More than 150 years ago, Louisa May Alcott's novel, "Little Women" was published to overnight success. Although it was based loosely on her own family, Alcott reportedly resisted the idea of writing a romantic coming-of-age story about girls, preferring instead the sensational tales of adventure that she penned under a pseudonym.
The sisters in the book, Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth, were a far cry from the schmaltzy heroines found in similarly themed novels of the era. Highly individuated and stereotype-defying, these characters still speak to us a century and a half later. Maybe that internal resistance to the typical "girls' story" genre of the time is part of what makes "Little Women" so enduring a novel. A string of new adaptations mark the book's 150th birthday (including two new movies, one updated to the present day and a BBC miniseries). These entries are the latest in a long tradition of bringing "Little Women" to the screen. Here, in order of appearance, are the four major motion pictures made from the book and what they say about their times:
Movies had only been talking for six years when director George Cukor teamed up with David O. Selznick to film "Little Women." A major studio undertaking, the movie features extremely high production values for its time. Of course, the ace up the film's sleeve was the young Katharine Hepburn cementing her budding stardom as Jo. In the list of famous Jo's, Hepburn ranks arguably at the top.
Made in 1933, "Little Women" was a true product of the Depression in its emphasis on nostalgia. The present, frankly, sucked, and what audiences wanted was an escape to simpler, better times. The fact that "Little Women" was set during the upheavals of the American Civil War didn't seem to trouble the film's proposition that the mid-19th century was an era to remember fondly. Of course, the emphasis in the movie on frugality and making the best of one's circumstances would have resonated with Depression-era audiences.
It's interesting to think that when RKO Radio Pictures released "Little Women," there were still Americans around who remembered living through the Civil War. For added verisimilitude, Katherine Hepburn consulted old tintype photos of her grandmother when working with the costume designer. The movie's backward glancing theme also served to acknowledge the new power of the "talkies" to recreate and preserve the past. To quote the movie's trailer, "This theatre offers you a priceless living memory!"
World War II was comfortably in the rearview mirror when David O. Selznick decided to give "Little Women" another whirl. The first version had been such a huge success, he hoped lightning might strike twice. Although he eventually bowed out of the project and sold it off to MGM, the script and score remained virtually identical to the 1933 version.
But there were two important new elements: The first, of course, was the cast, which featured Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Amy, a few years after her star-making turn in "National Velvet." (Jo was played, less memorably, by June Allyson). The second was a little innovation called Technicolor. Would Liz Taylor have become such a massive star without color film to show off those famous violet eyes?
The economic boom of the 1950s was just around the corner when this film was released in 1949. The Cold War and the slow-burn nuclear nightmare that was to haunt it remained little more than a rumor. In tribute to the era's commitment to consumerism, the screenwriters added a scene in which the girls and their mother go out for a merry round of Christmas shopping. This must have come as a surprise to fans of the book, in which the family's penury is a central element. Cheerfully ignoring such inconsistencies, this "Little Women" projects an aura of heady optimism, even going so far as to market the lead characters as "The happiest people this side of heaven."
Collaborating with screenwriter Robin Swicord, director Gillian Armstrong created a fresh take on the old classic in 1994 by imagining how Louisa May Alcott might have written the story had she been liberated from the cultural shackles that constrained her storytelling in the 19th century. After all, in her personal life, Alcott stayed true to Jo's determination never to marry, although, at the insistence of her publisher and readers, she felt compelled to pair her heroine off with someone. (In this case, it wasn't with the expected handsome boy-next-door Laurie, but the older Professor Bhaer.)
Somehow remaining true to the spirit of the novel, Armstrong and Swicord effortlessly dovetailed in new details that nevertheless felt authentic. In this telling, the matriarch of the March family, Marmee, is not a soft-hearted martyr, but a strong proto-suffragette, promoting education and voting rights for women. This element too, was drawn from real life — Alcott was an early supporter of suffrage and was the first woman in Concord to register to vote.
Of course, none of this would work without the stellar cast, which reads like a who's who of '90s actors: Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne. And, above all, Susan Sarandon anchors the film in the role of Marmee. For many people, this is the definitive version of "Little Women."
But a new version could challenge its supremacy. Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo in a 2019 remake helmed by Greta Gerwig. The film also stars Emma Watson, Timothy Chalamet and Meryl Streep, as the testy Aunt March. Given that Ronan's hugely successful debut film, "Lady Bird" was about a smart, complicated young woman it sounds like a perfect fit. As was the case with the 1994 version, Gerwig puts a feminist spin on the material and incorporates themes from Alcott's personal life. But unlike previous adaptations, this one starts with the March sisters as adults and flashes back to their childhoods. Early reviews have been almost uniformly glowing.