The first half of the new Masterpiece adaptation of Little Women premiered on Sunday, May 13, leading to a series of reviews that range from delighted to puzzled to disdainful. Two of the most negative reactions come from Melanie McFarland’s article “PBS’ ‘Little Women’ looks thoroughly unfashionable” and Sonia Saraiya’s “Review: PBS’s Little Women Is Thoroughly Un-Modern.” McFarland opines that the new adaptation needs something to happen and suggests that audiences raised on the drama of period pieces like Downton Abbey will be bored. Saraiya argues that the story itself is objectionable because the heroines are domesticated and–gasp–religious. Yet it seems strikingly obvious that Little Women has lasted through the centuries because audiences actually like something about the text. Indeed, I argue that the aspects McFarland and Saraiya object to most are the ones that continue to appeal so strongly to modern audiences.
A Coming-of-Age Story
McFarland’s comparison of Little Women to Downton Abbey suggests that she does not fully understand the nature of Louisa May Alcott’s work–and thus is ill-suited to comment on why audiences still connect with it. Although the titular “little women” do grow from children into adults who marry and have children of their own, the story is not meant to be a period drama like Downton Abbey, where the characters are of marriageable age from the start. Her examples of Downton Abbey-esque drama center on characters like the Turkish diplomant Mr. Pamuk, who dies in the unmarried Lady Mary’s bed. That is, the implied argument is that the real drama audiences want is sexual escapades–a strange argument for a story that begins with Meg, the eldest daughter, at the age of sixteen. Though audiences may cheer on her blossoming romance with Mr. Brooke, I hardly think showing her in bed would appeal to a modern-day audience–she’s still a child!
It is true that the second half of Little Women (first published as a separate volume called Good Wives) shows a married Meg as well as two more engagements. However, Little Women remains very much a coming-of-age story. The March sisters are shown transforming from children who must fight their besetting weaknesses into strong, virtuous women. Adding sexual drama is completely antithetical to this narrative both because sin is illustrated as something to be combated and not welcomed, and because sin is shown to be sin no matter how “small” or “boring” it may seem to viewers like McFarland. Jo’s temper, Meg’s vanity, and Amy’s desire to fit in no matter the cost all create very real drama because they all result in very real consequences for the characters.
Part of Little Women‘s enduring charm is its ability to remind readers just how significant everyday moments can feel, especially to the young. Amy’s chastisement at school after she is found with contraband pickled limes may seem silly to some adults–but not to those who remember how keenly the desire to be like the other girls can hurt. Likewise, a few girls complaining about Christmas without presents (and their father–away at war!) may seem self-centered and not worthy of any real empathy. However, who has not felt the difference in holidays where traditions are broken, relatives missing, or finances a little tighter? Real life is very dramatic to those living it. The relatability of these moments gives Little Women far more staying power than a narrative in which a forbidden sexual liaison leads to a soap-opera like death and cover-up.
The Drama of Everyday Moments
The very real stakes of these everyday moments is also precisely why Saraiya’s critique rings hollow. She condemns the story for being anti-progressive and blames it on the Christianity embedded within the text: ” Each spirited daughter is not just forced to reckon with the proscribed role of women in the world; they are also heartily encouraged to embrace their confinement, through their parents’ faith-based home-schooling.” There is a lot to unpack here, including the assumption that domesticated women or wives are not progressive, the ignoring of Alcott’s own (rather feminist) biography, and the implied censure of faith-based homeschooling families. However, to keep this post (relatively) short, we’ll focus on the argument that faith keeps the March sisters “confined.”
Little Women is an obviously moral book–one where the March sisters play Pilgrim’s Progress in order to fight temptation and become better people. And yet generations of readers have connected with it despite Saraiya’s censure. And I would argue that audiences connect with it precisely because it does offer the message that people should strive to be better–and that they can even succeed in doing so. In this respect, the faith of the sisters is actually very freeing because it empowers them to fight characteristics that were holding them back by making them unhappy and harming their relationships.
