There was a discussion recently on the cornflower blog about film adaptations of books. I thought of this when watching the 1994 film of Little Women again. As long as people read, they will go on discussing this book; I’ve only just found a whole Live Journal community of littlewomenfans. The Provincial Lady was a devotee. In The Provincial Lady in America, her kind American hosts are bemused by her insistence that ‘the thing I want to do most of all is to visit the Alcott house at Concord, Mass.’ This proves surprisingly difficult but she makes it and ‘could willingly remain there for hours and hours.’ Later, she meets up with Mademoiselle (now employed in another family) and suggests that they go to see the film of Little Women. Cue explosion from Mlle., Cette chère vie de famille – ce gentil roman de la jeunesse – cette drôle de Jo etc. etc. They do make it to the film and
‘Well-remembered house at Concord is thrown on the screen, snow falling on the ground, and I dissolve, without the slightest hesitation, in floods of tears. Film continues unutterably moving throughout and is beautifully acted and produced. Mademoiselle weeps beside me – can hear most people round us doing the same – and we spend entirely blissful afternoon.’
I’m assuming they watched George Cukor’s 1933 version which I have seen but so long ago I can’t remember what it was like.
Gillian Anderson obviously set out to make a modern Little Women and she succeeded only too well. We all know that Jo and her author had a lot in common but here the story is not just autobiographical but full of hindsights; Jo talking to Prof. Bhaer about transcendentalism in Concord; oblique references to Father’s strange behaviour. A film has to concentrate on dramatic moments and narrative, which means leaving out much of what makes the book so enjoyable. I miss all the happy times the girls had, together and with Laurie, and the funny scenes like their attempts at housekeeping in ‘Experiments’. The biggest gap though is religion, so important in the book and replaced in the film by feminism. No good resolutions about reading from the New Testament every morning, no Pilgrim’s Progress but a great deal about how unfair life was for women.
The most annoying aspect for me though is the interpretation of the characters. Here’s Marmee: ‘A hatchet faced woman with a miserable expression, a whiny voice and a fondness for lecturing people.’ Oops! No, that’s Susan Sarandon in the film. Here’s Marmee: ‘a stout, motherly lady, with a “can-I help-you” look about her which was truly delightful.’ And who says, at the end of Good Wives, ‘Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!’ ‘This’, being surrounded by husbands and babies; not a career or a vote in sight.
Anderson conspires with Louisa May Alcott over the Jo and Laurie issue with the casting of Professor Bhaer. Jo describes Bhaer, in a letter home, as
‘A regular German – rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one’s ears good…’
Here’s Gabriel Byrne as Bhaer:
Wildly attractive and better looking than ‘Laurie’. I call that cheating.
Of course, I had to read the book again, even though it’s not my favourite book by LMA. That honour goes to An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I’ve read even more often than the March set.