I texted my sister to ask if she had seen the newest version of Little Women. I wanted her opinion, as it’s a habit of mine to review movies I haven’t seen, based on my biases and the biases of others, including The New Yorker critics and the Rotten Tomatoes website. My sister replied that she hadn’t seen it and was going to wait for the DVD—rental or Netflix or whatever. “Since I practically know the book by heart, I’m not sure I would like it.”
I knew that would be her answer. Both she and I regularly re-read the book. I have been a fan since pre-adolescence—probably after seeing the movie first. I don’t remember if it would have been June Allison or Katherine Hepburn playing Jo. I’ve always wanted to take actors from one of those versions and mix them up. Margaret O’Brien as Beth, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Katherine Hepburn as Jo and Peter Lawford as Laurie.
And it would be nice to paste in Meryl Streep as Aunt March.
Little Women was not Louisa May’s favorite book. Her publishers pressured her to finish her female coming-of-age stories; she worried it was too preachy and boring. Frequently ill, using opium to ease the pain of her mercury poisoning—a common treatment for typhoid fever—Louisa was discontented the majority of her life; her letters belittle, complain about, and show resentment toward everyone, yet she spent most of her life as a caretaker for others.
The enduring popularity of this book would not have allowed Louisa to feel any better about herself and her accomplishments in life. Consider if she had been alive to see the book translated to film. Not one to keep her opinions to herself, Louisa would have insisted on sitting in for the shooting of every scene, telling the casting director that Katherine Hepburn was too beautiful to portray Jo with her “decided mouth, comical nose, and sharp gray eyes.” Louisa wrote of Jo as: “very tall, thin and brown, and reminded one of a colt.” Of all the portrayals of Jo that I have seen, I think Hepburn most embodies coltishness. Certainly not Winona Ryder.
The husband and I discussed my suspicion of Greta Gerwig’s production. I’ve heard and read reviews; NPR’s One A, contemporary issues call-in show, devoted nearly an entire hour to its discussion, with both call-in guests and re-played voice mails. I gave wide leeway to Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson’s ambitious adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and even broader forgiveness to the missteps of the Game of Thrones show runners, both books heavily adored and re-read by me.
The newest edition to adaptations of superior fantasy, and well done, too, is HBO’s production of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s complex trilogy. If anything, in this case, the adaptation can’t quite gloss over the confusion of the original books, heavy with detail with multiple interwoven tribes: Gyptians, Witches, fighting bears. Didn’t stop me from lapping up each episode like a dog on gravy.
Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of Little Women is my least favorite, although Susan Sarandon is my favorite Marmee and Gillian Armstrong one of my favorite directors. (My Brilliant Career, High Tide).
The two-part PBS adaptation aired in 2018 was nice, but didn’t cling to my mind to the point where I’d want to view it again, although I probably will someday.
What Louisa might have appreciated because it would have made her a lot of money, is the fact that more than 100 years after Little Women’s publishing, we can’t leave it alone. And I, for one, will always watch the newest version, and compare notes with my sister.