Monday, June 11, 2012

Little Women: An Inexpressible Comfort

The Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott is one of those childhood favorites that never grow old. Attitudes and vocabulary may have changed since the nineteenth century setting, but the characters are as familiar as your current friends and family and the stories continue to be funny, touching, and heartwarming. I recently decided to re-read the books and upon discovering my friend had never seen the 1994 movie, I re-watched it with her over the weekend.

The movie is quite a masterful bit of work, spanning the first two books of the series in two and a half hours and giving each character his or her due. Winona Ryder is perfect as the irrepressible Jo March who longs to make a career for herself and not get pinned down by societal pressures. Christian Bale is delightful as Theodore Laurence, the lonely rich boy who craves the company of the lively March girls next door. In his more angsty moments, my friend did point out some remarkable foreshadowing of the Batman angst to come. But otherwise he is swoon-worthy as ever, playing big brother to the girls and gradually hoping for a relationship laced with more romance.

Speaking of romance, I was struck anew with just how scandalous the movie was in comparison to the books. As liberal as Alcott's views on women and relationships were for her time, she would have been rather appalled. Like I mentioned in my Great Expectations post, modern adaptations tend to liberally sprinkle in kisses and hand-holding, which are tame today but would have caused a riot in the Victorian era. I have never minded this much, but somehow it seems terribly out of place in Little Women. The whole point of the books is that these romances develop very gradually. The rather perplexing twists that occur in some of the characters' love lives seem abrupt and senseless in the movie, whereas the books devote chapters to ensure that the transition from one love to another occurs seamlessly. There's a great deal of letter-writing that takes place in the novel, and somehow it is easier to imagine falling in love over a carefully written letter than a sudden kiss at the opera.

Considering how many remakes we are subjected to these days, I think it's about time we got another Little Women adaptation. The last BBC one is from 1970 so they could certainly bring us another miniseries that takes its time over the lush story. Most people focus on the love stories, but Little Women is a wonderfully engaging and comforting piece of literature even without the romantic intrigue. The four sisters have their joys and mishaps, their laughs and sorrows, but ultimately their stories never feel too old-fashioned or stuffy. Jo's concerns about gaining equality with men can resonate with women even today, while Meg's little disasters as a housewife and the wonderful Marmee's advice should be required reading for any couple. While North & South gave me a strong, independent heroine in Victorian England, Little Women continues to charm me with a series of American women whose varying ambitions and dreams don't feel so different from the women I know today.  

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