If ever we needed to see strong, capable women exercising their power it’s 2018. PBS Masterpiece’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age tale largely focuses on Marmee’s four daughters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) and the challenges they face growing up while using Marmee’s struggles as a single mother whose husband is serving in the Civil War as a nice counterpoint. Heidi Thomas’s (Call the Midwife, Cranford) and Rainer Stolle’s writing (IMDB also credits Alcott as one of the writers and the image of the notorious LMA in a TV writers’ room makes me giggle) coupled with Emily Watson’s performance take what could be a saccharine saint in Marmee’s character and provide a bit more texture. My favorite moment of the adaptation’s first installment was seeing the March women’s early morning routine and a stern Marmee warning everybody to get out the door and on the way to school, work, whatever, in a tone that children throughout the ages have come to dread. Generally, this adaptation strives to use a smattering of nostalgia mixed with touches of everyday family life to bridge the distance between 1860s America and today. What I appreciated about this approach was its relative subtlety, especially compared with more high-octane methods of updating period material such as Peaky Blinders’ use of Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey in its soundtrack. Don’t mistake my snark for a diss of Peaky Blinders. This technique works well enough for them (and I like what I’ve seen of that show). In 2018, however, I think that technique has largely run its course and I, for one, don’t want to see a montage of Jo writing and Laurie looking on lovingly set to Tal Bachman’s “She’s So High” or, heavens forfend, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” What Thomas does in Little Women is more understated and more in keeping with the world of the March women.
Here’s a quick rundown of the four sisters:
Meg (Willa Fitzgerald)- The oldest and most well-behaved of the March sisters, Meg comes off as less preachy in this adaptation although still wedded to social norms.
Jo (Maya Hawke)- What can I say about Jo? I always love her in every adaptation, faults and all. Maya Hawke does a nice job of grounding Jo as a woman trying to grapple seriously with her faults, rather than a nineteenth-century manic pixie dream girl who is just oh-so-quirky and eccentric.
Beth (Annes Elwy)- She is likely the toughest character given that she can make dust bunnies look like social butterflies. This adaptation suggests Beth may struggle with agoraphobia or severe anxiety as we see two unsuccessful tries to make it across the street to play Mr. Laurence’s piano.
Amy (Kathryn Newton)- As with Beth, the writers did a good job of balancing the character’s pettiness and vindictiveness with better traits so that she does not come across as irredeemably whiny (which always bothered me about Amy in the 1994 film adaptation). On a side note, was it just me or did Amy seem to have on a lot of coral lipstick? Like, way more than could be considered a ‘natural look’ even by TV standards? I am both fascinated and often distracted by the way “no-makeup makeup” looks in period dramas. In general, I though the makeup design was very well done; it was just this one small detail that seemed a bit off.
MVP: Angela Lansbury as Aunt March. I don’t remember much liking battle-axe Aunt March in previous adaptations (or the book for that matter). Some of that may be that now I’m experiencing the story more from the adults’ perspectives and am not so wholly absorbed in Jo’s POV. Mary Wickes (White Christmas, The Trouble With Angels, a favorite of this former Catholic school girl) played Aunt March in the 1994 version and she can do crabby like no one else. As with Meg and Amy, the writing gives Aunt March the necessary cantankerous notes but allows her to have a sense of humor as well. This adaptation overall tries to move beyond the personality types (the smart girl, the good girl, the pretty girl, the shy girl) and provide more levels of shade and dimension and Aunt March’s character certainly succeeds in that.
Director Vanessa Caswill has done a beautiful job as well. The opening scene establishes the insular world of the four sisters as it shows the young women’s hands, loose hair, bare feet stepping in and out of petticoats. Using fluid camera movements, shallow focus, and soft lighting, the scene is intimate and feels like the opening to an indie film—albeit one set in the nineteenth century. Kudos to PBS for giving a female director the opportunity to head this project, and kudos to Caswill for setting this adaptation apart from other period dramas.
Overall, Little Women manages to sidestep many of the problems facing other adaptions of this work. Is it the best thing I’ve seen on TV in 2018? Probably not. Will I be tuning in to see the conclusion next week? Definitely.
Find out which March sister you are by taking the PBS quiz: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/specialfeatures/little-women-quiz-which-sister-are-you/
It told me I was Meg. Hmmm. Will I be retaking the quiz until it assigns me Jo? Magic Eight-Ball says “outlook good.”
What’s your favorite Little Woman adaptation? Does anyone prefer one of the other characters above Jo?