Film & Television

‘Little Women’ Still Inspires After 150 Years

If you visit Orchard House, the Concord, Massachusetts home of author Louisa May Alcott, you’ll be transported into the lives of the March family and the pages of one of the most beloved novels of all time. You’ll see the tiny desk where “Lou” (Jo) sat and wrote her wonderful stories; the walls upon which May (Amy) was allowed to practice her drawing; a cherished portrait of Lizzie (Beth) hanging near her piano; and the modern (for the mid-nineteenth century) kitchen where Anna (Meg) helped their Marmee.

Before you leave Orchard House, be sure to sign the guest book. Take a minute to thumb through it and you’ll find notes from women of all ages, thanking Alcott — and particularly, her heroine Jo — for inspiring them. It’s a feeling shared by many writers, from Barbara Kingsolver (“I personally am Jo March”) to J.K. Rowling (“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer”).

Even punk rocker, poet, and memoirist Patti Smith extolls the “headstrong tomboyish writer” and credits her as an early influence. “I identified with her at a very young age, and was inspired that she wrote. It made me feel like that was something I could also do, to merge imagination and energy within the written word.”

Oddly enough, Little Women wasn’t a project that Alcott was happy about. She had experienced some success with Hospital Sketches, an account of her time as a nurse in the Civil War, and her publisher urged her to “write a girl’s book.” In her journal, during the six to eight weeks she was writing, she complained, “I plod away, although I don’t enjoy this kind of thing.” Happily, her readers disagreed. The book was an immediate triumph, surprising both its author and publisher. For writing it, Alcott was paid the impressive sum of $300, plus 6.66 percent of sales proceeds. With this fortune, she was able to pay off her father’s debts and significantly improve the family’s standard of living. She wrote a second volume called Good Wives (the two, together, are what we’re familiar with today) three months after publication of the first.

Little Women has been brought to the big screen multiple times. It was made into two silent movies (1917 and 1918) and three feature films. In 1933, Katharine Hepburn starred as Jo. In 1949, Elizabeth Taylor was a particularly lovely (and spoiled) Amy. And, for many of us, the 1994 version, with Winona Rider, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale, and Gabriel Byrne has become the definitive adaptation. Directed by Gillian Armstrong and produced by Denise Di Novi, it’s one of those movies you can see again and again, particularly at Christmastime. (I confess, I own it on both VHS and DVD.)

Little Women has also been adapted for television. In 1978, it aired as a mini-series with a star-studded cast that represents a then “who’s who” of television personalities, including Susan (Laurie Partridge) Dey as Jo; Eve (Jan Brady) Plumb as Beth, and William (Captain Kirk) Shatner as Professor Bhaer. Versions have been produced by the BBC four times and in Japan as anime series twice. It has also been staged as a ballet, an opera, and a Broadway musical.

It appears that Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, despite being typical “little women” of their day, have a timeless appeal. The latest addition to the Little Women lexicon is a Masterpiece mini-series, airing on PBS this month.

As one would assume, it’s marvelous. (After all, quality historical drama is practically synonymous with Masterpiece.)

Like the 1994 film, the new three-part adaptation has some impressive women behind it. Heidi Thomas, creator of the acclaimed series Call the Midwife, is an executive producer and writer, and Vanessa Caswill, who directs, is best known for her work on the mini-series Thirteen, a gripping thriller about a young woman who escapes her kidnapper (after thirteen years), but has difficulty assimilating herself back into her family and pre-abduction life.

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