It’s been said that every generation has its own Little Women adaptation. The beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott has been a mainstay in the American literary canon since it was initially published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869.
That popularity has led to no less than four film adaptations, first in 1933 with the venerable Katharine Hepburn taking on the role of Jo March. It made its way back into theaters in 1949 with June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh in supporting roles as sisters Amy and Meg, respectively. After a lengthy gap, Little Women returned with the version most see as the definitive adaptation in 1994, featuring an all-star cast of Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Gabriel Byrne, and Christian Bale. Most recently, it was seen onscreen in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation with another all-star cast consisting of Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet.
If you are unfamiliar, the story follows the March sisters as they come of age during the Civil War. The eldest, Meg, is sweet and maternal toward her younger sisters but struggles with her own refined tastes and the diminished circumstances under which the family currently lives (unlike the other girls, Meg is old enough to remember a time when they had money). Next is Josephine, a tornado of a tomboy who prefers to go by Jo and who longs to be a writer. She loves her family dearly but struggles with a short temper and a restless spirit. Then there is good-natured Beth, whose sweetness and docility often tips into being overly timid and shy. Finally, there’s young Amy, who starts out a vain and self-possessed child but ages into a successful and intelligent young woman.
To keep things simple, I’m only going to be discussing two of these adaptations here: the one considered to be definitive (Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film) and Gerwig’s most recent version, which most radically (re)interprets the material.
And yes, there will be spoilers.
Notes on the Book
Although it was published in two volumes, it would be easy to assume that Alcott’s novels were initially published in serial form. The chapters feel episodic and frequently feel like miniature morality plays in which each March sister takes a turn learning an important life lesson (usually hammered in by their beloved mother, Marmee). This is where it is most apparent that Little Women the novel is largely intended for younger audiences. And that turns a lot of older modern readers who missed this book in their childhoods off.
The background of Little Women is just as interesting as the novel itself. Alcott was pressured to write a story about girls by her publisher. Having always preferred boys, Alcott felt her only experience was through her own childhood with three sisters, which became the foundation of her novel–with each March sister standing in for one of Alcott’s own (Jo obviously representing the writer herself).
When the first volume became such an enormous success and readers clamored for more tales about the March sisters, Alcott agreed to quickly release a second volume (both volumes were published together, forming the version most popularly known, in 1880). Interestingly, this second volume frequently turns to a theme of what happens when you get what you want and it isn’t what you thought it would be. You see this in the story of Meg’s marriage, but it most significantly comes through as Jo struggles to find acceptance as a woman who is also an aspiring writer–and the frequent compromises she must make to write work that is commercially appealing instead of what she would deem to be important.
Alcott, who hadn’t wanted to write this novel in the first place, found herself further at odds with her publisher about where the story should go. She did not want Jo to be married off at the end (Alcott herself remained unmarried throughout her life), but ultimately agreed to do it. So the novel (both volumes) is a delicate balance between Alcott writing something that will commercially appeal to audiences but simultaneously pushes her own beliefs about feminism, temperance, and more. This balance is probably why the novel has been so appealing for multiple generations.
Adapting Little Women: The Commonalities
Given Alcott’s ties to the character of Jo, it’s not surprising that all adaptations (stage and screen) have used her as the central figure in the March family–even though the novel itself is largely an ensemble piece. It works because even in the ensemble format, Jo is the biggest link between the world of the March household and the other settings: the home of their neighbor Laurie and his uncle as well as the home of the imperious Aunt March. If you need a framework for a plot, Jo is the easiest way to achieve that.
In that same vein, focusing in on Jo also streamlines the story in a way that makes it feel less episodic and more like there is a central storyline.
Gillian Armstrong and the Definitive Little Women
More than any other adaptation, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film is the one that best defines what people think of when they think about Little Women. It really embraces the moments that audiences enjoy the most about the story: Amy’s quest for a more delicate nose, Amy’s righteous indignation after being punished by her schoolteacher, Marmee essentially being the best and wisest mother ever, Beth’s bottomless compassion, Jo’s fiery creativity and imagination (embodied in her youthful plays and dedication to the playacting of The Pickwick Society, the secret club shared by the March sisters), and more.
Like its predecessors, Armstrong’s Little Women is most heavily interested in the parts of its source material that relate to their youth. Obviously, it still goes into their young adult lives but given the emphasis on the first half, the overall tone is a touch earnest if I’m being honest. An example of this is that in this film, we are introduced to the March sisters by witnessing them make a decision to give away the breakfast they have been eagerly anticipating to a needy family instead. In the novel, the sisters are prompted to this generous act and still suffer some reluctance as they agree. The Armstrong movie opens with an example of the strong moral fiber of the March sisters while the novel introduces you to four lively and lovable girls who nevertheless are in need of moral instruction (as any young person is).