We can see this freedom occurring throughout the text. Meg’s rejection of the Moffat lifestyle is not a blanket condemnation of wealth or parties or fancy dresses, but of a household where money is used to paper over the reality that the family is not very close and deeply unhappy. Her ability to let go of her envy of material possessions frees her to have a satisfied marriage with a man she loves, even though he is poor. Likewise, Amy’s ability to recognize that she will never be a famous artist enables her to find happiness in roles that her talents make her more suited to. She also gains the ability to enjoy art for the sake of creating art, rather than for the pursuit of fame. Without her ability to humble herself, she would never have been happy because she would never have been famous.
Yes, all this sounds deeply moral and thus, I suppose, boring to McFarland and Saraiya. However, audience members are hardly starving for media that depicts more “modern” sensibilities. Little Women continues to appeal precisely because it is different. It offers a story where everyday moments and everyday battles are taken seriously. It says that ordinary people and their experiences matter. And it says that they can win their fights.
33 thoughts on “The Continuing Appeal of Little Women”
I have not seen the new PBS/Masterpiece adaptation (although I have heard of it). From what I can tell from this post is that it remains true to Alcott’s original story. Which sound like something I would love to see! I absolutely HATE when books or movies are “updated” with a modern lens. I love the story of Little Women precisely because of what you’ve outlined above.
Interestingly enough, Alcott wrote her fair share of salacious stories (as does Jo in Little Women). BUT it’s Little Women that has survived the test of time. (Those other stories? Where are they?)
It’s a fairly straight adaptation so far. Only the first hour has aired. The next two hours air this Sunday on PBS. I find the aesthetics rather modern, however, and the acting isn’t particularly good except from Maya Hawke and Angela Lansbury. Laurie’s actor is charming, I suppose.
There’s actually a published collection of some of Alcott’s “thrillers” called Behind a Mask. It was released in 1997 so I think still available used if not new.
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I will have to check it out. Thanks for the run-down. I’m intrigued by your line that the aesthetics are “rather modern”.
I think I’ve read a book called From Jo March’s Attic (which is really a collection LMA’s thriller stories). They were unmemorable at best. Did NOT compare to LW.
I don’t know. It just didn’t look “period” to me. More like really airy and pretty like someone was trying to create their “aesthetic.” That’s not necessarily bad, though.
I think I’ve heard of that one, but I haven’t read it.
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I haven’t seen the adaptation (and don’t plan to) but as someone who have read and not particularly enjoyed a few of Alcott’s novels I would say that at least in my case it is not the morals that are my main problem but the moralistic way they are written. I may not always agree on the morals either but I have no problem with the March sisters’ ambition to better themselves. However, I do get frustrated when the narration turns their lives into moral lessons. Although I found “Jack and Jill” much worse in that aspect than “Little Women”.
I wonder if it is partly dependent on what kind of texts you are used to? I read quite a lot of classics and can easily ignore other types of old-fashioned writing styles but at least yet I haven’t learned to ignore when the narration or plot takes a moralistic turn and thus can’t really appreciate the good things that may also be in the story.
I suppose reading a good deal of 19th-century novels could make readers more willing to accept moralistic tales since most of them from Dickens to Eliot to Burnett instill lessons. (Though I would personally argue that modern tales remain moralistic, in different ways. A book where a shy girl doesn’t find friends but remains feeling scared about social interaction? Bad message for children. Unpublishable.) For me, however, Alcott’s book avoids becoming saccharine even if the message is overt because the characters are so alive. It’s difficult to put characters like Jo and Amy in a book and moralize them. They’re too realistic with their ambitions and their tempers and their pettiness for any little sermons from Marmee to turn them into nothing but lessons for youth.
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I read plenty of 19th century novels and neither Dickens nor Eliot or Burnett bothers me in the same way. I found Susan Coolidge worse though, perhaps it is 19th century US literature I have an issue with. It’s not Marmee’s lessons I have much problem with, they are in line with her character, but the narrator’s lessons and especially when the plot is adapted for the lesson.
Take Jill in Jack and Jill for example, who is instructed to stay where she is and not run around on the beach as her health is fragile. She falls for temptation and join a boating party, reasoning that if she takes care not to do any physical labour she would be fine. Makes sense to me, and she isn’t getting over-eager and over-working herself or cause unnecessary worry for her mother or anything along those lines. Those are all ills which which would make sense considering the reasons why she had to rest. Instead she is in a near-fatal boating accident because obviously if you disobey your parents punishment will strike you even if it has to do so in a completely unrelated way. That’s the kind of plot points where I find the story to go from moral to moralistic.
