One of the weirder aspects of becoming a parent is reencountering a staple of your own childhood from your new vantage point, like coming upon a familiar street corner via a different route. For instance, after a lifetime of total devotion to Jo March, watching the new adaptation of Little Women, I couldn’t help but see the entire story through the eyes of the girls’ mother, Marmee.
There was really no need for another version of Little Women. The iconic Jo March has been played by Katharine Hepburn (1933), June Allyson (1949), and Winona Ryder (1994), a cinematic buffet that really ought to satisfy any set of tastes. That last version will continue to stand as definitive, with a cast that also included Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Susan Sarandon as Marmee, plus a soundtrack that’s accidentally become iconic Christmas music.
But then, like Jane Eyre and the collected works of Jane Austen, Little Women exists in a rarified class of stories that are so intimately familiar to so many people that new versions for TV and film don’t need to justify themselves entirely. There’s a core costume drama constituency that’ll give it a try regardless; obviously, the creators would prefer if it breaks out to a wider audience, but really it’s enough to make something pleasing with a sufficiently different texture to prove interesting. That’s the curve on which you’ve got to grade something like this.
The new production, which premiered last night on PBS’s Masterpiece and will conclude next week, was originally made for BBC1. It’s the work of Heidi Thomas, who created the TV show Call the Midwife and also adapted Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. This version of Alcott’s story is very much part of that British period drama tradition, complete with appearance by Michael Gambon (Laurie’s grandfather).
The production leans hard into its rustic 19th Century Massachusetts setting; at times, it feels like you’ve strayed into an particularly envy-inducing copy of the Anthropologie catalog. The Atlantic described the aesthetic as one tailored to the Instagram generation, calling it “Louisa May Alcott by way of Blake Lively’s dearly departed rustic Americana lifestyle-website Preserve.” The soundtrack for this one heavily features Andrew Bird. (The Americana approach is a little funny when you remember that it was originally made for British audiences.) It’s very, very pretty, and it will convince you that if you can’t renovate a historic farmhouse outside Concord, Massachusetts, you might literally die of grief.
There’s lots of intimate giggling by the March sisters in settings that are cozy, or beautiful, or both, speaking to the experiences of the stage in life when most women read these books. Unfortunately, those moments often feel contrived, like the production is too aware that this is a beloved novel about girlhood, and girls giggle. At times, the whole thing feels just a little too studied. And, too, the sweet setting and almost determined girlishness sometimes serves to remind you that this is a 19th Century novel for young women, deeply embedded in the domesticity-worshipping mores of its time.
But for me, the best part of the production was Emily Watson’s Marmee, who in many ways anchors the story. On all my previous encounters, Marmee faded into the background except when appearing as an all-knowing, all-loving support system for her daughters, there to talk through their problems on their way to adulthood. Maybe that’s how previous movies were written, or maybe that was my own adolescent take on the world. Even Susan Sarandon’s version is somewhat peripheral to the core dramas. The fight between Amy and Jo, culminating in the burnt manuscript, is a titanic struggle between the two strong-willed sisters. Obviously, I was team Jo, and Amy was every perfectly conforming, entitled brat I had ever encountered in my young life. I had one thought, and one thought only: How dare that little monster!
But watching this version, my perspective has shifted. If anything, Amy and Jo go harder at each other than in other versions, with real fury. Amy’s almost trembling with her sense of justice exacted, all smug teenage bravado; when Jo realizes what her sister has done, she wallops her in the face with real force and then storms out of the room. Amy shrieks: “Did you see what she did?”
Rather than fuming at Amy, as I did as a child, deeply invested in Jo’s fortunes, my eyes immediately darted to Marmee. This woman’s husband is off fighting in the Civil War. She has no idea whether he’ll come back. Her family is wealthy compared to their neighbors, the impoverished Hummels, to whom they donate their Christmas breakfast, but not so much that her older daughters don’t have to earn a living. And here she is, faced with a domestic crisis in the form of her petulant youngest hideously wronging her most independent and often frustrated daughter. What a nightmare! How do you even begin to broker a peace between Amy and Jo? Marmee leaves Amy wailing in the parlor and closes the door, taking a moment to collect herself. Later, their fight helpfully resolved by Jo rescuing Amy from near drowning, Marmee informs Jo that while she might never seem angry, she’s angry almost every day of her life.
On previous encounters with Little Women, I was engaged with the sisters, defining myself in terms of which one felt the most relatable in any moment or situation, always coming back to Jo, the writer. But now, as an adult and a parent, I find myself focused on the little part, rather than the women. While Hollywood’s endless remaking of the same chunks of intellectual property is so creatively deadening in so many cases, moments like this are the beauty of classics remade. I’ve probably known the story of Little Women since I was seven years old, but a new version prompted me to see it a new way.
Ultimately, while I’m enjoying the new version, it can’t compare to the 1994 version, both because it’s good, but also because I remember watching in a March-like pile of cousins. It does occur to me to wonder whether my own daughter will see it the same way, and if not, which version will be hers?
Part 2 of this Little Women adaptation airs on May 20 on Masterpiece on PBS.
Correction: This article original misstated which channel Little Women appears.