The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the four March girls: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Their father is a chaplain in the American Civil War and the girls are left to fend for themselves in their home in New England with their loving mother, Marmee. All four girls have defined characteristics: Pretty Meg yearns for wealth and finer things. Tomboyish Jo is an ambitious young writer. Delicate Beth is shy, but has a caring, gentle heart. Amy, like Meg, likes wealth, but she is unfortunately spoiled and childish due to being the youngest.
The March's next-door neighbor, Theodore Laurence--better-known as Laurie--becomes part of the March family's fiber. Laurie is a lonely young man lives with his wealthy grandfather and often finds solace in the kindness and warmth of the March family--much like any outsider who encounters the March family. Gradually, Laurie falls for the feisty Jo, only to discover she doesn't feel the same for him.
But through pangs of heartbreak and the bonds of love, the March family survives life's trials and tribulations--together. The March girls become women by enduring the many hardships found in their own flaws, journeys, relationships, and their pursuits of romance. Admittedly, I read the book with an old-fashioned mindset, only to realize in the very foundation of Alcott's story is a timeless message about growing up and eventual self-understanding.
Alcott's novel was such a success when it was first published that it inspired two sequels (that I yet to read), Little Men and Jo's Boys. Little Women has ever been out of print. It is one of the most popular books of all-time, transcending Alcott's expectation of it being simply a "girl's book." It is no wonder Hollywood can't keep their hands away from the novel--and I can't blame them.
I believe if there is a good story somewhere, there is a good movie to be made. But when I saw the 1933 and 1949 film adaptations, I was tremendously disappointed. Not only the two films lack the warm atmosphere of Alcott's novel, the casting for the films is atrocious.
Katharine Hepburn stars in the 1933 version as Jo March. Although Hepburn seems like a fantastic choice to play the fiercely self-assured female character, the actress couldn't exude the immature, tomboyish nature of Jo; Hepburn's voice and movements reeks of elegance and high society. In her autobiography, Hepburn stated she had a wonderful time making the film, but something about her performance didn't feel like she was giving it her all. Under the direction of Hepburn's favorite, George Cukor, Hepburn exhibits moments of excellence that never go a long way.
Sadly, the 1949 version was a remake of the 1933 version. The 1949 film has an entirely identical script to the 1933 version, only with several minor changes. I wondered: Why copy the script of the 1933 version when Alcott wrote 500 pages of film-worthy material?
One of the advantages of filming in black and white is that it is easier to control the lighting. The 1949 version is in bright technicolor so the weather outside was always, well, bright. The film is obviously filmed on a sound stage that looks cheap and clausophobic. It is one of the poorest sound stages I've seen from that era; I really got the feeling that the setting and the characters existed solely in a box.
As for the casting, June Allyson is a solid Jo March. In comparison to Hepburn, Allyson is a much better choice and delivered a much better performance. Strangely enough, the filmmakers decided to switch the age order of Beth and Amy, for no particular reason. Elizabeth Taylor is noticeable in a blonde wig as a selfish, greedy, and bitchy interpretation of Amy. Margaret O'Brien plays Beth with symptoms of Annoyingly Precocious Movie Child Syndrome nicely in-tact, especially when O'Brien delivers Beth's speech in acknowledgment of the character's declining health.
Unlike George Cukor, who is known more as an "actor's director," Mervyn LeRoy impressed me with a single shot: After the girls' father, Mr. March, returns home, the entire family is happily together for Christmastime. But behind their precious gathering, Laurie (Peter Lawford) looks in with longing and sorrow--a moment that spoke volumes about Laurie's character.
Being a huge fan of the novel, I found it difficult to fully embrace either of the films. I thought everyone involved in the 1933 and 1949 versions failed to capture the heart of the novel's sweet coming-of-age theme. For one, all the actors looks two times older than their characters. The 1933 version is especially awkward to behold, since all four actresses just looks so darn old in their matronly costumes. So much for coming-of-age...
I approached the most recent version made in 1994 with low expectations. Besides, I've actually seen the 1994 version a few years ago and remember not liking it at all. I was in my Vietnam War/mafia/investigative drama phase back then so sappy films where love triumphed all did not appeal to me all that much. But I've grown to appreciate those sappy movies throughout the last couple of years. And, even though I didn't like the 1994 version, I remember it being of better quality than the 1933 and 1949 versions.
I've came to the conclusion that even though the 1994 version is far from a perfect movie, it is probably the best adaptation of Little Women that we're going to get for a while.
Winona Ryder: I'm too gorgeous to play Jo, but hopefully my performance will make up for it. (And it does.)
