But What If They Don't Do It Right?


Otherwise Entitled, "My Nervousness Slash Trepidation About the New Adaptation of Little Women, and What I Intend to Do About It."

(Some of you have probably already seen this new release on Masterpiece or PBS.org or the BBC if you're a lucky Brit, and if you have, I'm begging you to not leave too many spoilers in the comments. I, in case you can't tell, have not yet had the viewing pleasure. We'll get to that.)

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, or if you read my old blog for any length of time, you may have caught wind of the fact that I am a stubborn and mulish creature when it comes to Change. Specifically, Change as it pertains to my Childhood Favorites. And Little Women, let there be no doubt, is a definite Childhood Favorite. I was eight when I first read it, and I know I've reread it at least a dozen times in the fifteen years since then. I can quote passages from memory. The March sisters are my friends - almost, you might say, my family. (As someone who grew up in a family of four sisters, the gang-of-girls dynamic is very familiar!)

Now, I know Little Women isn't a work of literary genius. I know it was hobbled together, slapdash, in a period of six weeks and Louisa May Alcott herself felt it had many failings. I know it presents a sanitized view of 1860's adolescence and that the reality of the March/Alcott girls' lives was a lot darker and bleaker. I know some people regard the book as "moral pap for the young" and that the characters within have been done to death on stage and screen and radio and probably even slam poetry.

But it still made a huge impression on me as a child, and as such, I feel a certain devotion to it that I can only ascribe to a very few treasured books. So, it stands to reason that I view film adaptations of this beloved novel with a leery, standoffish side-eye. And, in fact, I haven't yet found one that could do it justice.

Don't get me wrong, I've seen and heard a lot of them. When you tally it all up - I've read the book umpteen times, and just about all the spin-off children's fiction you could think of. (The Little Women Journals, Portraits of Little Women, the Great Illustrated Classics version, the Companion Library of Classics...) I've seen the 1939 film with Katharine Hepburn (though, admittedly, I was so young that I don't remember much), the 1949 one with June Allyson, the 1994 classic with Winona Ryder (more on that later), part of the modern-day web series which was kind of a flop, two stage adaptations (one being the musical, which struck me as little more than a travesty), and listened to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre production countless times.

That last one, by the way, is probably the only one I can wholeheartedly recommend to someone who wants to experience a dramatized version of the book. It's available here. Not perfect, but pretty darn good - not least because it's fully four hours long and really takes the time to delve into the little rabbit trails the story naturally takes. (Except for the part with Camp Laurence, but - well, nobody's done Camp Laurence justice yet. The new remake remains to be seen.)

But not one movie or TV version has really captured the novel for me, and I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps I'm just too picky. The Winona Ryder film, which represents most people's cinematic exposure to Little Women these days, was a good movie. I like watching it and it's a fun, cozy wintertime classic - but it isn't quite Little Women. Not to me. My qualms over that movie are another topic for another day, but suffice it to say, there was too much added in (Susan Sarandon, shut up about the corsets already), too much taken out (oh, sure, it's not like John Brooke's proposal was important or anything!!) and it was all jam-packed far too tightly into two hours of theatrical release. Just sayin'.

This post is becoming a runaway train wreck very quickly, and it is my bounden duty to harness it before it goes completely off the rails. And stop mixing metaphors.

Here's what worries me about the new adaptation:

1) The costumes already look distinctly un-promising. That is to say, they seem to be suffering from Frilly-Prairie-Dresses-With-No-Petticoats-and-Loose-Unbound-Hair-itis, that rampant disease that's ravaged period dramas since Gone With the Wind. For many viewers, I realize this isn't a big deal, and I'm willing to let it slide if the story is good enough - but, guys, I do 1860's living history for a reason. I truly love this era of clothing (and I know a good bit about it!) and it makes me sad when movie costumes don't even try to do it justice.

2) The current trend in period dramas is to introduce as much Dark Material and Depressing Thematic Content as possible, which elicits a frank eye-roll from my overly opinionated self. Little Women has its dark moments, don't get me wrong. Beth's illness (and... you know... what happens in Part 2), Mr. March's illness, the Hummels' poverty, the constant shadow of the Civil War are all there in the book, clear as day. But the overall tone of the Marches' story is one of happiness and comfort and joy, and I worry that a 2017 director has taken that and cast a shadow over it in hopes of being Edgy and Relevant.

3) The bits and pieces I saw in the 30-second Masterpiece PBS trailer (admittedly, not much on which to form an opinion!) make me worry that the character's choices and challenges may be "updated" too much to reflect a modern mindset. Little Women is very much a product of its time, and though I believe its core message and values are still relevant today, I think we do old-time classics a disservice by trying to make them overly relatable to the modern eye. This is a wide, vague statement, and encompasses a lot of elements all the way from loose, flowing hair on a grown Victorian woman to modernized language to subtle changes in narrative to make it less dissonant on the 21st-century ear. I don't think rewriting the classics is going to make them better - I think looking at them square-on for what they are and appreciating the fact that they are different in many ways from our mindsets and societal norms today will help us to a greater understanding of human nature and how it changes and stays the same.

