Great Adaptations: Little Women

Retellings of classic literature as time capsules

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Sorry if this disappoints, but this isn’t an article where I argue the merits of which Little Women adaptation wore it best. In this series, I’m less interested in ranking films than thinking through what it is that makes us connect with one adaptation more than another.

The easy answer to this, and one I hear most often, is “because it was faithful to the book.” Sounds simple enough. Of course we prefer the adaptation that most closely captures our experience with reading a book we love.

The problem is that the term “faithful” is subjective, since — as discussed in the first post of this series — no two people will have the same exact interpretation of a story. My impression of a character may be vastly different from yours; I may read a scene as satirical that you read to be sincere. And so on, and so forth.

The best an adaptation can do is align as much as possible with what you envisioned for the story. But even with the very best retelling, you may have a few reservations, or ideas for improvement. If only they hadn’t cut out this scene, if only they had recast that character.

If only the world could see my vision of the book, they would agree it was the most superior, the most faithful, we all secretly believe. But of course, that isn’t true, because what would be faithful to me might be a misinterpretation to you.

While it is probably impossible to completely please fans of a book with any adaptation, there are certain factors that will make it more likely to seem as faithful as possible to a certain group of people.

If it is the first adaptation you’ve seen of a text, you might be more likely to find it faithful to the book, since you don’t have other versions to compare it against. Once a face, a mannerism, a reading of a line, becomes fixed in our minds, it lurks in our memory, ghost-like, and often proves difficult to exorcise.

If the adaptation is a retelling of a classic novel that has been told in multiple versions, in multiple time periods, our conception of “faithful” might also depend on how old we are when we see the text. If we are the target demographic for the film, we might be far more likely to enjoy the adaptation, because it is speaking directly to our generation.

Little Women is a great starting-off point for this discussion, for a number of reasons. It is not a coincidence, I think, that at least six mainstream versions of Little Women have been produced in the last five years: the 2015 web series The March Family Letters, the 2018/2019 stage play by Kate Hamill, the 2018 modern-day-setting film by Clare Niederpruem, the 2018 PBS Masterpiece series, the 2018 Kollywood web series Haq Se, and the 2019 Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig film.

Clearly, the story of Little Women speaks to something in our time. I could muse about the themes of female empowerment, self-discovery, and prevailing hope in the goodness of mankind, set in the backdrop of extreme racial and political upheaval as the country faces a seemingly insurmountable divide in ideologies — but that isn’t the point of this article.

Oftentimes we appreciate an adaptation for being “faithful,” but by now we know the term faithful will have different meanings for different people. However, if we come from the same generation, watch the same films, listen to the same music, laugh at the same jokes, the chances are increased for us to have an aligned vision of fidelity.

This isn’t foolproof, of course, since we are individuals with our own unique experiences and biases, but it can make a difference — especially when we look at adaptations that come from radically different time periods.

Little Women, for example, has had major film adaptations in 1918, 1933, 1949, and 1994, before the recent slew in the 2000s. You can be certain that each of these has a distinctly different interpretation of some of the staples of the story we might consider to be at its core.

For example, one of Jo’s most defining features is that she is “boyish”, as Alcott tells us in the first chapter. How this term may translate in each of our individual minds will likely be different, but it will be influenced in part by what our generation views as boyish. You can be certain that Alcott’s original conception of boyish in 1868 will be different from Katharine Hepburn’s boyish in 1933, as it will from Saiorse Ronan’s boyish in 2019.

Costume choices, mannerisms, hairstyles, all attempt to be faithful to Jo from the novel, but will inevitably reflect the sensibilities of the time in which the text was created. (For a mind-boggling example of this, look no further than the recent New York Times article on the Regency-appropriate Mr. Darcy.)

So, too, will the lines of dialogue in the film. Even if they are taken directly (or almost directly) from the original text, the time in which the adaptation is made will influence which dialogue gets chosen to be included.

21st-century adaptations, for example, might seek out lines that highlight the feminism of the novel, and choose to downplay its overt religious themes.

Think, too, of the way in which certain characters are portrayed more or less sympathetically depending on the cultural values around them. Beth was written as a model of complete, irreproachable goodness, and her relationship to Jo often takes the forefront of the narrative in adaptations, with the impact of her death being played for the utmost pathos.

Gerwig’s version and its asynchronous timeline removes some of this focus and thereby lessens the importance of Beth — perhaps because 21st-century audiences find saintly characters too unrelatable and maybe even a little boring?

If that’s the case, no wonder Gerwig galvanizes behind Amy, the most traditionally hard-to-like March sister. Florence Pugh’s Amy is still vain and selfish, but she is redeemed by her self-awareness that her worth in the world is judged by her ornamental value.

This re-evaluation of Amy must be a specific reflection of our time, since other 21st-century adaptations — like Niederpruem’s and the Pemberley Digital web series — similarly reclaim Amy’s character into a more sympathetic figure.

As this plethora of Little Women adaptations shows us, there are an endless combination of characters, scenes, dialogue, and so forth, that can be combined to tell the same story. We may tell ourselves that our inclination is to like one over another because it is more faithful to the book, but our ideas of fidelity can be greatly influenced by the time in which we live.

My first Little Women adaptation was the 1994 Gillian Armstrong version starring Winona Ryder, and as such, it is MY version of Little Women. I can like and admire things from other adaptations, but for a number of reasons, Armstrong’s version most closely aligns with my “faithful” reading of the book. It was the first version I saw, at the right age demographic; it captures the feeling I had when I read the book; the score is incomparable; and, well, Christian Bale.

There are still things from the modern adaptations I admire, like the dual endings for Jo in the Gerwig retelling, and the anger at the root of her character in Niederpruem’s and Vanessa Caswill’s renderings that earlier versions often underplay.

As for the things I don’t care for as much, I am free to not like them. None of us is required to like any adaptation. However, rather than claim that such-and-such change proves infidelity, I can instead understand that this adaptation simply doesn’t speak to my idea of faithful. It is not of my time. It is not for me.

I remember speaking to my great-aunt about the 1949 Little Women and how she couldn’t comprehend why anyone would like the 1994 Armstrong version when the 1949 George Cukor film clearly captured the spirit of the book so much better.

Even though, as you’ll recall, the 1994 version is MY Little Women and she had just essentially thrown down the gauntlet, I didn’t argue my point. It would have been futile. The 1949 version spoke to something in my great-aunt that it didn’t speak to in me. The 1994 version meant something to me that it could never mean to her.

This doesn’t make either adaptation better or worse, more or less faithful. These are the arguments I constantly see surrounding adaptations, and they’re ultimately pointless.

Rather than trying to prove which adaptation wore it best, our time would be so much better spent in thinking why adaptations change what they do, how they speak to us or don’t speak to us, and what they reflect of ourselves and the times in which we live.

This is part 2 of the Great Adaptations series. If you’re interested in joining the discussion about adaptations, please follow, comment, and/or revisit part 1.

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