This will primarily focus on the 1994 film. I’m aware there are older versions and there is a wonderful new version out (unfortunately, not on DVD yet so I can do a closer watching), but I will insert little quips from what I can remember from the theatre. In grade school, Little Women was my best friend’s favorite book; I did finally read it and it is on my shelf. I remember it being well written and the characters fully realized. But what truly drew me to the 1994 film was the fact that Christian Bale (Batman in Christopher Nolan’s universe, we’ll see a young version in Newsies once we get to musicals, he was also the voice of Thomas in Pocahontas, and has won awards for some of his other roles) as Laurie. Winona Ryder (star of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula [refuse to see either of the first and I’ve only caught bits of the last]; she also made a brief appearance in 2009’s Star Trek as Amanda Grayson, Spock’s mother) stars as Jo March, a character very much based on author Louis May Alcott. Claire Danes (we saw her in Stardust) is Beth March and Kirsten Dunst (same age that she was in Interview with a Vampire [another film I have not seen]) is young Amy March. Susan Sarandon plays their mother, Marmee. Mary Wickles (the housekeeper in White Christmas, and Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act, amongst other roles) pops in as Aunt March, and Gabriel Byrne (D’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask; he also introduced a concert between Irish groups the Coors and the Chieftains [he is Irish…though it was a bit of a shock to be watching a video on YouTube and pondering “where have I seen that guy?” and realize]) as Professor Friedrich Bhaer.
Little Women is set in New England, specifically Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. The March’s father is away, leaving the women to make do. This film opens on Christmas, narrated by Jo. We see early on that Jo is an avid writer. The four girls make their lives a merry one when possible. Meg still yearns for nice things, like they had before the war. Amy desires to marry well. Beth is shy, but loves the piano. And Jo is fiery. Led by the example of their mother, they donate their Christmas breakfast to a less fortunate family. They catch a glimpse of their next door neighbor, Theodore Lawrence and his grandfather. At a dance, Jo encounters Theodore hiding in another room; they quickly strike a mutual friendship. He gallantly comes to the rescue when Meg sprains her ankle at the dance.
Amy gets into trouble at school with a deal over limes; the girls trade them, but they’re against school rules, so the teacher strikes her. Jo is now in charge of her education. Jo also sits with her Aunt March as her companion, reading most of the time. But when the elderly lady dozes off, Jo rummages through her other books for subjects more to her amusement. The four sisters produce their own newspaper and imitate a gentlemen’s club. They put on Jo’s plays. And Jo soon wants to include “Laurie,” or “Teddy,” and Jo sometimes calls him. He is loved as a brother.
While the four sisters all love each other, tensions and anger have their place as well. Amy is upset that Meg and Jo get to go to the theatre and not her. She cannot persuade Jo to help, so yells as the older sisters leave, “you’ll be sorry, Jo March!” To extract her revenge, Amy burns her older sister’s recent manuscript. When Jo next goes to jot something down, she discovers is missing, then in the fire. She screams at her sister and they have to be separated. She refuses to forgive Amy. Later, Amy follows Jo and Laurie as they ice skate, but Jo ignores her calls and neglects to tell Amy of the thin ice. Amy falls through and Laurie and Jo rush to save her. Jo is now apologetic to her little sister and there is a cozy scene of all four little women curled together, working on re-writing Jo’s manuscript.
Meg attends Sally Moffat’s coming out. She has strong opinions on slavery and the silk industry, but allows the other ladies to dress her up. She flirts with the gentlemen in attendance and Laurie is displeased with what he sees; this is not the Meg he knows. And he tells her. Later, he apologizes and Meg apologizes for her own actions. Then Laurie is off to college and the March’s father is wounded. Jo can’t face going to Aunt March for money, so sells her own hair. At night, she cries a little for her loss. Beth, continuing their mother’s request to check on the poor Hummel family, catches scarlet fever. Amy must be sent to Aunt March so she doesn’t catch it and Teddy and his grandfather come to the rescue, along with his tutor Mr. Brooke. Teddy promises Amy that he will kiss her before she dies. Beth worsens and they are forced to recall Marmee, who had gone to care for her husband. Beth recovers in time for Christmas; the elder Mr. Lawrence gifts her a piano in memory of his own daughter who died young, and they are blessed by the return of Mr. March.