*steps down from soapbox*

And now, to be fair, here's what excites me about it:

1) So many familiar actors from previous period dramas! I have high hopes for Emily Watson's portrayal of Marmee, and I'm thrilled to see Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence even though he doesn't look the way I imagine Mr. Laurence in the book (my mental image is a lot more like an elderly Christopher Plummer). Angela Lansbury is playing Aunt March, too, so that should be lots of fun.

2) The girls are all virtually "unknown" actresses, and I love that too. I'm often frustrated by film adaptations of novels that cast whoever's hot in the box office, just to boost their ticket sales, rather than finding actors who are truly right for the roles. (Cough, cough, looking at you, Russell Crowe in Les Mis. And... well, actually, a lot of people in Les Mis. Cough.) I'm cautiously optimistic that this will be a fresh, unspoiled look at characters who ought not to be played by famous leading ladies bidding for an Oscar.

3) It's so long! SO! LONG! It's multiple episodes! Lots of time to delve into all those subplots! I even spotted what I think may be Camp Laurence in the trailer! (Yes, I'm really passionate about that part, but it gives us a lot of insight into Mr. Brooke's and Meg's developing relationship, so I'll go down with that ship.) The fact that the story is not being cram-jammed into standard film length is promising for its adherence to the original book. Yay!

And in honorable mention, a point I'm not sure is a pro or a con:

It's an American book being made into a television series by a British production company, starring mostly British actors.


Well, on the one hand, the BBC usually does a very good job of classic book adaptations (see: most Jane Austen miniseries in existence, many Charles Dickens epics, etc. etc.) and I'm happy to see them (hopefully) taking Little Women seriously. But if you've seen the 90's show Jeeves and Wooster, you'll know why I'm worried, and I'll give you just three words: fake American accents. Okay. Moving on.

As you may have guessed by now, I fully intend to watch it! In fact, I'm probably going to end up seeing it twice, since my sister wants us to see it together and my mother-in-law-to-be also wants us to watch it together - in her words, she looks forward to my "running commentary." I am not sure she knows what she's in for. But regardless, I fully intend to view, to take notes, to view again, to probably take more notes, and hopefully to blog about it.  Which is why I wrote this post, as a sort of prelude to an incoming barrage of text which will probably sicken you all to death of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

I know I'm coming into this miniseries with a lot of emotional baggage, so to speak. I'm probably going to hold it to a much higher standard than its target demographic, and I'm not going to be as gentle as I might be with something that packs less impact for me. I've been thinking a lot lately about the importance of opinion, and when and where it is appropriate to share said opinion - and, frankly, blogging about something as inconsequential as a movie based on a childhood favorite book could easily be seen as trivial navel-gazing.

Because, in the end, who really cares if I like the new Little Women or not?

Well, obviously, I care. But I don't want to see that as the be-all, end-all. My opinion does not make that much difference in this grand spinning world, and to think that a review I write and post on my blog is going to be of great consequence to anyone but myself and a few of my friends is simply setting myself up for narcissistic disappointment. Whether I like this new film or not is a matter of my own taste and judgment, and the lens through which I'm going to see Little Women is filtered by my own past experience, impressions, and predisposition. And so is yours - and our opinions, afterward, may not match up. And I am slowly learning to be okay with that.

It used to be of utmost importance to me that every book-to-movie process be conducted in an appropriate manner. I would wax lengthy and rhapsodic about why the 1995 Pride and Prejudice is the only version worth watching, and why the American Girl movies just didn't come close to capturing the original books.  Those opinions haven't changed (and if you think it's because of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, then you really don't know me very well at all...), but as I've gotten older, I've realized that literary taste truly is a matter of taste most of the time, and you are never going to get a one hundred percent agreement on How Good This Movie Was from everyone who saw it. And that is okay. It isn't my job to convince you why the Winona Ryder adaptation isn't good enough for my hoity-toity sensibilities, nor is it your job to convince me that I'm an idiot for not respecting your good taste in calling it your favorite. We can live and let live.

So, I guess that is what my mindset is going to be as I watch the new Little Women - no, they might not get it right as far as I'm concerned. But neither am I the only person who's going to watch it, and if I end up hating it - well, someone else might just end up loving it. And with that in mind, I'll be sharing my opinions afterward with the knowledge that you're free to take or leave what I say as you see fit, and the sun will keep on rising and setting whether I think John Brooke's proposal is a failure or not.

But I'm still probably going to be super picky about the costumes, because I just can't help it.

Petticoats petticoats petticoats petticoats PETTICOATS. THEY ARE NEEDFUL AND NECESSARY.
And also hairpins.

Okay, there. Now I feel better.

You Might Also Like