So, today I went into the city to meet a friend and see the latest version of the film Little Women. There have been several versions now, including a silent movie, the most recent before now in 1994, in which Winona Ryder played the role of Jo. Like this version, it was directed by a woman, Gillian Armstrong. In the 1949 version, Amy was played by Elizabeth Taylor!
It’s a story about six women, four of them in their teens, one their mother and a middle aged servant, Hannah, living in Massachusetts during the American Civil War while Dad is off in the fighting. It’s easy to see why the last two directors have been female.
So, what was this one like? Like the others, it covers the first two stories in the quartet; the first novel ended with the return of the father, Mr March, and the recovery of the third sister, Beth, from scarlet fever. If they had stuck to that, the roles could have been played by younger actresses, but when you have them growing into young adults, with two of them married, you really need older actresses who can play younger ones.
And this one was very different from the others, in that it flitted back and forth in flashbacks and flash forwards. In fact, it started with writer Jo already living in New York, visiting a publisher to sell one of her lurid short stories. She had two scenes with that publisher, that one and a much later one where he accepts her semi autobiographical novel and she negotiates her royalties.
As a writer, I found myself nodding away in those scenes. The first scene had him cutting a scene she liked before accepting the story, telling her that after that war, people wanted to be entertained, not lectured to(the cut scene moralised). The second scene had her confident enough to demand a higher rate for her royalties than he was offering. He is not offering an advance unless it’s buying out her rights with a flat fee. She is a lot tougher than in their first scene, refusing the sale of her rights, and wanting a higher rate of royalties if she isn’t getting an advance. She knows her book is good - and so does he, after his young family members loved the manuscript.
Louisa May Alcott apparently wasn’t keen to write Little Women, but was talked into it. Everyone was very pleasantly surprised when the book became a hit, and she wrote three more in the series. I’ve read Books 1 and 3. It was, of course, semi-autobiographical, though Louisa was older than Jo during the war - I believe she worked as a nurse. She also wrote the sort of lurid Gothic stories that were so popular in those days, just as Jo does. I do have a copy of a collection of her short stories somewhere around the house, must find it!
Little Women is not exciting stuff. It’s gentle domestic stuff and gets a bit moralistic at times, as everyone Learns A Valuable Lesson, but it’s very readable, and the films are good because they have the excuse to show beautiful landscapes. And these were all filmed in Massachusetts, the setting of the book, even the scenes in Paris!
If you are interested, Geraldine Brooks wrote a novel, March, which tells the story from the viewpoint of Mr March, while he is at war. This Mr March is basically Mr Alcott, Louisa’s father, who made the family go vegan and even the fruit they ate pretty much had to have signed a suicide note(Kerry Greenwood’s description of her heroine Corinna Chapman’s parents). In the new film, Aunt March(Meryl Streep) comments that her brother never succeeded in making any money because he wasted it all teaching freedmen’s sons - not in the book, but true of Mr Alcott, who had radical theories of education and got into trouble trying to integrate his black and white students. That happens in March.
I enjoyed Little Women very much, well worth sparing a couple of hours in the cinema to see.