Tentative Hopes Revisited: Little Women (2017)

"But I don't know what the words are. I don't know what to say."
"Say you were happy once. Say there was laughter. Say what is true."
~Jo March and Robert March, Little Women (written by Heidi Thomas)

I finally finished Little Women last week.

image via Radio Times

I mean, it only took me seven months since I first announced that I was going to watch it. That's not too bad, right? Considering my track record of blogging in general this year, it's positively dazzling. 

Now, just to catch you up on my previous predispositions, I'll perform the ultimate verboten in writing for the internet and quote myself.  "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.... [But] 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 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."

In this case, that someone who ended up loving it was me. 

There ya go. The short version: I really liked this adaptation, and though it wasn't perfect, it touched a chord in my heart and sang a song in my soul, etc. etc.  Insert flowery Louisa May Alcott moral-pap-for-the-young.

I'm not going to attempt to write a concise review of the movie and recap the whole story and tell you what I thought of every single character and how they were portrayed.  Short version: Jo good, Meg very good, Laurie very very good, Mr. Laurence adequate, Aunt March bad, Beth satisfactory, Amy pretty good, Marmee and Father excellent, John Brooke splendid. (I was very tempted to write "Meg: Good, Jo: Bad, Beth: Very Good, Amy: Middling" but felt that this, though appropriately Pickwickian, would ultimately be confusing to anyone who did not read the book obsessively as a child and memorize entire passages of it, and would ill describe my true opinions.)

I probably should talk a bit about Beth, though.  She's never been my favorite March sister.  Oh, I don't mean I hated her the way some people hate Amy (which is unfair - she matures a lot as the story progresses but everyone holds that darn book-burning against her for her whole life! and probably the Laurie thing too, admittedly) but she did not have the same pull of realism for me that Meg, Jo and Amy all had. Beth was too good - not infuriatingly like that little prig Elsie Dinsmore, and not wholly inconceivably (she had a few faults here and there) - and did not seem to carry much weight in a household full of strong personalities. Yet I still resented what I considered subpar portrayals of her character in film.  Margaret O'Brien came fairly close to my mental image of Beth in the 1949 movie, but she was too young for the role and too childish.  Claire Danes was far too robust and over-acted for my taste in the 1994 classic, and her death scene (OH YEAH SPOILERS BETH DIES FOLKS COME ON YOU KNEW THAT) tends to make me fast-forward rather than shed a quiet tear.

Annes Elwy's portrayal, though, is soft and quiet and retiring and even a little bit awkward, not something I'd associated with Beth in the past, but a choice I admire because it made Beth even more lovable.  I found myself rooting for Beth in this adaptation more than I ever have before, and wishing that she would not die.  I wondered why I'd ever thought Beth wasn't that important in the March family. I hadn't realized how much she ties them all together, even when she's ill and dying.

It was all there in the book, but I hadn't truly noticed it before. Beth's first illness, with the scarlet fever, is the straw that breaks the camel's back for her sisters who have been spending a year learning to be unselfish. It's the awakening jolt that brings them all to the realization of what is important in their lives: a worn-out moral, but one of the things that has made Little Women precious for so many people over so many years. The importance of family and the value of cozy home life (even when it's not quite so idyllic as Laurie would like to believe) are two of the strongest themes running through the original book, and I was happy to see them embodied so well here.

I hadn't realized how strongly Beth binds Laurie and Amy together, too.  It was a simple repeated line in the script that awoke me to something that had also been there in the book all along. When Beth is first ill with the scarlet fever (contracted while visiting the poverty-stricken Hummels, when everyone else is too busy to go), Amy is sent away to be quarantined with crotchety old Aunt March. Laurie, attempting to appease her wrath at being bundled off as if she was in the way, says, "I'll come and see you every day."  He offers the phaeton, the carriage, outings to the theatre, and various amusements, and of course Amy yields. She goes to Aunt March's, Laurie comes by every single day, and Beth eventually recovers. All is well.

(In the meantime, by the way, Jonah Hauer-King does an excellent job of just being Laurie, at the right age, with the right looks - yay for the "big hair" of those 1970's book illustrations!- sans the smoldering hair-flips of Christian Bale, but reminding us of Laurie's immaturity and tendency to self-indulgent melancholy. Bravo. We still can't get away from loose, flying hair and disheveled clothing on Jo's part in the failed proposal scene, but I guess that's pretty much written in the stars by now and people come to expect it, so I shall turn a blind historical eye.)

image via Show Patrol

Anyway, then Amy goes to Europe on a grand tour with Aunt March, and Jo turns down Laurie's proposal, and he flees to Europe too. And Beth gets worse again, and declines quickly, and finally dies, away from her sister and her best friend, who are left to comfort each other amid beautiful French scenery. "I'll come and see you every day," Laurie tells Amy, for a very different reason this time, because she has none of her family there to comfort her.  And since we're throwing spoilers out left and right in this post (it's a 150-year-old book, after all), they realize that they belong together. Forever.