The film is enormously successful, but in this vein, it does sand out some of the more complex aspects of the novel. Most significantly, Meg’s struggles with married life are completely omitted.
It still has devastating moments, like Beth’s death after a long illness, and it heavily deals with Jo’s difficulty becoming a serious writer, but it rather deliberately bypasses the subtle themes of the novel: that growing up to become a good person is hard work, and growing up is not always what you expect it to be.
Outside of that thematic issue, several of the supporting characters are sanded down or sidelined for timing purposes. Mr. Laurence, the March’s neighbor, is largely absent and his touching relationship with kindly Beth, who reminds him of a deceased daughter, is only hinted at. Laurie is portrayed as a kindred spirit to Jo without the frequent allusions to (or confusion regarding) their different gender roles found in the book.
For most of the movie, Amy is played by Kirsten Dunst, who does a thoroughly excellent job capturing the young Amy in all her childish vanity. Samantha Mathis takes over for Amy’s older years, but for my money this version never manages to have the older Amy make an impression as someone who has become older and wiser, and who perhaps surpasses her sisters in intelligence and practicality. This is unfortunately common in Little Women adaptations: when you simplify things for time, the full complexity of Amy is often lost.
Similarly, Marmee is portrayed as a saintly figure here, which is certainly fitting, but I confess I missed the most fascinating Marmee moment from the novel (depicted to grand impact in Greta Gerwig’s film): when she confesses to Jo, who struggles with her temper, that she is also angry just about every single day. To me, this reflects how we see our parents as perfect when we are children but slowly learn to see them as actual people who have flaws. It also makes you think more about Marmee–who she is, what she sacrifices, and what she quietly endures. We don’t get that here.
Greta Gerwig’s Bold Reimagining
I read the novel timed with the release of Gerwig’s film and saw it when I was halfway through–so I will never know if my strong reaction to the second half of the book was 100% genuine or if it was prompted by Gerwig’s focus on that half of the book in her adaptation.
Leading up to the release of Gerwig’s film, I read a lot of opinion pieces that questioned whether “another” version of Little Women is needed when the Armstrong film succeeded so well. As if prior success has ever quelled the thirst for revivals or adaptations of Shakespeare–or as though we haven’t seen origin stories for Batman and Spiderman several times over by now.
Gerwig seems to have carefully considered this question herself, which could be a good reason why her version is the one that most boldly plays with the source material. Her film assumes that you are already familiar with the story and its most recognizable scenes, so if you are looking for comedy about Amy’s quest for a delicate nose, you won’t find it. For eagle-eyed viewers, all you will get is a glimpse of actress Florence Pugh pressing her nose down with a finger during a scene–like a sort of Easter egg for the super fans.
The most drastic difference is that instead of a linear narrative, Gerwig focuses on the young adulthood of the March sisters, with the childhood scenes coming in the form of occasional flashbacks. This comes at the cost of some of those cherished childhood moments (Amy’s childish proclivity for malaprops is erased entirely), but the change in focus has rich rewards missing from previous adaptations. Suddenly, we see the difficulties of adapting to adulthood playing out in resonant ways. Meg finds that marriage is work, and falling in love with a poor teacher was not the cure for her expensive tastes that she thought it might be. Amy goes off to Paris with Aunt March only to discover that although she is an able painter, she most likely lacks the superlative skills that would help her break into the male-dominated art world and be taken seriously. Jo similarly runs to New York to become a writer and finds that her dreams of success weren’t waiting for her after all–and success may come at the cost of compromising her goals. Sweet Beth, sickly and in declining health, becomes the force that drives them all home again and which prompts all the flashbacks to their happier childhood days.
An unexpected delight is that changing Little Women to a story with flashbacks makes it a treatise on the shared memory and experiences that come with being part of a family. As someone on the cusp of middle age and finding himself reflecting on what I had initially expected for my life and the lives of my sisters, this felt particularly resonant for me. It’s a beautiful new shade that Gerwig has added to the legacy of this story.
That isn’t to say that it’s perfect. Oddly, there aren’t really any visual cues that help you tell the flashbacks from the “present day” sequences of the story. Many movies use different filters or lighting to indicate changes in time, but if Gerwig employs these, they are subtle enought that I couldn’t tell a difference. The actors all look and dress the same, so you can’t tell by hairstyle or clothing–and since Amy is played by Florence Pugh in both times, you can’t even go by Amy’s age (although Pugh does trade braids for a bun as Amy ages, the difference is subtle enough to miss). As great as Pugh is in the role, it feels like this is a mistake. We watched Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women after Gerwig’s, and when I told my husband that then-12-year-old Kirsten Dunst is how old Amy was supposed to be in the earlier scenes, he was flabbergasted.
My husband, who had never read the book or seen any of the other adaptations, had a difficult time figuring out what parts of the story happened when. I have seen this complaint pop up elsewhere, and I can see how it would happen if you are unfamiliar with the story. Gerwig’s Little Women depends on familiarity–and while that’s a reward for those in the know, it leaves little room for the uninitiated to have an access point.
