her potential.
In addition to featuring slightly modernized language,
the script reflects feminist and transcendentalist undertones.
Comments about philosophy and women's rights were used to reference Alcott's progressive views.
"Laurie is a man, and as such,
he may vote and hold property and pursue any profession he pleases.
So he is not so easily demeaned."
But what makes the 1994 adaptation truly memorable is its ability
to illuminate the emotions, conflicts, and growth of the characters in Little Women.
"What is this?"
In 2017, the BBC broadcasted a three-part miniseries
that offered a more serious look at Little Women.
Geared toward a younger audience, this version contains
occasional anachronistic expressions within the nineteenth-century dialogue.
More time is dedicated toward developing each member of the March family individually.
Mr. March gets a considerably larger role with scenes
that mirror Alcott's own relationship with her father.
Although Bronson Alcott encouraged his daughter's literary abilities,
he often became so emotionally invested in his own ideologies
that he was habitually out of work.
"I've been working on my book for 20 years,
and yes, it's starting to bear fruit."
"That is a wonderful accomplishment, Father,
and a luxury I'm not convinced I have."
Marmee is less of an idealized mother figure,
but a real person with her personal struggles.
This is the first adaptation to include Marmee's confession about her quick temper.
Amy is played by the same actress throughout the series,
which makes her appear older from the beginning.
Her childish actions come across as manipulative rather than immature.
Brief moments from the novel were included,
however, important dialogue and exposition were often left to the viewer's imagination.
In the novel, Amy and Laurie's engagement is described as
"having come about so naturally that no one could complain,"
but as is often the case, the screenwriters seem to rush through this storyline.
Instead, the adaptation focuses on playing down
the chemistry between Jo and Laurie
while amplifying Jo's connection with Professor Bhaer.
All in all, the series includes most of the iconic scenes from the classic
and adds in several new ones to help condense the story.
The adaptation feels fast-paced,
breezing through some plot points and lingering on others.
The mature, melancholy tone of the production is juxtaposed
with hopeful and radiant scenes for a contemporary take on Little Women.
"$25 dollars?
"It's not like Aunt March to be so generous." "I didn't go to Aunt March, I couldn't bear to."
"Where'd you get the money?"
"Well, I only sold what was my own."
"Jo, your hair!
"Your one beauty."
Released in 2019, this film adaptation retells the story in non-chronological order,
connecting moments from the past and present.
Because the actors look fairly similar in both timelines,
it can be confusing for viewers who are familiar with the plot.
Beyond hinting at the story's autobiographical nature, the screenplay takes it a step further.
For instance, the script includes lines from Alcott's journal
and takes inspiration from real life.
"I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe."
Although Alcott did not want to marry Jo off,
she was pressured to do so to meet reader expectations.
So too, the ending here is ambiguous.
Other details about Louisa May Alcott's family were also written into the film,
though not mentioned in the novel.
The screenplay infuses the story with updated dialogue and a contemporary energy.
The way that the characters look, move, and comport themselves is distinctly modern.
Jo and Amy both give forceful monologues
that comment on the role of women in society.
"Well, I'm not a poet, I'm just a woman.
And as a woman, there's no way for me to make my own money."
This adaptation especially showcases a new perspective
on Amy's motivations and character.
The scene of Amy's reunion with Laurie is also the closest to the novel.
The film's nonlinear narrative structure provides an unexpected twist
on this frequently adapted story.
This adaptation explores the themes woven into the subtext of Little Women
while retaining its charm and emotional core.
The growing list of literary and cinematic retellings,
spin-offs, and sequels of Little Women,
not to mention its appearance in audio dramas and on the stage,
demonstrate its influence well beyond the written page.
Writing gave Louisa May Alcott the opportunity to immortalize some aspects of her life
in a style that was new and original.
Since then, a significant number of writers have been impacted by Little Women.
The novel's blend of realism and idealism
has charmed and provoked readers for over 150 years,
inspiring lively discussions over this story about family, love, perseverance,
and the power of literature.
Little Women is actually the first in a series of four books
chronicling the lives of the March sisters.
Most editions combine the first two volumes,
the latter of which was written in less than a year.
Let us know which adaptation of Little Women you love the most.
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Book vs. Movie: Little Women in Film & TV (1933, 1949, 1994, 2017, 2019)

15 Folder Collection
Vera published on May 29, 2020
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