Well, I think reader reception will obviously depend on both reader and author. For instance, I find Charles Dickens quite dark despite his sentimentalism, but know people who can’t stand him because he’s too “sweet.” I personally find Frances Hodgson Burnett’s embedded spiritualism (think positive thoughts=good health and success) weird (though I suppose increasingly relevant?), but have never met anyone who even commented on this aspect of her work. (I enjoy her work despite it.) And I find Eliot’s work tends to vary in how overt the moral message is, so would assume readers would respond to each work differently.
As for Alcott, I have loved her work since I was a child, especially Jack and Jill. I was really invested in the lives of the children and I loved that Jack and Jill focuses on various friends of the titular characters, unlike Little Women. They seem to have no friends besides Laurie and Sallie Gardiner. So the moral messages don’t bother me because I’m really invested in who the characters are and what’s happening to them. Maybe Jill is “punished’ for disobeying authority figures, but that’s fine with me because I find the boating incident exciting and want to know how it will turn out, how the characters will react, etc. But, yes, certainly different readers will react to different books in different ways.
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Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful answer! I’ve long had trouble understanding the love for Little Women but I think your answer made it a bit more clear. I guess that when you first get really invested in the characters the narrative style will be of little importance but if you never really get to that point it instead keeps getting more and more frustrating. In the end you are left with little but the moral lesson. Perhaps it also helps if you read it the first time as a child?
Anyway, I mostly wanted to make the point that it isn’t necessarily primarily the old-fashioned morals that discourages some readers.
Oh, I definitely think childhood nostalgia plays a part in how readers hold onto books. I also think, though, that Little Women must have some other staying power for me. And that’s the characters. We all want to be Jo March, pursuing our authorial dreams, right? Or something like that.
But, yes, I can see your point that the tone can be offputting to some readers. And I’m glad that you took the time to come comment! It’s always so lovely when someone comes to write such a thoughtful response. And I love when people feel comfortable and confident enough to offer a different perspective. (Even if my love for Alcott remains unabated, haha! ;b)
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I think that is the problem, sure I liked Jo best but I never really connected to any of them. And thus I never got to the point were I could ignore the narrator and really get to know the characters. Instead the narrator kept dragging me back and pointing out all the moral lessons and generally making me frustrated 🙂
I guess that if I ever got past that point I might have seen the enduring potential of the characters. (And for some reason I’ve read Little Women twice but I don’t expect to give it a third trial so I fear it’s a lost cause).
Oh dear! Well, I certainly don’t blame you for not expecting to give it a third try. There are a lot of books out there and it makes sense to spend your time reading ones you anticipate enjoying!
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I DNF’ed it SEVEN times trying to read it as a child, if that makes you feel any better. I haven’t given it a shot recently though.
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Yeah, I read a lot of classics, and for me, I think it’s more of a tone thing when books get “annoying” to me with their morals vs. when I don’t really mind them. I haven’t actually read Little Women, so I can’t speak to that specifically, but my line is when the narrative voice cuts in and starts moralizing. (Though I guess the modern day equivalent is some character who won’t stop making didactic points. Not just once, but all the time. A recent example I read was a middle grade novel called Unschooled where the principal of the middle school kept making didactic speeches at the students about the meaning of friendship and whatnot.)
I think the point about Jack and Jill (which I also haven’t read) is interesting because it’s more subtle than speeches about morals, but I do see your point that the author seems to have made something highly improbable happen (a boating accident) because that’s clearly what a character “deserves” for disobeying her parents. As if it just wouldn’t be right if she had a perfectly pleasant time after disobeying them and she didn’t get her comeuppance. Whether that bothered me personally might depend on my mood while I was reading the book though. I can be kind of fickle. 😉
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See, that’s the thing. I know Alcott is being moralistic and I can see her doing it every time. But my love for her has granted me magical abilities not to care. 😉 I don’t know where I would I draw the line. If random bears came out to eat naughty children? XD Or maybe I would just convulse into a fit of laughter and keep reading.
