I do not know what possessed the BBC to send a cast and crew to Ireland to film a miniseries of classic American Civil War-era novel Little Women, but that’s precisely what they did in 2017. The series aired in some countries around Boxing Day last year, and now it’s America’s turn.
I first watched it in January, and – as a huge fan of the 1994 movie – have thoughts about it.
Because these thoughts turned into something of an essay, I’ll be discussing the casting on one day, and the production on another.
I’ll not be talking about the earlier adaptations.
These posts will also be on my history blog. There will be spoilers.
In case you’re not familiar with the story:
“Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books over several months at the request of her publisher. Following the lives of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—the novel details their passage from childhood to womanhood and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters.
Little Women was an immediate commercial and critical success with readers demanding to know more about the characters. Alcott quickly completed a second volume (entitled Good Wives in the United Kingdom, although this name originated from the publisher and not from Alcott). It was also successful. The two volumes were issued in 1880 as a single novel entitled Little Women.”
Of course, the most important casting choices for Little Women will be the sisters. Other major roles are Marmee, the girls’ mother, Laurie, the young man who moves in next door, and the elderly Aunt March. There are other roles, but those are the three people tend to care about.
Firstly: I have NO idea why people have complained about the actresses’ accents. Three of the four actresses ARE American, including Jo, so I think people are simply looking for faults where they don’t exist.
Jo is the star of the book, and the series, and here she is played by Maya Thurman-Hawke. She is Uma Thurman’s (and Ethan Hawke’s) daughter, whom she resembles – but to me she is a lankier, younger version of Lynette Wills.
This is a very different Jo to Winona Ryder’s 1994 Oscar-nominated version. She is awkward, scruffy, and passionate. It is a great performance and even though she’s a newcomer you can see how much work she put into the role, but I’m still a Winona fan!
The problem with her casting is that she looks like the youngest of the March sisters, when two of the girls are supposed to be significantly younger than her. (Also, I nearly broke through the screen to try to do something about her unbrushed, unstyled hippie hair!)
This leads me to Amy – the baby of the family. She is played by a twenty-year-old Kathryn Newton here, though she is meant to not have even reached her teens at the start. She fares much better as the grown version of the character.
People love to hate Amy for three reasons:
- She is the youngest, and therefore does some immature things at the start that people refuse to forgive her for as she matures.
- She is supposed to be the pretty blue-eyed blonde of the family (and people love to hate pretty blondes!) – which leads to:
- She marries Laurie, and everyone wanted Jo to marry him, so they won’t forgive her for it.
I have always found the hatred directed at Amy abhorrent and enormously misogynistic. Amy is my favourite March sister because she grows and changes the most, and has a wealth of interests and ambitions.
In the 1994 version she was played by two actresses: Kirsten Dunst as the younger version, and Samantha Mathis as the grown version. While I always found it odd how different the two were from each other, they were both so brilliant in the role I forgave it.
The problem with Newton in the role in this new adaptation? There are a few.
Firstly: she is older than the actress playing Jo, and it’s obvious. She is a poised young woman to a Jo who is still mastering her teen awkwardness, and no amount of Amy skipping around the house and sitting on the floor with her legs splayed makes her seem any younger.
Secondly: this obvious maturity makes her childhood mistakes seem calculated and evil, and the writer and director lingered on them so long it painted a completely wrong picture of the character.
Thirdly: no time actually seems to pass. In 1994, we saw Mathis’ Amy had grown because she was in 1870s gowns and had 1870s hairstyles:
2017’s Amy is still in the voluminous Civil War-era skirts, with ear-hugging 1860s hair as an adult – the same fashions that were around when she was a child:
It results in an Amy who looks too old to be a child, and too young to be an adult.
Superficially: nobody in a period drama should have dark eyebrows and bleached blonde hair.
Now… there are two more March sisters, but I need to mention Laurie.
Jonah Hauer-King actually physically resembles the book character better than 1994’s Christian Bale, but: 1994’s Laurie was Christian Bale!
He was simply brilliant in the movie, unsurpassable.
2017 Laurie and Amy are below. I think they suit much better than Laurie and Jo.
On the other hand, Hauer-King does an excellent job. He’s likeable, loveable, and IS a good match for Amy when he finally realises Jo is his best friend, not the love of his life.
The other two March sisters are the two people tend to overlook more.
In this version, tragic Beth has been given a whole new level of “homebody”. She has a full-on anxiety disorder in this incarnation, which is not something I have ever seen before, and I’m not sure was necessary.
Welsh actress Annes Elwy (as in, the only sister not played by an American) does a great job with what material she has, but she is written to fade into the background at so many points. I still find her highly likeable, however.
Beth’s death in the movie was a hugely emotional scene with only Jo present; in this miniseries everyone’s crowded around and I really don’t think it had much of an impact, despite Emily Watson’s good acting…
The eldest March sister, the sensible, motherly one, was played well by Willa Fitzgerald, even if she does come across as a bit of a bore! I actually think that overall this was the March sister who was the best cast. She is everything Meg should be, but the actress simply does not have enough to work with to make her as interesting as Jo or Amy.
Emily Watson’s Marmee is a much more harried, rough-around-the-edges mother than Susan Sarandon’s version in 1994. I think it suited this scruffier production of the book, and she is always a great actress, but I still prefer a warmer interpretation.
Watson also gets extra points, because Susan Sarandon – the real woman – has emerged as highly unlikeable since the 2016 US election.
Angela Lansbury (of recent “women need to take some blame for getting raped” infamy) plays Aunt March, the elderly aunt who takes Amy to Europe. She is a different aunt to the 1994 version, but she is really good in the role.
This is VERY different casting to the ’94 movie, but that is a good thing. I do prefer the movie cast overall, but there are some interesting changes in the 2017 version.