Director Gilliam Armstrong's film is definitely the most well-made and well-cast version of Little Women. In addition, the film has a believably warm atmosphere that is absent from the first two films and has the attentive details a period piece deserves. Thomas Newman's dazzling, touching score is the icing on the cake. Unlike the script(s) for the previous versions, 1994's scripts emphasized the emotional core of the March family rather than settling on a summary of Alcott's novel.
The 1994 version of Little Women definitely made several stars who all happen to be working actors today. It is an talented bunch, with a single exception I would address later.
The four sisters are wonderfully cast: Winona Ryder is a terrific Jo, perfectly conveying the dreams of a young woman and the fierce head-strong ambitions of a determined writer. Kirsten Dunst is a surprisingly adorable young Amy, especially during a memorable (added) scene in a carriage where Amy tells Laurie (Christian Bale) that she wants to be kissed before she dies. The scene itself is a bit silly, but the way Dunst delivers the line with such innocence and wistfulness will put a smile on almost any viewer's face. Claire Danes gives a touching and heartbreaking performance as Beth. Although Trini Alvarado most definitely doesn't look the part of the beautiful Meg, she understood the character of Meg very well and it showed through her performance.
Unlike the 1933 and 1949 versions, the 1994 version is a true ensemble piece. The focus isn't all about Jo and her relationships with her sisters anymore--it's about every supporting character as well. Although the film is not a summary of the novel, Armstrong captures the spirit of the novel better than any director before her. She lets every actor an opportunity to shine.
Susan Sarandon is lovely as Marmee. Sarandon somehow knows how to portray Marmee on-screen in a lovingly didactic way without being overly preachy. Eric Stoltz plays Brooke, Laurie's tutor and Meg's eventual suitor. Although I don't think it is entirely appropriate to make Brooke into typical comedic relief, I think Stoltz does a good job with the material given to him. Gabriel Byrne is much too attractive to play the homely Professor Bhaer, but hey, this is Hollywood--all love interests should be somewhat attractive, right? But Byrne's performance is great and acts far from the notion of an afterthought.
I have mixed feelings about Bale's performance as Laurie. Like I said before, most readers could identify with Laurie's longing to officially belong in the March family. Laurie is a difficult role to perfect. Since Laurie is one of my favorite male literary characters of all-time, I'm very passionate about the way he is portrayed on-screen. Douglas Montgomery and Lawford from the 1933 and 1949 versions, respectively, looks twice the age of the character of Laurie in the films and are honestly, absolutely charmless. Bale, on the other hand, has a natural boyish charm about him that suited Laurie nicely. Besides, Bale has amazing chemistry with Ryder. So compared to the others, it is automatic that Bale is the finest on-screen Laurie.
But there is this scene in Europe much later in the movie where Laurie says to Amy, "I envy her happiness. I envy his happiness. I envy John Brooke for marrying Meg. I hate Fred Vaughn. And if Beth had a lover I would despise him too. Just as you have always known that you would never marry a pauper, I have always known that I belong to the March family," which makes Laurie sound like a serial killer who wants to take over the world--I mean, erm, the March family. I know that Laurie in "Part II" of Little Women (otherwise known as Good Wives) is kind of creepy, but he isn't that creepy. And sleezy, for that matter.
This brings me to Samantha Mathis as older Amy. Dunst sets the stage for a likable Amy and it seems to be up to Mathis to hold on to it or tear it down. Mathis does the latter, unfortunately. Mathis looks much too old for Amy since Mathis's appearance makes everyone look like they ceased aging during the past four years. It's just weird casting. In the scenes in Europe, Mathis's Amy just comes off as extremely snobby and annoying, enough for me to hate Amy in the same way I hated Juliette Lewis's character in Husbands and Wives.
This film is so nineties: The couples all have their passionate kisses, which is probably far from the customs of nineteenth century New England. But no matter--it makes the proposal scene between Jo and Laurie much more affective and emotional.
The 1994 version is the best version, but like I said before, it's a not a perfect movie. The film may be an accomplishment in aesthetics, with its gorgeous scenery, soaring score, and charming cast, but it lacks the emotional punch of the Alcott's novel. It is a great family movie with an insanely traditional but positive message aimed at young women, but it lacks Alcott's balance in storytelling and social commentary. Armstrong's vision is certainly an emotional one, but her film barely resonates with its viewers the same way Alcott's novel resonates with its readers.
My suggestion is, skip the 1933 and 1949 theatrical film versions and watch the 1994 version if you must see Little Women on-screen. But remember, the book is always available.
Ratings: 1933: 5/10, 1949: 5/10, 1994: 8/10