I certainly agree on the tone thing. Wspecially for classical texts I don’t expect the morals to perfectly align with mine but at the (highly subjective) point when they start to overshadow the story I find it a problem. In this case I was already rather frustrated by the narration before I came to the boating incident. So for me it was really the point where I would have gotten ready to throw the book across the room if I hadn’t read it as an ebook (free ebooks from Project Gutenberg explains why I have read several Alcott novels despite not really enjoying any of them).
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My sister and I are very excited to watch the new PBS Little Women series, and your article only added to my excitement. I’m so relieved that they didn’t try to “modernize” the narrative and instead kept it true to the book, without sanitizing out the religion. When you think about it, Little Women is actually quite feminist for its time period, because it embraces different kinds of femininity. For example, Jo enjoys more traditionally masculine activities than her sisters, but she is not seen as less of a woman for it. And Meg, who is naturally more feminine, isn’t portrayed as “weak” while Jo is “strong”–both are strong women in their own ways. I don’t agree with every aspect of Alcott’s view on the role of women, but I can appreciate Little Women as a delightful and poignant coming-of-age story. Wonderful article, thank you so much!
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I would say the first hour so far has been pretty faithful to the book. Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t mentioned really, though Marmee slips the books under their pillows. But their father is still a chaplain and Marmee asks the girls to pray for him, so the religious element is still there. The adaptation has three hours to work with, so it include most of the scenes from the book, even though some of them felt rather short. I’m interested into seeing how the final two hours go.
Yes, I agree! I love how the “little women” are all so different, but each of them is seen as special and valid. And they all support each other despite their differences!
It’s hard to know how much of Little Women was Alcott’s thought and how much she thought was sentimental pap that would sell. I think her own career indicates that she saw a larger scope for women than many people of her day!
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This was a truly great post. Thoughtful and interesting to read. I heartily agree with what you’ve said here. I haven’t seen this adaptation yet, but I am so glad that no attempts were made to “modernise” Little Women into something antithetical to its core and message. It is always curious to me when I watch people, in the name of modernity and progressive thinking, attempting to squelch perspectives that differ from their own. It puzzles me that someone who objects to what they see as the enforced conformity of women would, in turn, have all media conform to their own viewpoint, sharply denouncing anything that does not.
And, as you argued very eloquently, anyone who sees Little Women as restricting girls into proscribed roles is not really reading it. The four sisters in the novel all present four very different women, with different personalities, who grow into their own unique roles into the world, gently guided by their wise mother. Like Alcott’s own family, the March family have views on some issues that very much differ from their contemporaries, and might be considered radical for the time. Furthermore, there is a reason that generations of women have identified most strongly with Jo. She is very different from her society’s ideal model of womanhood. Although she exhibits personal growth in learning to tame some of her impulsivity and temper and channel her energy in productive ways, she never turns into Meg. Meg, who is a much more conventional depiction of the 19th century daughter, wife, and mother (and there is nothing wrong with that, either). If the novel were trying to force girls into a mould, would that not have been Jo’s character arc? No, instead, although she does marry, she also pursues her own dream, opening a school for boys in a house that SHE inherited. She is not forced down a path by society; she uses her gifts and talents to forge her own. The power of Little Women is following these sisters through their everyday trials and triumphs and watching them grow in their gifts, conquer some of their flaws, and embark happily on their adult lives. (It’s also noteworthy that Alcott received great pressure from her readers to marry the girls off after the first installment of the novel. I often wonder what this book would have looked like if she had just written it with no regard for reader expectations.)
Sorry for all my ramblings, I just really enjoyed your post and felt moved to add my two cents to the discussion. 🙂
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You put it so wonderfully! It’s difficult to say the girls all fit into proscribed roles when they all pursue different ones. And they seem very open to progressive roles. Meg dreams of becoming an actress–and her daughter later does. Jo wants to write. No one discourages her. The censure seems to come from the fact that Meg, Jo, and Amy all get married. But I don’t see marriage as inherently restrictive. Meg is very happy in her domestic role. Amy finds that her husband can support her in pursuing her artistic hobby. Jo seems to be in a very equal partnership with her husband. (I always got the distinct sense that she really runs the school and her husband teaches there. Almost like she’s supporting him.)
