Little Women Review: 1994 vs 2017
The BBC broadcast a new version of Louisa May Alcott's classic American novel, Little Women, over Christmas, with Call the Midwife screenwriter Heidi Thomas at the helm. The story has been filmed many times before, but I always considered the 1994 version - starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst and Clare Danes, as the definitive Little Women adaptation. Partly I'm biased because I'm a nineties kid, but mostly I just think it was just really well done. This new series had more time to play with, and the potential was there for it to knock Winona Ryder off the top spot. There were some things I preferred, but overall it still doesn't measure up. Going to do this review a bit differently today - time to compare and contrast!
***SPOILERS for Little Women and Good Wives***
Faithfulness to the book:
Although the new series had more time to play with, and therefore should have been able to stick closer to the book, personally, I think they needed four episodes. The series included more story-threads from the book - Beth and Mr. Laurence, Beth and Jo going to the seaside, the picnic with the Vaughns, etc. However, I don't think it was paced well. I liked that we saw more of Beth, but we also seemed to see less of Jo's writing, the plays, and the build up of the March's friendship with Laurie seemed rushed. Everything was quite bitty, and I feel like the film captured the essence of the story and the characters better. Also a lot of the key events were moved around, I'm assuming to fit better into the episode structure. And it came out weird - Amy and the Limes and Meg going to the Moffats after Jo has sold her hair and Marmee's already left to see the dad? Odd. However, I thought the second half of the story (Good Wives in the UK) was really well done in the series. I liked how they played out the Jo/Laurie relationship and it all flowed more smoothly. Episode three definitely the best!
Winner: Technically...the series. But the film felt closer to the feel of the book.
As a general rule, I thought the acting from the young leads was much stronger in the film than in the series. However, I preferred this Laurie to Christian Bale if you can believe. As a kid I always thought Bale's voice a bit sinister and whispery. New Laurie was very handsome so that helped, but I thought he captured Laurie's boyishness better - and he also had less chemistry with Jo, which I think was a good thing considering how things pan out. I loved the new Proffessor Bhaer too, and Meg, and Mr. Brooke. Michael Gambon was great as always (apart from the dodgy accent) although he was underused, and Angela Lansbury stole all her scenes as Aunt March. Emily Watson's Marmee was different - but I quite liked her. She felt more human than Marmee usually does, although I'd rather have Susan Sarandon as a mum myself. Jo's acting wasn't Winona Ryder standard, but she looked so much more the part. She had the gangly, awkward manner Jo should have and worries that she had been cast simply for her famous name (she's Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman's daughter) proved unfounded. The only fall down was Amy. They made a mistake not casting a child for the first half - where Kirsten Dunst is charming and childish enough to (almost) absolve Amy of the evil burning the book incident, this new Amy appeared to be the devil incarnate. The book incident seemed malicious and cruel rather than a childish fit of rage, and she didn't seem sorry in any way shape or form. She just was not likeable. On the other hand, I quite liked her as grown-up Amy, where I always find adult Amy a bit wishy-washy and dull in the nineties film. I also preferred Claire Danes' Beth. The new one seemed bit too grown up as well.
Winner: It's close, but the Amy thing tips it. The film.
Laurie and Jo/Jo and Proffessor Bhaer:
The new series played Laurie and Jo's relationship a bit differently, which I quite liked. And I loved the proposal scene. I thought Laurie acted it really well, the scene was almost funny but also poignant and sad. Because Jo had already met Bhaer by that point (just go with it, it worked) you could see already that Laurie wasn't the one. Professor Bhaer (played by Mark Stanley, AKA Grenn from Game of Thrones, who is actually really talented) was lovely in this version, younger, and unconventionally attractive. He and Jo had a lot of chemistry too. I love Gabriel Byrne's professor as well, and you can't beat that final scene with the two of them in the rain. However, this new Bhaer seemed more fun, and less like a father figure. The only problem I had with the relationships in the new version, was that last scene between Jo and Laurie. It felt like, on his side at least, there were still unsaid things, whereas in the film I always feel that he's properly moved on with Amy.
Winner: The mini-series.
Laurie and Amy:
Overall, I preferred the way Laurie and Amy's relationship was written in the film. Although I thought adult Amy lacked spark, I like that scene where she says she doesn't want to be loved for her family, and how - after reading Jo's letter about Beth - Teddy rushes to see Amy before anything else, In the series Amy felt like a re-bound (and she was just so hard to like.) In the film it felt right that they should be together. I'm one of the few people who actually thinks that Laurie and Amy are better suited than Laurie and Jo, and I like the way Laurie/Amy plays out in the book. The adaptations never get it quite right - and it is very difficult - but I think the film does a decent job.
So overall, I enjoyed the mini-series very much. Highlights, for me, were Jo's Jo-ishness, Angela Lansbury's Aunt March and ̶L̶a̶u̶r̶i̶e̶'̶s̶ ̶c̶u̶r̶l̶y̶ ̶h̶a̶i̶r̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶d̶i̶m̶p̶l̶e̶ Laurie. Also Professor Bhaer was sweet. And I liked that song (see below) in episode two. Still I can't deny, the film was much better. It's truer to the feel of the book, the acting is great and I always cry a lot (particularly at the Beth stuff and the ending) whereas in the TV series I only got teary once (during Marmee's breakdown after she finds out about Beth.) Anyway, despite not quite living up to expectations, the new series was a good adaptation and well worth watching!
What's your favourite Little Women adaptation?