I was a childish bookworm who read Little Women long before the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s immortal novel about four sisters and the mother who raised them arrived in theaters. But after crying so hard at Gillian Armstrong’s interpretation of the book, which starred Susan Sarandon as Marmee and Winona Ryder as the tempestuous writer Jo, that a neighbor lady who’d been in the same screening called my mother to ask if I was all right, it’s become impossible for me not to see Sarandon’s spark and hard work, or Ryder’s furious tears and inky fingers in the characters. So even though I know Little Women had been adapted for screens large and small on many previous occasions, I admit to some real initial anxiety at the news that Alcott’s masterwork will become yet another movie.
But as much as I love Armstrong’s interpretation of Little Women, it’s true that it’s an optimistic interpretation of the original text. The most notable changes are to Professor Bhaer. This German academic, who arrived in Jo March’s life in Good Wives, the sequel to Little Women that is now traditionally published as Little Women‘s second half, appears in the novel in part because Jo couldn’t be left entirely without a romantic interest after refusing the proposal of her childhood friend Laurie. Armstrong transforms him from a portly, goofy, enthusiastic figure into a dashing exile played by Gabriel Byrne, who falls for Jo when she voices her political opinions in a boarding house and gives her a ravishing kiss backstage at the opera. And rather than simply discouraging Jo from writing sensational stories for money, as Bhaer does in the novel, Byrne and Armstrong’s Bhaer encourages Jo to write something emotional and true, and gets her first novel–which, presumably, is Little Women published.
And the 1994 movie also elides the coming together of Laurie (Christian Bale, whose performance in this movie means I am forever unable to watch American Psycho, because how could Laurie do those terrible things to those ladies) and Amy (played first by a young Kirsten Dunst, then later by Samantha Mathis). In the novel, Laurie first notices Amy as a potential romantic and sexual interest after Jo has refused his proposal and broken his heart. He’s left for Europe, where he intends to enjoy his troubles away, and where Amy is taking a Grand Tour with her aunt, an experience that’s sharpened her taste for the finer things in life and encouraged her to think of making a match for money rather than love. Their mutual recognition of what they’re each doing is not a comfortable experience, an idea that Armstrong captures. But in the aftermath of the sharp words between them, something important happens. The thing that Laurie and Amy had in common as children was that they both aspired to be artists, Laurie a musician, Amy a painter. And as they come to terms with the people they’ve become as adults, Laurie and Amy both recognize the limitations of their talents, and come to accept that they will forever be gifted hobbyists and nothing more. It’s an underdiscussed part of the novel’s engagement with artistic aspiration, but a painful and important one.
Finally, the movie also glosses over Meg, the oldest sister, and her continuing class anxieties after she marries. As a teenager, Meg embarrassed herself at an extended house party by allowing herself to be made up beyond her means. Armstrong’s film treats this as, effectively, a one-off incident, and in the interests of time, cut a conflict that appears later in the story, where Meg buys dress fabric she and her husband can’t actually afford because she wants to keep up with her wealthier friends. It’s a domestic aside, and the omission is entirely defensible. But it is part of a generally happier approach to Alcott’s novel.
As much as I adore Armstrong’s Little Women, now that I’m twenty years older, I can see the virtue of an interpretation that would have been sadder and more attuned to the compromises that reduced the characters’ Castles In The Air down to more modest abodes. I would be fascinated to see a director who’d read and considered Geraldine Brooks’ March, which fills in the oft-absent Mr. March’s perspective, following him during his Civil War Service, and John Matteson’s marvelous Eden’s Outcasts, a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson, present an interpretation of the novel that examines the real cost of the adult Marchs’ idealism for their daughters and for each other. As difficult and as adult as it might be, a film that spent more time on the difficult, uneven process of truly letting go of your childhood dreams and growing into happiness with the adult ambitions that replace them would also be a remarkable thing. It’s easy to decry Hollywood’s addiction to remakes and reinterpretations of old material. But a novel as rich as Little Women is the rare reminder that there are some texts that invite regular return trips, and that yield up new insights at every stage of our lives.