I also don’t see Jo’s marriage as an abandonment of her dreams or ideals. The point of her arc is that her initial rejection of marriage isn’t really based on anything. It’s almost a gut reaction like “boys have cooties.” She imagines marriage as icky or restrictive or maybe just not for her because it’s for pretty, domestic types. Then she realizes that marriage can be about equal partners supporting each other. She’s thrown away a childish sentiment, not a well-thought out argument for remaining single and independent. If the story depicted her as ardently in favor of being single because she had real convictions based on real arguments and then she threw them away as soon as she saw a handsome face, THAT would be a storyline that might be considered as betraying her character. But that’s not what happens. Yet critics write as if it does.
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What QuirkyVictorian said. Especially this part:
” I haven’t seen this adaptation yet, but I am so glad that no attempts were made to “modernise” Little Women into something antithetical to its core and message. It is always curious to me when I watch people, in the name of modernity and progressive thinking, attempting to squelch perspectives that differ from their own. It puzzles me that someone who objects to what they see as the enforced conformity of women would, in turn, have all media conform to their own viewpoint, sharply denouncing anything that does not.”
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First confession: I haven’t read Little Women. I started it once, but I got distracted and lost interested. I don’t count this the same as a DNF because I know I need to return to it once I”m in the right mood.
Second confession: I don’t know anything about the story and would have no expectations going into the series…
Have you seen this adaption yet? I apologize; I couldn’t disseminate that information from your post. I’m with you about how the mundaneness of life is essential to appreciating books like Little Women. We need to observe these items in their time. Did you see the adaption of Anne of Green Gables? Critics provided similar disinterest. But, the story really lies in understanding humanity. Does it matter if their lives are considered boring by these critics? Obviously, they struggle to find joy in their own lives if this exploration of the lives of others leaves them wanting. I feel bad for them.
Only the first third of the mini series has aired so I didn’t really want to review it since I am not sure that’s enough for me to base an opinion on. Right now my general impression is that the adaptation looks pretty but is generally unremarkable. Only Jo and Aunt March’s actors stand out. I found myself looking around for Meg a lot because I felt like she was supposed to be doing something, but she tends to fade into the background. Beth is barely in there so far but she’s supposed to be shy so it’s not as glaring as Meg, the eldest, seemingly having nothing to say or do for an hour.
Reviews have been glowing with how the three-hour length of the version allows more of the book appear, but I’m not sure this has been a positive. A lot of the scenes are present, but they feel short and rushed. I’d prefer fewer book scenes with more time for the emotion in each one to unfold.
So, yeah, I have issues with the adaptation so far, but not because it’s boring. I don’t think real life has to be inherently boring. I’m not sure why these two critics think it is. I would recommend that they try to reconnect with their childhoods maybe and then it might become more apparent why mundane things are interesting to people. Yeah, being chastised at school seems insignificant to an adult–but not to a sensitive child. Then, it’s like your whole world crashes down. I think they need to reconnect with how it feels to have everything seem significant.
I saw the PBS version of Anne of Green Gables and one or two episodes of the Netflix one. I didn’t like the PBS version myself. I wasn’t going for the added scenes in the Netflix version since they didn’t make sense, but I didn’t see enough of the show to know how it all plays out.
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First of all: Thank you for such a well thought-out and written reply! This is one of the reasons I appreciate your bookish friendship so much; you make the interactions with these books deeper and more meaningful.
I agree with you. I prefer adaptions which cut more of the book in order to make a stronger end product. It’s important to separate adaptions from their source material. They *cannot* be the same thing. They are completely different mediums! The emotional connection to the characters and the story is more important, to me than getting all the little details incorporated.
Hahaha! Brutal: ” I would recommend that they try to reconnect with their childhoods maybe and then it might become more apparent why mundane things are interesting to people.” You’re right, though. The intended audience for this book was also not adults. Hence the reason it was broken up into two books originally! I cannot imagine forgetting how overwhelming everything was as a child. I expected perfection from myself all the time and the emotional fallout of anyone’s reaction not being what I expected? Devastating. You’re right. People, not just these critics I assume, need to reconnect with their childhood.