There's a lot of resentment in the literary world over Laurie's marrying Amy, since so many people persist in believing he was better for Jo and she for him (I am not one of these), and I have felt about nearly every movie adaptation that there just isn't enough coverage given to the development of their relationship. Of course it doesn't happen overnight in the novel, yet so many filmmakers seem to think that two scenes are sufficient. Sadly this version doesn't give us much more than the others, but I liked it a good deal better than others - despite the fact that Amy's dressing-down of Lazy Laurie and the revelation that her character has undergone a massive change from the selfish child she used to be is rather obviously missing.

So, then, let's move on to what I might call a better relationship, and one I've waited a long time to see on screen: Meg and John Brooke.  Sure, the other films have stated in so many words (or so few, in 1994, ahem ahem ahem) that Laurie's tutor fell in love with Jo's older sister and they got married, ho-hum. But the development of the romance between them was one of my favorite elements of the novel when I was first discovering the magic of the chemistry that can develop between two people. (This was in middle school, by the way, at the point in time when I began to slowly grasp that boys did not, in fact, have cooties.)

I don't know who the random chick is on the far right with her eyes closed, but that's a really nice fan-front cotton dress from about 15-20 years behind the fashion of the day. *ahem* Please ignore those darned black trousers on John Brooke in his dress uniform. #whateven

I've resented the exclusion of Camp Laurence from film adaptations ever since I saw the 1933 version at nine or ten (of which I, admittedly, remember rather little).  It's the passage in the book where John Brook accompanies the March girls, Laurie, and a bunch of English friends for a day out picnicking and boating. Meg and John spend a good deal of time discussing German poetry, but John also sticks up quietly for Meg - if only to her own face - when one of the snippy English girls smoothly derides Meg for being a governess. It's the first real look we get at why these two people would be right for each other: they enjoy the same pastimes, manage intelligent conversation with each other that is not just restricted to the weather and everyone's health, neither is afraid of hard work, and they have similar goals and visions in life.  Take that, nasty Kate-whatever-your-name-is. 

I was so happy to see that scene included here that I am willing to overlook the somewhat weak portrayal of the Meg and Aunt March Showdown over John Brooke.  And everything was forgiven during the musical montage of Meg and John promising themselves to each other as John goes off to war. I cried.  No shame.  We tend to forget the earthquake that rent the hearth-stones of a continent in our readings of Little Women. The war that was only fought south of Concord, Massachusetts is just a distant reason for Mr. March not being home with his family. But seeing John marching off and Meg getting that telegram touched me in a way that few other things in the movie did (even Beth's death!) and I am so, so happy it was included.  Especially with the soundtrack of Marmee and Father's favorite song, "Land o' the Leal," which is of course mentioned in the novel but I had somehow never heard sung before.  The version below (sung by Annes Elwy) has more Americanized lyrics, but you can follow this link to hear the traditional Scottish version as written by Lady Carolina Nairne.

I've barely touched on Jo, but I shall do so now. My first impression of Maya Hawke was that she was so young - she looked 15 or so in the opening scenes! Then I smacked myself over the head, since I can't smack Hollywood over the head for instilling in all of us the mindset that a high school student needs to be at least 30 years old.  Jo IS a teenager in the opening scenes of Little Women, and I was happy to be reminded of that.  The March girls aren't fully formed, characters-set adult women at the start of the novel. They are girls who haven't really tasted life yet, and that's what the book's about, for heaven's sake. 

I think that people who dream of being writers themselves are often drawn to fictional characters who also write (Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, Juliet Ashton, Skeeter Phelan, the list goes on), and Jo March is perhaps one of the first with whom we connect: her dreams of fame, her desire to write in a way that leaves a legacy, and her practicality when the sacrifice of her Art pays the bills. 

