Little Women has always held a special place in my heart. It was the first big novel I ever remember reading. I was 9 or 10, and I cried my way through Beth’s death and imagined being the brave and self reliant Jo. Meg wanting finery and nicer things was relatable and Amy was the little snot I could relate to in my more cantankerous moments. And even though my Mother was the best, I think we all fantasized about having a Marmee who was always there with the perfect counsel for any moment. It is a wonderful story and great book. I have also enjoyed all of the film adaptations including the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. So, it was with great anticipation that I watched the recent BBC adaptation directed by Vanessa Caswill. Unfortunately, in the end, I walked away with very mixed feelings.
To be clear, this is not the dumpster fire that was Anne with an E from last year but it was a mixed bag. So, let’s first talk about what they did right. The 2 part film looks beautiful and all the sets, costuming and cinematography are above reproach. They did a wonderful job creating mood and atmosphere and drawing you into the world of the 1850s.
I also thought some of the casting was strong. Angela Lansbury owned every scene she was in as Aunt March (Mary Weeks was also so great in the 1994 film). Emily Watson was also tremendous as Marmee and felt more at home in an 1850s setting than Susan Sarandon did in the 1994 version. Maya Hawke was pretty good as Jo especially considering it was one of her first big roles.
I also thought their handling of the Jo/Laurie/Amy plot triangle was about as good as you could do. They chose to have Jo never be receptive to Laurie’s very forward advances (he tries to kiss her multiple times and she spurns him each time). From the beginning it is clear that Amy and Laurie have the most chemistry, and I thought it worked and made sense.
Now we get to my negatives. To begin with, I had issues with the character writing of the 4 girls. I felt they were all variations on Jo instead of the distinct personalities they needed to be. It’s like the writers were afraid to make a Meg character non-modern or an Amy character a snotty pre-teen. It is the different personalities that make the story interesting. Them all feeling like Jo made it kind of boring and predictable. For example, Meg at one point brags about being a woman who brings home a living wage. Also at Sally Moffat’s party she tells the girls ‘that’s how things are and there’s nothing that can be done to change it.” Meg would never say this to Sally. She was embarrassed by her poor station and had to learn from the party that the morals of her family were far more valuable than any luxury.
With Amy, she does burn the book but aside from that she is basically a nice kid who wants to do great things just like Jo. While this made her chemistry with Laurie more believable it didn’t make her a very interesting character. Beth was also underwhelming. While she is usually not that well developed, she felt like a mini-Jo who just happened to get sick.
They also made weird choices with the timeline like making Jo sell her book while still in Concord with far too much ease and having her go to New York and meet Professor Bhaer before refusing Laurie. It was weird and there were a number of timeline shifts like that which bothered me. They also have Mr March giving Jo writing advice and setting him up as a failed writer who didn’t publish his book because it wasn’t perfect despite his family needing the income. That was strange.
These character and timeline choices exposed some of the problems with the script and acting. Much of the dialogue felt clunky and awkward when it is supposed to be a natural loving family. It felt sometimes the characters were talking at the camera instead of to each other. Some of the acting also felt amateurish and unconvincing. Annes Elwy was way too old to play Beth and was not up to the challenge and Jonah Hauer-King was no Christian Bale when it came to playing Laurie. And they were not alone in weak actors professing weak dialogue making for an underwhelming experience.
The series would also have benefited from at least one more entry. The second part felt very rushed and a tagged on time-jump ending did not work at all. I realize the book kind of does that but this was more of a jump than in the book and the makeup and dialogue did not make it feel like a believable conclusion.
In the end, I will give this adaptation of Little Women a C+. There are some things I admire and I’m glad I saw it but there was a lot that didn’t work for me.
What did you think? I know some online really loved it but I have read other mixed reviews like my own. Let me know in the comments section.
You can watch it online if you want on the pbs website.