Little Women

A brown haired girl dressed as Jo March.
Me in my Jo dress, age ten.

Yesterday Steve posted that he’d seen the new Little Women movie and liked it, and I wrote that I had too much to say to respond on my phone.

Reader, I hated it. I hated it so much I almost walked out, but I’ve never done that, even when I should have (I’m looking at you, The Godfather, and Empire of the Sun–both are, I understand, great movies, but I didn’t understand the former and I had a terrible, terrible cold with a runny nose and a total of three tissues during the latter). As mine is a minority report, I feel I owe you some explanation for my dislike, but indulge me while I report a bit on my Louisa May Alcott background first.

When I was in third grade and my friend in second, we decided in September to go as Little Women for Halloween. We both got the book from the library, and every night we’d call each other. “I’m on chapter five. What chapter are you on?” (It will surprise no one that I was a competitive reader as a child.) In one of the few times in my life that brown hair has really paid off, I got to be Jo. My friend fluctuated between Amy and Beth, and her mother found some teenaged girl to be Meg and escort us around.

I’ve since read Little Women many times. I’ve read most, though not all, of Alcott’s other books, including all her children’s books (my favorite is an Old-Fashioned Girl, though Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are also good–the Little Women sequels are dull, and Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs are nearly unbearable). I’ve read some of her blood and thunder stories (as she called them) and an unintentionally hilarious novel called Moods in which the heroine is deciding between marrying a character based on Emerson and a character based on Thoreau. She chooses the former and is miserable, but it’s clear that marrying the Thoreau guy would have been miserable, too. I have toured Orchard House, where she spent most of her life, first growing up and and later taking care of her parents, for the real-life Jo never married. Alcott spent most of her adult life supporting her family, including her parents, as her father was, well, misguided would be the kind way to put it.

I’ve also seen four the the five film adaptations of Little Women, missing only the miniseries.

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever her mother, my great-grandmother Hazel, saw her reading Alcott, she’d say, “I don’t know how you can stand all that moralizing.” It’s a good question. Moralizing is, on the whole, not what we call in librarianship an appeal factor for most people. I find it unbearable in other books, although in the 21st century, it rarely shows up in any genre outside Christian fiction. But for those of us who love Alcott, the moralizing is integral: it is part of the appeal. There is a scene early on in Little Women where Marmee gives each of the girls a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, each bound in a different color of leather. Who would not want such a thing?

“Girls,” said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little nightcapped ones in the room beyond, “mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please; but I shall keep my book on the table here, and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do do me good, and help me through the day.

Modern film adaptations, knowing how poorly this sort of thing goes over, tend to replace the moralizing with political speeches. That’s not historically inaccurate–the Alcotts were abolitionists, and they hung out with a crowd that was fighting for the progressive and civil rights issues of its day. Thus in the 1995 adaptation with Winona Ryder, you get Marmee (as portrayed by Susan Sarandon, surely a political choice if there ever was one) discussing the evils of corsets, and in the current version, Laura Dern’s Marmee speechifies from time to time on the evils of slavery and the rights of women (and gets schooled briefly by a black woman in a scene I’m still trying to decide if I find token or not not). And Amy–in perhaps the most unbelievable scene in the movie–delivers a lecture on women and property.

I don’t think you could do a completely faithful film adaptation of Little Women that anyone would want to watch, and so my issue with the current version isn’t its diversions from the text. Nobody, but nobody, ever represents Professor Bhaer as he is in the book–much older and much more German, in what I suspect are horrifically stereotypical ways. The book has never done a good job of convincing anyone that Jo marrying him is a good idea, but, as my mother once said, Alcott doubtless had to make character she herself could imagine leaving her father for–in other words, someone as similar to him as she could imagine.

What bothers me about the new movie (you were wondering if I would ever get there, I know) is the lack of chronological order. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of chronology–while we are all forced to live that way, few of us think about our lives that way, drawn back ceaselessly into the past as we are. But Little Women is nothing so much as a coming-of-age story: when it starts, the girls are girls. By the end, they are little women. The effect of the flash backs and flash forwards is to rob many of the most poignant scenes of their poignancy and to rob us of our understanding of the shifting alliances among the sisters.

Would a viewer who had never read the book fully understand the drama of the pickled limes, as portrayed in the book, or the betrayal Jo feels when Aunt March chooses Amy over her? The advantage to chronological order is that you see growth over time: you age as the character does, whether over the course of seven Harry Potter novels, 500 pages of Little Women, or two hours of a film. To disrupt that growth deprives the viewer of the chance to watch a life unfold in real time.

Most people I know loved this Little Women, so clearly there’s much to be said in its favor. But I’ll let others do that, and let this minority report stand as is.

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