The standoff between Jo and Professor Bhaer (played nicely by Mark Stanley, though on screen only briefly, as a younger man than in some versions - but still bearded, which is Important) over her trashy writings for the Weekly Volcano is controversial to say the least.  There are many who feel that the professor's critique of Jo's writing is heavy-handed, moralistic, dictatorial - and others who feel that it is the awakening Jo needed to write something better and more worthy of her talent. I think the argument presented here captures the heart of it, however: the stories are trash, and Jo could do so much better, but she writes them to help support her family, which is a worthy endeavor. In the book, she burns her sensational murders and intrigues and turns to writing of her own family (and it's revealed in Jo's Boys, the fourth book in the series, that she actually wrote Little Women and it became her stairway to fame.)  I liked this approach, though I would have preferred to see a little more insight on why the newspaper melodrama is unrealistic and does not "improve the mind", but I was happy to see a little reminder that Jo isn't just doing this because she wants the feeling of being published. Like Louisa May Alcott herself, Jo's stories are putting down new carpets, paying the butcher's bill, providing groceries and gowns, and eventually sending Beth to the seaside. And yet, despite the reminder that reality comes knocking for even the most idealistic of us, I'm glad in the end that she gives up the smutty writing and returns to her true calling: to write what is true.

(Bonus points for that little scene in which Meg encouraged Jo to keep on writing - like Gopher in Winnie the Pooh, definitely not in the book, but also true to the spirit of the book and the spirit of the March sisters as a family unit.)

Jo's writing is glimpsed only here and there in the original book, but when it shows up it packs a real punch. I have a distinct, visceral memory of sitting on a stepstool under the little farmer's sink in our kitchen when I was about ten, reading the scene before Beth's death and weeping real tears over the poem Jo writes about Beth. To this day, that poem still hits me harder than the actual ending of the chapter Valley of the Shadow. Jo's processing and coming to grips with the passing of her sister felt more real to me than the knowledge that Beth was really gone.  The nods to Jo's (and Alcott's) writing in this film were good ones (I laughed when I saw a clipping titled "Transcendental Wild Oats" pinned to her bulletin board in a quick shot showing a montage of her work) but the fact that the poem to Beth was included as the reason Jo began writing - and submitting her work - again felt just right. If we're speaking of melodrama, the poem might rightly be called that.  It is, after all, a product of the Victorian era and all the depth of romantic feeling poured into words in that time. But at the same time it is simple, an expression of all that we're supposed to take away from Little Women: love, conquering self, and learning to grow up.  

Oh my sister, passing from me,
Out of human care and strife,
Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
Which have beautified your life.
Dear, bequeath me that great patience
Which has power to sustain
A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit 
In its prison-house of pain.

Give me, for I need it sorely
Of that courage, wise and sweet
Which has made the path of duty
Green beneath your willing feet.
Give me that unselfish nature
That with charity divine
Can pardon wrong for love's dear sake--
Meek heart, forgive me mine!

Thus our parting daily loseth
Something of its bitter pain
And while learning this hard lesson
My great loss becomes my gain.
For the touch of grief will render
My wild nature more serene,
Give to life new aspirations--
A new trust in the unseen.

In the end, I think that's what we want to take away from Little Women and why we keep coming back to it. It's why we keep passing over the imperfections in each attempt to bring the book to life on screen. It's why I have a copy of the Winona Ryder version on my DVD shelf even though I make fun of it so much.  It's why a novel scribbled out in six weeks at the behest of an editor who wanted a story for children has endured for a century and a half.  Little Women speaks to us on a deeper level than just the vignettes of giving away breakfast, ice skating accidents, parties with rich friends and getting that first story published. It's about why our families matter, why the art we give back to the world matters, and why even the most everyday and mundane moments are sometimes the most precious in memory. It's about the rifts between people, the way relationships don't always work out the way we want them to, the hurt that the closest to us can give us, and the power of the glue that holds our loved ones together anyway.

I've heard it said that the only true measure of a piece of art is that it makes you feel, and it doesn't matter what it makes you feel as long as you feel something. I don't know if this is accurate.  (For instance, the 2004 Phantom of the Opera film makes me feel gastrointestinal distress, and I'm not sure if that's really the true measure of art.) Little Women made me feel a lot of things, some good and some bad, but then, so did the original book. In the end it made me feel good, and I think that's why I'm willing to like it. I've just spent over 3,000 words telling you that, when I probably could have summed it up in a single sentence "it was good and I liked it" - but, after all, that wouldn't be true to the spirit of a Victorian novel, now would it? It's all about the journey to a destination and not necessarily the conclusion, right?

It almost makes you wonder if Jo got paid by the word.

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