Some adaptations are simply iconic.
You can’t think about To Kill a Mockingbird, Anne of Green Gables, or The Godfather without one adaptation rising to the top.
These adaptations are executed with such care that readers no longer view the actors or actresses as a portrayal of the literary characters and instead allow the actors to become the characters in their mind’s eye. It is extraordinary when this happens and nearly impossible to follow with another adaptation of the same material.
Although this author has heard a couple of arguments to the contrary, I feel the same way about Little Women (1994).
The collective cast embodies the characters with such fervor that I have been unable to read Alcott’s Little Women without picturing Winona Ryder’s passionate Jo March.
You can then imagine my astonished disbelief when I received the email announcing the cast for an upcoming adaptation of Little Women which will air here in the states on PBS. My shrieks of “No! Don’t pollute Little Women too!” (See our post from last year about what we thought of PBS’s Anne of Green Gables.) quickly faded into murmurs of, “Huh. Maybe that could work.”
It was the presence of another logo in the announcement that calmed my racing heart: the BBC. BBC One initiated the production of this particular beloved American classic and later partnered with PBS to co-produce Alcott’s most famous work. With this additional piece of news it appears only one question remains:
Will the BBC be enough to stop PBS from marring the memory of another fantastic story for young women?
Although it will be impossible to know with certainty before the unveiling of the series, Adapt That examined the production team’s casting decisions in order to make some deductions regarding the trajectory and tone of the upcoming adaptation.
Experience + Newbies
Little Women has a rich history of adaptation in the states and ‘cross the pond with numerous interpretations for the silver screen and television. Before the superb 1994 adaptation (the first adaptation directed by a woman–the amazing Gillian Armstrong), some notable adaptations include the 1933 film (starring Katherine Hepburn), 1949 film (starring June Allyson), the 1950 live TV series aired by the BBC, and the 1958 and 1970 BBC miniseries (starring Andree Melly and Angela Down respectively). Out of respect for the wondrous reception to the 1994 film, it has been 23 years since a production company decided to tackle a serious adaptation of Little Women. With the BBC’s extensive experience adapting Alcott’s novel, PBS just might have a shot producing something that will rise out of the shadow of the 3-time Oscar nominated film.
But what’s their strategy?
Two words: Experience + Newbies
Well, technically that’s two words and a symbol… cut a busy blogger some slack!
PBS and BBC enlisted experience and talent to guide this three-part series. Heidi Thomas (of Cranford and Call the Midwife fame) will write the script. Vanessa Caswill of Thirteen and My Mad Fat Diary will direct. Rebecca Eaton of Masterpiece will serve as executive producer and Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment will produce. The combined experience of all parties suggests that the proverbial ship will at least be pointing in the right direction.
But who did they choose to breathe life into these beloved characters? The casting decisions appear to follow the same formula that combines British experience with American ingenuity.
Dame Angela Lansbury will rule the roost as the cantankerous Aunt March. Her many talents leave little doubt that she will be able to bring new life to a sidelined role as the rich American widow.
Emily Watson jumps from her recent role as Queen Elizabeth in A Royal Night Out to the beloved Marmee of Orchard House. The 2012 BAFTA winner has proven her talents again and again in British roles. The only question hovering over her casting will be her ability to assume the identity of a Civil War Era American Mother.
What could we possibly surmise from the extensive credentials of Michael Gambon? He’s done everything and he’s already appeared in American films like Sleepy Hollow. The only difficulty will be giving him enough but not too much to work with in the role of Mr. Lawrence.
Let’s admit it: Jonah Hauer-King was most likely cast for his heart-throb potential. I mean, look at that face! He’s the next Gilbert Blythe (of Jonathan Crombie fame). But he has experience too. He’s starred across from greats like Kenneth Brannagh and, in the style of Daniel Radcliffe, he is willing to reveal everything for a role. It will simply be a matter if this British hotshot will have the charisma to be one of the most famous “boy next door” characters in American literature.
Relative newcomer American Maya Hawke is all set to assume the identity of Jo March. With little experience, the young actress has the potential to set the path of the rest of her career in addition to providing a spitfire role model for a new generation of young people.
Willa Fitzgerald, another young American actress, has already made a name for herself in productions like Scream and Royal Pains. Will she be able to bring new depth to the character of Meg, a March sister I have always considered to be somewhat overlooked in other adaptations?
The production team went Welsh with the casting of Annes Elwy as Beth. Although she looks the part, will she be able to connect with her American counterparts and convey the unbreakable bonds among sisters?
Kathryn Newton, another American with roles in mainstream works such as Big Little Lies and the Paranormal Activity franchise, may actually have the most experience of any of the March sisters cast for this production. In the role of Amy, she will need to transition from spunky and annoying child to a woman in her own right. The decision to unite the role of Amy under skills of one actress is a bit of a gutsy move by the creative team, but it provides the potential for an amazing character arc and resonance with the audience of the course of the series. Hopefully, Newton will rise to the challenge.
Hopeful Thoughts for 2018
In sum, it seems the PBS and BBC seem to be taking the tried and true “hire experience for the supporting roles to get people to watch and cast new, little-known talent for the primary roles to get people to keep watching” route. It’s certainly a well-traveled choice, but the method did not work as well for PBS’s adaptation of Anne of Green Gables last fall. However, the clout of the BBC and the absolutely fantastic producers and writer they have brought on board should add the depth lacking in fluffy holiday re-tellings. Take a look at the societal complexities addressed by the screenwriter in BBC’s Cranford if you don’t believe me.
All in all, this Alcott admirer is looking forward to the new adaptation of Little Women.
But if they ruin it, I will unleash all the power of “blast” and “wretch” on them. Just watch me.