Reviews of Little Women (1868) and related work

Little Women (1868Text)

Louisa May Alcott (writer).

Read in 2022.

Four sisters in their teens try to live well with their beloved middle-class mother, their servant and their neighbour, while their father is off fighting in the US Civil War.

I have not read enough earlier US novels to know, but I take it from the experts that Alcott created something new in putting the emphasis on domestic life with a fair amount of naturalism. Certainly, there is a lot of other stuff going on: The Bildungsroman, the romantic drama, the quiet feminism, the comedy of Amy’s malapropisms and Polly the parrot, the autobiography and the sentimental moralism of chapter 11 in particular, but the even-handed naturalism is the heart of the work. It’s a vivid portrait of the USA in the time of Emily Dickinson, who wrote “We Talked as Girls Do”. A period in history when the country was about to give up slavery (except in prisons), but modern medicine was still far enough away that cottage-industry teenagers far from the war risked death by scarlet fever.

References here: Girl, Interrupted (1999), Our Little Sister (2015), Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (2020).

text fiction

Little Women: Part Two (1869Text)

Louisa May Alcott (writer).

Read in 2022.

The story extends to a point 15 years after it began.

Beth’s death, coming too late as it does, is a classic collision of realism and sentimentality, but I suppose I too can make a little place in my heart for old Fritz.

text sequel fiction

Little Women (2017Moving picture, 3.0 hours)

Seen in 2020.

The actors seem too mature to play people in their early- to mid teens, and it’s a curious compromise between realism and romanticized period drama (with Princes Charming, swelling music, and even plain Jo looking good), but Angela Lansbury is very good.

moving picture adaptation fiction series

Little Women (2019Moving picture, 134 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Seen at a jam-packed Draken as the opening of GIFF 2020.

Laurie-and-Amy get a lot more narrative weight than they do in the 2017 version, which is good. I also appreciate Chris Cooper’s Mr. Laurence, who brings a little bit of Fanny and Alexander (1982) to his appreciation of Beth’s piano playing. That stuff is all faithful to, and an intelligent selection from, the novels. Streep is too comical, worse than Lansbury. The leads do a better job playing teenagers in oversized clothes, despite their age, but Saoirse Ronan is even more unreasonably pretty than Maya Hawke as the self-consciously ugly Jo. The overall mood is too similar; basically the same romanticism, albeit with tighter editing, superior tonal control and the advantage of budget.

The cross-dressing men’s club scene is very good. The added discussions of marriage as an economic proposition are reasonable and relevant, but the ending where everyone marries or dies as if because of Dashwood’s writing advice leans into metafiction. The emphasis eventually falls on Jo as Alcott’s stand-in, writing Little Women. That doesn’t happen in the novel where, at 30, Jo still plans to write, but doesn’t get around to it.

The last blissful crowd scenes remind me of Antonia’s Line (1995), a more daring production. The writing of the novel within the film is itself flawed, since the novel is portrayed as breaking ground for showing domestic realism, which the film does only in brief glimpses. Vastly more time is spent showing how men print the book than on how anyone cooks the food, washes the clothes or cleans the house: the domestic work of women. The film repeats even Amy breaking the ice, telegraphing this more clearly than the 2017 version, and making just as poor a show of it. Amy also paints in crinoline, alone, which looks absurd.

Pleasant but not up to the standard of Gerwig’s other work.

moving picture adaptation fiction