Growing up I had heard of Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Winona Ryder as the protagonist Jo, but never watched it. More recently in 2019, I listened to a podcast episode by This American Life called The Weight of Words, where the book Little Women is spoken about and adored.
This time last year just before I watched another version of the film, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo, I bought a copy of the book. I watched the 2019 film before reading the book, then watched the 1994 film part way through reading the book. And I love it – the book, that is.
Written by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women follows the lives of four sisters during the American civil war: feisty writer Jo, oldest sister Meg who loves all things beautiful, music playing Beth, and aspiring artist Amy. The book was originally two books, now commonly published together as one – the first showing childhood and growing up, and the second showing the sisters as adults.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!
I found the first part somewhat preachy at times, but I suppose it is a product of its time. Other passages of the mother’s lessons to the daughters were interesting and funny, such as forgiveness (Jo’s manuscript burning and Amy falling through the ice) and having a healthy balance (between work and play).
The book explores the creative interests of the sisters, how they each find joy in different things. There is a chapter on each sister showing this, which I loved. Both the 1994 and 2019 films mainly focus on Jo, so it was refreshing learning a little more about the other sisters. Each sister has a different interest (clothes/ beauty, writing, music, and art), yet they come together to act out plays and write newspapers. I loved how the first part simply showed the sisters being sisters.
I felt the 1994 film just had scenes showing snippets of passages from the book, it appeared quite choppy in the scene changes, as if someone is merely recounting memories of what happened in the past. Whilst the contrasting scenes between past (the book’s first part) and present (the book’s second part) in the more recent film was done really well. I know some people weren’t fond of the mixing of timelines, but to me it really showed the character evolution.
The 1994 film focussed more on kind Beth than Meg, showing the virtues of women, I suppose. Whilst I felt the 2019 film focussed more on Meg than Beth, showing the hardships of living with little money and the reality of life after the so-called happily ever after wedding.
Then the second part of the book shows the reality of life and adulthood: money, hardships, sacrifice, marriage. There were some really good passages in the second part where I couldn’t help rereading before moving onto the next passage. I was always told not to use too much punctuation when writing, but wow does Louisa May Alcott throw caution to the wind and produces such fine magic.
Amy and Laurie’s relationship was a surprise to me in the 1994 film (I hadn’t read that far yet when I watched the film). Casting a different actor to play an older Amy to show how mature she had become, but it just didn’t really sit well with me. I found the portrayal in the 2019 film a little more convincing. But I loved their relationship in the book. And Jo knows and welcomes the marriage.
It was these passages that I adored: finding true friendship and comfort, and then falling in love. The book portrays it more naturally, so much so, that I actually found it somewhat believable – even though I really wanted Laurie and Jo together after watching both films.
Everyone knows that Beth dies, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so late in the book. It was as if Beth’s death was a catalyst for everything – the turning point in the book that was almost over. It was tied too neatly. Amy and Laurie find each other as they are both grieving abroad, whilst Jo suddenly has space in her heart to welcome someone else.
And I suppose that’s how the 2019 film interprets the love interest at the end. It was interesting to see the 2019 interpretation of the scholar becoming the love interest as an afterthought, which I did not detect in the book.
The Weight of Words
I adore the book and both films are really good, but I think I prefer the more recent adaptation. Before reading or watching any of these, I listened to the podcast first: how a woman also adored the book and lived vicariously through the book and how it shaped her life.
In the podcast episode, every year on her birthday, the woman reads the corresponding chapter number from Little Women. So on her 42nd birthday she would read chapter 42. I love that. I have only ever reread two books: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Daughter of the Wind. And I only reread them once. I could not let go of the characters in these worlds after the first read.
I can understand how someone can reread Little Women many times, and maybe I will in a few years time. This is the book that got me back into reading after, maybe, 8 years of forcing myself to read. All I needed was a book about girls growing up to become women, and the strong bond between them as sisters. If you haven’t read Little Women, I would highly recommend it. If you have read it and liked it, or loved it, do tell the world!