If you don’t have plans for this weekend, you’re about to make them.
In all my years of absorbing–sometimes adoring–adaptations of story, I have never felt sublime happiness as the credits of a new one roll across the screen. I call myself a movie grump. A grouch with an hyper-analytical brain eager to point out the deficiencies of what I watched when compared with what I imagined the story could be. I thought that my movie-grump status meant that I was incapable of accepting the interpretation of a story by another.
Then this past Sunday I watched the final PBS Masterpiece installment of BBC’s Little Women which first aired across the pond on December 26, 2017. After the soul-crushing disappointment of PBS’s recent Anne of Green Gables attempt, I tried not to cling to any expectations. I huffed my way through the artistically animated credits set to fiddle music. Nothing, I thought, could top my childhood acceptance of the “Winona Ryder version,” a.k.a. Little Women (1994).
Or so I thought.
I laughed. I cried. And that ever-critical, movie-grump voice in my head fell speechless as the credits rolled on Little Women (2017). I felt sublime! This was the Little Women I had imagined! (I even didn’t care about the misplaced modern music!)
The euphoria of that moment, however, did not last long. And the Movie Grump soon awoke from sublime stupor and demanded:
Why was this one different?
“Little Women” not Jo’s Movie
When I think back to previous well-known adaptations of Little Women, I realized that many of the attempts at the story we cherish follow Jo March as the primary protagonist. In fact, it is easy to recall key adaptations of Alcott’s novel based on who played the role of Jo: Katherine Hepburn (1933), June Allyson (1949), Susan Dey (1978), Winona Ryder (1994), Sutton Foster (2005), and so on. The creative teams behind such writing and casting were acting on the idea that Little Women is Jo’s story. I will freely admit that I got caught up in similar thinking and felt a pang of alarm when I heard the BBC-PBS announcement of “nobody” Maya Hawke in the role of one of the most iconic female characters in American Literature. (She did a splendid job, by the way.)
But, upon re-re-re-reading the novel this week, I realized that Alcott did not write her seminal work to be “Jo’s Story.” On the contrary, it is an episodic novel told in omniscient third-person and equally divided among a large cast of characters who each face their own unique challenges–and the good or bad consequences that result. The book rotates seamlessly and evenly among character’s stories, and I believe that is the magic ingredient screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife, Cranford) captures with an elegance that propels this adaptation above all others.
Secondary Characters Shine
Do you know how the BBC-PBS adaptation of Little Women was able to snag cinematic greats such as Angela Lansbury and Michael Gambon? The roles of Aunt March and Mr. Lawrence actually possess depth beyond, “Josephine! There’s a draft!”
I will always reserve a special spot in my soul for Little Women (1994). However, I think Aunt March spends more screentime snoring than talking in that one! And her role in the book is no small one. As seen in the BBC-PBS version, Aunt March is the sole reason Meg realizes she truly loves John and is able to tell him so before he goes off to war. The dialogue is straight from the book:
[Aunt M:] “That won’t last long. James Laurence is a crotchety old fellow and not to be depended on. So you intend to marry a man without money, position, or business, and go on working harder than you do now, when you might be comfortable all your days by minding me and doing better? I thought you had more sense, Meg.”
[Meg:] “I couldn’t do better if I waited half my life! John is good and wise, he’s got heaps of talent, he’s willing to work and sure to get on, he’s so energetic and brave. Everyone likes and respects him, and I’m proud to think he cares for me…”
We get to see this moment play out in the novel and in the BBC_PBS adaptation because Meg’s revelation that she loves John remains just as pivotal to the story as Jo publishing her first story. And by dividing the focus among the whole cast of characters instead of simply following Jo around, Aunt March gets to do more than snore.
Not to mention, this shift of focus helps the men of Little Women attain greater character depth as well despite having a comparable amount of screentime to similar adaptations. This comes through the most in the representation of Professor Bhaer and John Brooke. However, Laurie’s character gets some tender moments of development as well.
Alcott’s Unique Perspective
The Louisa May Alcott’s father was a member of The Transcendental Club and moved the family to Concord within walking distance of Emerson’s house. And transcendental values permeate Little Women, which is heavily based on the real lives of Louisa and her sisters. Transcendentalists value nature, faith, the betterment of self, and the goodness of all people.
This belief in personal betterment and the natural comes through frequently in the novel:
“”What in the world are those girls about now?” thought Laurie, opening his sleepy eyes to take a good look, for there was something rather peculiar in the appearance of his neighbors. Each wore a large, flapping hat, a brown linen pouch slung over one shoulder, and carried a long staff. Meg had a cushion, Jo a book, Beth a basket, and Amy a portfolio. All walked quietly through the garden, out at the little back gate, and began to climb the hill that lay between the house and river.” — Little Women, “Castles in the Air”
It was a great relief, then, for me to see an adaptation that embraced the influence of Transcendentalism in Little Women. The way the March’s champion the Hummels when everyone has forgotten them and scamper through the wilds of the woods, as well as the influence of faith as the underlying bulwark in their lives reminded me of the small joys I discovered reading the book for the first time. I think Alcott would have been proud that her family’s values featured in this adaptation.
Most importantly, by making a Little Women adaptation instead of a “Jo Movie” the BBC-PBS mini-series allows people everywhere to relate to the story. This aspect of Heidi Thomas’s storytelling resonates the most for me in the depiction of Marmee, portrayed with brilliance by Emily Watson.
In the book, Marmee is more than the stalwart matriarch of the March family who knows how to nurse fevers and supports good causes. She is a breathing character with faults and fears, hopes and heartaches. I remember admiring Marmee even more than high-spirited, creative Jo after reading the book for the second time. Alcott forged a character strong enough to recognize her own failings and to equip her daughters with the experiences that will help them win later in life. That transparency was spot on in Thomas’s screenplay. Most memorable was a scene she took straight from the book when Marmee is helping Jo learn to conquer her temper:
“[Marmee]” You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.”
“Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.
“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”
The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her. The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it, though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray to a girl of fifteen.
“Mother, are you angry when you fold your lips tight together and go out of the room sometimes, when Aunt March scolds or people worry you?” asked Jo, feeling nearer and dearer to her mother than ever before.
“Yes, I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips, and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked,” answered Mrs. March with a sigh and a smile, as she smoothed and fastened up Jo’s disheveled hair.
This is a moment to which anyone can relate. And it is these moments that have spurred a little novel a woman from Concord unwillingly penned in three months to enduring world-wide fame nearly 150 years later. It is a moment of Marmee telling her story–our story.
And it is a moment that could only occur in an miniseries dedicated to telling not Jo’s story, but the story of five women who lived ordinary life moments with courage.
I fancy that is what Alcott intended all along.