Taking Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy Seriously: Little Women on PBS

Spoilers ahead for plot points of Little Women — but you’ve had 150 years to read the book!

Growing up, my mother kept a 19th-century copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women on a table in my parents’ bedroom. It was pleasantly heavy, and its rounded cover had embossed vines and flowers on the cover. As a dreamy bookworm with a love of the past, the book became something of a fixture for me. It was the subject of a photography project I entered in the county fair; I used it as a prop in my senior pictures. Years later, when the man who would become my husband bought me a copy at a flea market, I started collecting different versions. Like my mother, I now have different editions of Little Women laying around my house like little touchstones to the past.

Naturally, I was excited — and nervous — when I heard about the new Masterpiece adaptation of the classic book. I grew up with the 1994 adaptation and was a little wary of another version. How would I picture Laurie as anyone but the lovely, moody Christian Bale, or Jo as anyone but Winona Ryder? I also worried because recent updates of my other favorite girlhood book, Anne of Green Gables, have either been sickly sweet or jarringly dark. Would a new telling of Little Women try to add grit to appeal to modern audiences?

Scene from Little Women (&c;PBS)

I could not have been more wrong. The Masterpiece version is warm and sweet, but also takes the story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy seriously. The film is visually stunning. The March family home is warm and comforting, rich with bits of material history that make it feel realistic. The viewer can nearly smell the wood smoke in winter scenes, and feel the warmth of the sun in others. The costuming will leave historical fashion aficionados squealing with glee. (My husband did quibble with one oddly shaped Union uniform, but the dresses!)

Scenes are made more powerful with artful use of light and color. When Beth breathes her last, her death bed is draped in white linens to show the sacredness of the space for Victorian Americans. When the scene cuts to an outdoor view of the clothesline, the sun glares, but a shot of the sky is broken by the flapping black fabric of mourning clothes out to dry. In this way, the film subtly but beautifully tells us that the family is changed — their lives punctuated by darkness — but that the sun is still there.

The actors fill out the characters, not changing their well-known traits but rather fleshing them out. The sisters and their personalities are so well known that they could easily become one dimensional, but instead the actors elevate the characters. Angela Lansbury’s Aunt March is, unsurprisingly, perfection. Meg (Willa Fitzgerald) is rosy and well-mannered as well as feisty. Beth (Annes Elwes) is sweet but genuinely troubled by anxiety, ever conscious of her timidity compared to her powerful sisters. Amy (Kathryn Newton) is coquettish and fond of fine things, but also fiery and self-confident.

Scene from Little Women (&c;PBS)

Marmee and Father March, played by Emily Watson and Dylan Baker, ably portray the many joys and heartbreaks of marriage and parenthood. Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) and Professor Bhaer (Mark Stanley) are perfect opposites, as it should be. And Jo, played by Maya Hawke, is tumultuous, impetuous, full of ambition and passion, searching, confused, and certain all at once.

This new adaptation cleaves closely to the original text with thoughtful and deliberate additions and changes. For instance, when Mr. Laurence, the March family’s wealthy neighbor, invites Beth to come play the beautiful piano going unused in his home, he tells her, simply, that he had a daughter who loved that piano as much as he had loved her. In the book, the story is a little more convoluted, but the central emotion is the same: Mr. Laurence lost a young girl once, and Beth helps fill the hole in his heart with her sweetness and music.

Some of elements that make this version stand out aren’t changes but rather increased nuance. After pining for Jo for so long, Laurie’s courtship of Amy and their eventual marriage can easily be depicted as a strange kind of consolation prize, but this version takes their romance seriously. Their pairing becomes not an accident but obvious in Europe, where their elegance amid the Alps reveals just how different they are from the rest of the March clan and how perfectly suited they are for each other. Beth’s death is told with a new gravitas. In the book and the 1994 film, Beth is simply too good for this world.

In this version, Beth is certainly good, but also human, with no desire to die young. Unlike the epitome of Victorian sentimentalism that she is often portrayed as, this Beth is shown suffering with real pain. Her struggle with her mortality, and her family’s struggle to accept her impending loss, makes her death even more wrenching. The hole that she leaves in the family remains palpable throughout the rest of the film. Even in the happiest moments, it is clear that something has irrevocably changed. As Jo says to Laurie when he returns from Europe with now-wife Amy, they can’t be as happy as they were before: “We were children before, and we aren’t any longer.”

Scene from Little Women (&c;PBS)

Ultimately, amid the visual delights of mid-nineteenth century sets and comfortable storytelling, it was the emotional realness that made this new adaptation the most successful for me. The change in the family after Beth’s death, even in the final scene set many years later, reminded me powerfully of my own family after my younger brother’s sudden death. Enjoying an afternoon picking apples at Aunt March’s former estate, the family is warmed by the sun and the laughter of children, but nevertheless acutely aware something is missing. The aching loveliness of this reality is summed up in the film’s final words, spoken by Meg and Jo: “Nothing’s ever perfect, but things can be just right.” Perhaps this is what makes Little Women endure. Despite turning 150 years old next year, the novel speaks to real human struggles and joys, and this new adaptation successfully takes up the mantle for yet another generation.

Masterpiece: Little Women will air in the United States on May 13 and May 20 on PBS stations.

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3 Comments

Susan Bailey

Wonderful review! I too have seen the series in its entirety having received an advance copy. The second time around is even better than the first as I started to see what lay beneath the surface, and there is a LOT. Your notice of the linens on Beth’s bed is a perfect example (you likely noticed that sweet snippet of Beth daydreaming with a bubble rising as she did the dishes — that said so much about her). Jo was just as I encountered her in my first reading of Little Women — not entirely likeable but strong and true. I think Maya Hawke totally captures Jo, worts and all. The serious treatment of the anger in Marmee and Jo was, I think, the most significant part of the series. As someone with anger issues, I started to see myself in them. Also the whole adolescent growing up/figuring out who you are theme. Jonah was the perfect Laurie (and I too loved Christian Bale). Kudos to Masterpiece for the best adaptation yet.

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Historiann

Wow–thanks, Sarah! I saw the first episode last night in real time and didn’t realize that Jo was played by Ethan Hawke & Uma Thurman’s daughter until I read your review just now. (I saw it was published last week but wanted to see at least the first episode before I read it.) She was terrific, as is your review here.

Funny 90s trivia: Maya Hawke’s dad Ethan starred with Winona Ryder as her love interest in Reality Bites, which came out the same year as Ryder’s turn as Jo in Little Women.

This version of LW does a good job trying to do more with Beth, but she’s a pretty insipid character in the novel. I was surprised that you didn’t talk about the disability studies angle the writer and filmmaker seems to be exploring with Beth–maybe an idea for another post?

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Sarah Handley-Cousins

Thanks for reading, Ann! A disability studies angle didn’t actually occur to me at my first pass, but you make a really good point. Maybe it deserves closer attention!

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