This Little Women has the opposite problem from previous adaptations. While they focused on the March girls in their adolescence, they were forced to streamline their adulthoods near to the point of simplicity. In focusing on their adulthoods, this version makes their childhood overly simple. When Amy is punished by her schoolmaster, this Marmee immediately decides to have her removed from the school and that is that. In both the novel and most previous adaptations, Marmee (ever a fair and balanced and wise woman) has the sense to point out to Amy that the fault for this circumstance ultimately lies with Amy alone, and that she should have taken her schooling more seriously in the first place. The moral of the story, which is what made it relevant in the first place, is gone.
Similarly, when Meg attends a ball in this movie, she gives in to the frivolity of the other, wealthier girls in attendance–then begs Laurie to let her have just one night of silly indulgence before returning home to “reality.” In the novel, this scenario happens because Meg finds herself humiliated by the company of the other girls who make fun of the only dress she has to wear for several days, then decide to play dress-up with her in a manner that only thinly disguises how patronizing they are being. This is made even worse when the women at the party continue to snicker at Meg during the ball itself. Meg has found herself stuck, at once in on the joke, humiliated, and simultaneously desperate to pretend that it’s real. Laurie shaming her for what she is doing is almost cruel because it doesn’t see the full complexity of the situation she has found herself in–but in Gerwig’s version, Laurie is teaching Meg an important lesson about being who she is. That’s all. It works, but it misses what was perhaps the sharpest social satire in all of Alcott’s Little Women.
Many fans of Little Women have been sad that Jo and Laurie don’t end up together, but Alcott herself was always adamant that the two were great friends who were totally unsuited to romance. Gerwig agrees and does great work to show this to the viewer, so it finally makes sense when Laurie ends up marrying Amy instead. In the novel, Jo is a girl who has adopted a male form of her name while Laurie is a boy who has adopted a female form of his full name (Theodore Laurence). They are kindred spirits burdened by the weight of their gender expectations. Jo is fiery and bold but supposed to be docile and complacent. Laurie is tender, humorous, and artistically inclined when he is supposed to be professional, ambitious, and disciplined. Gerwig understood the gender play here and allowed it to play out, going so far as to conspire with the film’s costume designer to make it look as though Jo and Laurie are so closely tied that they even share each other’s wardrobe.
But Gerwig also shows us that Jo and Laurie are perhaps too similar for romance to work out for them. If married, they would have cosigned each other’s bullshit until they were left in financial ruin. Jo was just smart enough to see this. Instead, Laurie is better suited to the practical woman with a low tolerance for bullshit that Amy grows up to be. He softens her and she hardens him.
A New Ending and a More Overt Feminism
Gerwig also inserts moments for the March sisters to make bolder statements on feminism than you would find in the source material. I have seen this construed as virtue signaling, but I would argue that Alcott has carefully left room for it to be assumed that this is how her characters really felt–they (and Alcott) just weren’t capable of announcing it out loud because of constraints of the time. I also think it is important to make sure that modern audiences truly understand the stakes of, say, marriage for the March sisters–so having Amy explain to Laurie that she will become someone else’s property by marrying feels appropriate. Jo’s struggle as a writer is that publishers and audiences will only accept her if she writes about romance and love and family, so why shouldn’t she express frustration that she is capable of more in the privacy of a conversation with her mother, who understands Jo better than anyone?
But perhaps the most significant (and controversial) decision Greta Gerwig made was to make the ending meta as a commentary on Alcott herself and what she originally intended for Jo. The story builds to the familiar conclusion, in which Friedrich Bhaer, her friend from New York, visits the March house and offers Jo one last shot at romance. In both the novel and the other adaptations, that romance is seen through to its happy conclusion. But here, scenes of Jo running after Bhaer and her happily ever after are cut with scenes of Jo meeting with her publisher in New York to negotiate a deal to publish a novel she has just finished based on her life with her sisters. Ultimately, Jo gets a sweet deal for her book and gets to maintain her rights to the story in exchange for a happy ending in which her protagonist is married off. And thus, the character of Jo further blurs into Louisa May Alcott herself and the new movie interrogates the notion that Jo had to be married off in the first place.
Which is Best?
No contest, I’m going with the book here. Given the time and space to spread out, it remains the definitive version of Little Women–managing to cover a full evolution from childhood to young adulthood that no movie could ever hope to fit without being at least five hours long. It’s also funny and sharply intelligent. It’s really no wonder that it has become such an enduring classic.
As for the movies, if you really don’t want to read the book, go with Armstrong’s 1994 version. It will be the best introduction to the story. If you have read the book (or seen one of the other versions already), go with Gerwig’s for a deeper cut that will also prompt you to think differently about this classic story.