Beauty in the Movies: Little Women

Next Friday is Christmas Eve, so I’ll be taking a break to eat some Christmas cookies, partake in merriment, and watch the yule log with my lovely family. So, today I ask you to take a trip back to Orchard House with me and spend this week’s Beauty in the Movies with the March family in the 1994 screen adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott coming of age novel, Little Women.

Little Women is a story in two parts, the first opens on a cold Christmas Eve in Concord Massachusetts. There are no gifts this year and Mrs. March, “Marmee” (Susan Sarandon), and her four daughters must spend the holiday without the company of their father who is away fighting in the Civil War. The eldest daughter, Meg (Trini Alvarado) is clear-headed, beautiful, modest, and kind. Her younger sister Joe (Winona Ryder) lacks her sister’s propriety, she is a head-strong author, adventurous and unconcerned with society or vanity.  Next is Beth (Claire Danes), who is sweet and generous, she is a talented piano player and often helps her mother with charity work. The youngest of the March girls is Amy (Kirsten Dunst), who is babied by her family and a constant annoyance to her sister Joe. The four girls entertain themselves during the long winter months by staging plays in their attic and writing stories, calling themselves ‘The Pickwick Society’. They soon notice the arrival of their wealthy neighbor’s nephew, Theodore Laurence (Christian Bale), who prefers to be called “Laurie”. Joe and Laurie soon grow close and after some skepticism she convinces her sisters to allow Laurie to join the Pickwick Society, and in effect their family as well.

The second half of the story takes place four years later, Amy is now played by Samantha Mathis and the girls have grown up a great deal. Most of you already know how the story goes, many of you probably know it by heart, but if not, I’ll still leave the second half of the film a mystery for you to watch yourselves—just make sure you’ve got a big box of tissues ready. I will say that as someone who read and loved the book as a child, this adaptation is done with a care and a thoughtfulness which is rarely seen in Hollywood. The movie feels like the book, the costumes, the coziness, the love of the March family and the pain of their losses are all wonderfully captured in this film.

There is so much to say about Little Women that it’s hard to choose what to write. It is a classic novel that continues to be popular and widely loved by many. To me, the most interesting aspect of the book was the way it resonated with its audience (myself included). I had a friend in 5th grade who carried around her copy wherever she went. It was always tucked in with her other school books, just in case she needed it. Though simple in many ways, Little Women strikes a chord in each of us, especially young girls. It is truly amazing that Louisa May Alcott captured something about the spirit of young women and the dynamic between sisters that continues to be relatable today.

The March family is genuinely good, but not so much that they seem one-dimensional or sappy. They do good deeds, refuse to buy silk made with slave labor, and help out the terribly poor Hummel family, going so far as to give them their own Christmas breakfast. Marmee is also quite the feminist, and raises her daughters with that same ideology. She shuns corsets and sends Joe to try her had as a writer in New York, telling her “you have so many extraordinary gifts; how can you expect to lead an ordinary life?”. She encourages her daughters to make something of themselves rather than raising them to marry well.

When I was researching this post I found some information about Little Women I had never heard before. Apparently Louisa May Alcott was approached by one of her father’s friends, Thomas Niles,  who was a publisher. Niles thought there was a ripe market for a novel about young women, and he wanted her to write it. Alcott was resistant but finally accepted, yet in her diary she claimed “I don’t enjoy this sort of thing”. She completed the first part of the book, but both she and Niles agreed it was dull, however Niles gave the book to his niece, she took to it immediately calling it “splendid”. They published the first half of the story to instant success and acclaim, it seemed that Alcott had unknowingly delivered exactly what Niles was hoping for.

Though over a hundred years have passed, Little Women continues to inspire re-tellings, there have been stage plays, anime adaptations, and this version is only one of several films made. What makes this story so remarkable is the realism with which it is told. It isn’t so pinned up and proper that it appears stuffy, but it isn’t unbelievably romantic either. The story is simply about women living their lives, taking care of each other and figuring out who they want to be—what is sad is that this still remains a little-seen genre today. I don’t think girls continue to read Little Women because of the romance (although we all love Laurie), I think they continue to read it because of its spirit. They read it because these characters want more than just to fall in love or be rescued by a prince, they want to do something meaningful, they want to be a part of this world in a real way. All we can hope is that this novel remains a classic and continues to inspire all the little women out there for many generations to come.

Happy Holidays everyone!!

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6 Comments

Filed under Beauty in the movies

6 responses to “Beauty in the Movies: Little Women

  1. mkz201

    A wonderful book of course, and I agree that this adaptation does it justice. I would say that I had a little bit of a hard time getting passed all the celebrity though. Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst were such big stars I found it a little hard to let go of their off camera personalities and suspend disbelief.

  2. jennifer

    I didn’t see the movie but I can comment on the book. I couldn’t get over the fact that Laurie and Jo never got married. I also didn’t understand how Theodore didn’t like it when the boys called him Dora, but he was OK being called Laurie. *sigh*

  3. haren

    The story resonates because the relationships of the sisters and their mother rings true. They change, grow and become women in ways that innovated the idea of modern women.

  4. Christina Cronk

    this is my absolute favourite movie!

  5. cecilia

    i re-watched this a couple of weeks ago i was also struck by how modern the characters felt, especially marmee, “i won’t have my girls being silly about boys.” i really love the book too.

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