Unfortunately, my lengthy responses mean that I’m having trouble keeping up with everything I ought to comment back on! 😀
Yes, I love how you put that! Personally, I prefer faithful film adaptations but, to me, “faithful” means keeping the spirit of the work rather than putting everything onscreen exactly how it happened in the book. Keep the characters with their strengths and weaknesses, keep the main point of the story (in this case, transformation from child to virtuous woman), and don’t add any scenes that aren’t in-character. I’m not adverse to the cutting or adding of scenes as long as it makes sense for the overall narrative. So while I would have loved to see the Scouring of the Shire in film (It makes such a great point about the war never really being over!), I understand that tacking that onto the ending of RotK would have disrupted the flow of the film. It’s fine. I still have the book. 😉
I suppose suggesting they reconnect with their childhoods DOES sound brutal! I didn’t mean it brutally, though. In all seriousness, Little Women was written for children and is, for a good chunk of the story, about children. To ask for it to be Downton Abbey is to forget that there ARE other audiences! And the target audience may well appreciate it!
I don’t enjoy all middle-grade books, but, in the end, I’m not the target audience. Something that is old and tired to me may be new for a first-time middle-grade reader.
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Pft. I totally understand. I also struggle with keeping up with comments, and I don’t even have lengthy responses!
Yes, yes, yes! Everything about film adaptions you said. I always get shocked when a character doesn’t act how I expect them to in an adaption. The incongruity frustrates me and ruins the moment, possibly even the rest of the experience! I also totally agree with the Scouring of the Shire. There was single vision when Frodo was with Galadrial during the films, and I appreciate the nod towards that moment. There are a lot of little things like that Jackson did to acknowledge the fans. Like when Frodo and Sam are at Osgiliath and Sam says, “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here!” I laughed so hard– and none of my friends who hadn’t read it got my laughter. I appreciate that. Because Jackson needed a stronger film story. and yes, we will always have the book.
Sometimes, when I review a middle grade book and I only give it 2 or 3 stars, I feel bad. But I need to acknowledge that this wasn’t written for me. I’m not the intended audience. And that’s okay as long as I acknolwedge this in my reflection. The fact that these critics seem to think they are the intended audience baffles me…
Absolutely brilliant piece! It seems strange to compare Little Women to Downton Abbey. And I love your point about Little Women being about every day battles- I think regardless of the times, these little victories of character, such as discovering our capabilities and our limitations, will still be relevant
Yeah, Little Women is a children’s book so obviously the kind of drama involved is going to be very different! Just because it’s “another period film” doesn’t mean they all have to do the same things! (Wouldn’t that be boring?)
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As a Christian homeschooling mom, I guess I bristle at the idea that instilling morality is inherently boring. The books might be different than a lot of contemporary reads, but that doesn’t make them unworthy. I agree that sometimes stories of ordinary people and their lives and accomplishments can be very powerful.
The funny thing is, most people have morals. It’s just that the virtues extolled in Little Women–modesty, patience, humility, and hard work–aren’t modern virtues. So I think it’s odd to criticize the work for being moralistic. Most modern children’s books have morals, too, such as being true to yourself, for example.
I had read your thoughts about the BBC Little Women last week… and again, I found myself wanting to read through it again when I saw your link appear on another blog today… this is just such an excellent post on the new film, and you’ve shared some striking points.
The biggest issue I had with this adaptation is that most of the moral issues have been stripped away. In my opinion, this also strips away the fleeting moments when you can look deeper into these sisters souls and see who they really are. Now some of the main issues of the heart and mind aren’t even discussed. Or at least not in depth… I really feel like something was lost there.
Would you be interested in joining the Louisa May Alcott reading challenge this June? (+ there’s a giveaway!) Details are on my blog. It’s an annual event I host every June. 🙂
I read the reviews of the BBC Little Women and wrote this post after part one had aired. I was really confused once I finished watching the adaptation because all I could think was, “How can you argue this is moralistic drivel when all the moralizing has been removed?” And it doesn’t work. You can’t write a story that begins with a father’s letter exhorting the girls to become better and then simultaneously tell viewers that they don’t need to become better because they don’t do anything wrong. It’s ludicrous.
And, yes, despite being three hours long, the adaptation somehow manages never to give viewers a sense of who any of the girls are, what drives them, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling or struggling with. Allowing them to commit faults might have made them seem more like real people.
I’ll have to take a look at the challenge! Thanks for inviting me!