Following the BBC’s recent portrayal of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Stylist’s digital writer Susan Devaney argues why the female-centred tale will always be loved by every passing generation.
On screen they appeared in pure white corsets, giggling softly.
“I don’t think I can bear to watch it,” my sister said to me, recoiling and covering half her face.
I kept my attention on the TV, nervously perched on my seat.
When we think of Little Women, we picture the 1994 film adaptation: Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Claire Danes as Beth and Trini Alvarado as Meg. Together, they were the March sisters.
And that’s the trouble with a great film adaptation of a literary classic, that passes through every decade with ease: it’s hard to tell the tale again, with similar success. So when the news broke of a new adaptation in the works, my reservations immediately rose to the surface.
But once I’d finished watching the BBC’s three-hour TV adaptation, on a bitterly cold winter’s morning in Scotland, I thought: praise be to the story’s rebirth, but more importantly, to the women who came before us.
Women such as Jo March (played by Maya Hawke), who says things like: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship” as she chops off their hair, her “one true beauty”.
And women such as Meg (played by Willa Fitzgerald), who gets tangled up in societal expectations as she learns the hard way that life’s riches are gained from believing in yourself – not amassing financial wealth.
Or women such as Marmee (played by Emily Watson), who is the family’s backbone, moral compass and guiding light. Marmee rushes to her husband’s side during the American Civil War to nurse him back to good health, only to hurry back when Beth (played by Annes Elwy) falls ill with scarlet fever. She is a magnificent mother and protector, which is no easy feat.
In the classic tale, they are all poised against women like Aunt March (played by Angela Lansbury) who lacks tact, and Amy (played by Kathryn Newton) who finds fun in seeking revenge and indulging in fashionable pickled limes.
In the BBC adaptation, writer Heidi Thomas (of Call The Midwife) has crafted a revival of the 1868 narrative with sheer skill. The script is pure, warm and honest – just like Jo’s poetry.
And on a side note, the opening credits, featuring plucky instruments and dainty, colourful illustrations, are beyond delightful.
And, oh boy, am I thankful for this. Ever since I picked up a copy of Little Women at university, the tale has taught me to pursue my passions and develop my talents – but, above all, to be kind (a lesson that will never date).
But what captures my heart most of all is the abundance of love and respect that the sisters have for each other. We see this when Jo uses all the money she has made from writing to travel back from New York City, just to take her sister Beth to see the sea, feel the fresh air and breathe.
Even when Amy burns Jo’s carefully written book in the stove, their love prevails. No matter what, the family unit stays strong, and throughout the story the pillars of unity, charity and liberty stand tall.
The trials and tribulations of youth are also laid bare here – and, as little women, those trials are even greater than the ones faced by their male counterparts. Their neighbour, Laurie Lawrence (played by Joah Hauer-King), is held in stark contrast to the sisters throughout the plot. While he leaves to go and embark on his studies in Europe, the sisters remain at home. His life choices face no limitations, but their freedom has to be either fought for, or granted by a family member. The only thing Laurie can’t easily obtain is to be romantically loved in return by Jo.
But I warmed to the character of Laurie in the adaptation. Perhaps it was his delightful dimples or the way he fell to his knees, clutching blades of mint green grass and gulping through tears from the pangs of unrequited love, but Thomas tweaked his character for the better.
In the story, it’s the character of gangly, hot-tempered Jo who will always serve as my favourite – especially when she truly speaks her mind: “I need to not live out my entire life in the tiny town where I was born. I need to see things and be things because I’m terrified that if I don’t my writing will have to be forced out of nothing and nowhere.
“And I need to get away from Laurie. He’s become fond of me.”
Jo followed her heart and made difficult choices, and I will always admire her for that.
Of course, the story is far from perfect, but therein lies its beauty for women today, and for generations to come. On screen, we see women forced to live a life of dreaming, with a desperate need for transformation. The March sisters are like caged birds coming-to-age in a world that’s not quite ready for them yet. As women we will forever be able to relate to on-screen oppression, but Little Women will always act as a stark reminder of the women before us: the sisters who dared to be different and dream. And let’s always be thankful for that every time we re-read the novel or (nervously) opt to watch another big or small screen adaptation.
Louisa May Alcott may have felt like she’d been forced to write “moral pap for the young” by her publishers, but the female powers in the story prevail, once again, into a new year. You can still watch it on iPlayer, and watch it you must.
Images: BBC / Rex Features