We jump four years to Meg and Mr. Brooke’s wedding (the hymn they are singing is For the Beauty of the Earth, which I have sung in church and is very easy to get stuck in your head). Teddy and Jo talk; Teddy proposes. Jo refuses; she does not love him that way. They both have tempers, they’d only quarrel. But Laurie wants her. She insists she can’t be a wife. Both are broken hearted after the encounter. Jo cheers slightly when Amy informs her sisters that Aunt March is going to Europe, but her spirits drop again when Amy points out that she is Aunt March’s companion now and will be the one going. Marmee arranges for Jo to board in New York City with a friend and teach the daughters. There, Jo encounters Professor Bhaer and other scholars. She even tries her hand at publishing. But she and Friedrich disagree over what material Jo should be writing. She goes for the sensational stories that newspaper editors tell her people want to read and they pay for. Friedrich believes she should write more from her soul. For a while, they manage as a couple, but they still disagree. Then Jo receives word that Beth has taken ill again and leaves for home.
In Europe, Amy encounters Laurie. She dislikes the changes in Laurie; he whiles away his time and money and does nothing productive. Meanwhile, she is being courted by Fred Vaughn, an old schoolmate of Laurie’s. Laurie begs her not to accept Fred. But he is determined to prove himself worthy of the March family. He receives word of Beth’s passing (which is utterly heartbreaking) from Jo and goes to comfort Amy. They must wait to journey back; Aunt March is ill as well. When she dies, they return home.
Aunt March left Jo her home, Plumfield. Marmee remarks that a home that large is only really good for a school. Jo begins thinking. She also starts writing about her family in memory of Beth. Meg has twins. Laurie finally returns home, with Amy as his wife. Jo is surprised at first, but gives the couple her blessing. Jo’s novel is published. She notes a card from Friedrich and inquires who left it. The housekeeper accidently sent him next door, with the news that Miss March had married Mr. Lawrence. Jo runs after her professor and clears up the confusion and they admit their love for each other.
The newest rendition, released on this past Christmas day, exactly twenty-five years after the 1994 version, stars Saoirse Ronan (she was Mary Stuart in the recent Mary Queen of Scots movie, which I tried to watch, then shut off because it just didn’t seem to jive) as Jo March, Emma Watson (famous as Hermoine Granger in Harry Potter and wonderful as Belle in the live action Beauty and the Beast) as eldest March sister Meg. Laura Dern leads as Marmee March and Aunt March this time is played by veteran Meryl Streep. I adored the film and eagerly await its release on DVD. There is a BBC miniseries of the book that I want to check out at some point.
The 2019 film jumps in time period when telling the story, so you need to be at least familiar with how the story is supposed to go. For instance, they play both times Beth is ill on top of each other. So we first get the happy recovery, then Jo wakes up again and our stomach drops when we realize that this time won’t be happy. I liked that elder Mr. Lawrence appears more in the new film and his character is further developed. Overall, I feel the 2019 film better showcased all the characters, not just Jo. We see a scene from the book involving Meg that was not included in the 1994 film, when she uses money they were saving for something else to buy a nice gown because she misses pretty things. We see faults in all the girls, as well as their triumphs.
Personally, I have always liked the pairing of Laurie and Jo; they get along so well, it seems only natural. I can understand her hesitation, that being too similar will not work well as a marriage, but Laurie is such a charming lad. (This is why it makes a good Valentine’s film, well, Christian Bale’s portrayal a little more than Timothée Chalamet…oh, if a man would offer to take me to London and support my writing…[but alas, it hasn’t, so I make do with my books and my writing and my movies and shows]). But I utterly adore how Jo is portrayed as a writer in the 2019 film. I recognized so much of what I do in her. And her conversations with the publisher; I was set on seeing the film when Jo commented in one trailer that if she was to sell her characters and writer’s integrity, she would get some of the profits.
I like the ending scene of the 1994 rendition, between Jo and Friedrich; it is very touching and romantic. But I also like the take in the 2019 film *Warning: Spoiler* that Jo does not marry, very much like Louisa May Alcott herself. And Jo turning Plumfield into a school and all of her loved ones there was heartwarming.
Do you lot have a favorite version? What are some of your favorite romantic movies?
Up Next: Becoming Jane