While certain outlets seem to struggle with their memory, the current version of Little Women (currently airing on PBS) is the most recent in a long line of retellings of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. As we look at the television mini-series it must be asked, how does this version stand-up against the classic versions which have already been made?
This version features newcomers Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald and Annes Elwy as the March sisters of the title. The four sisters grow as well as learn to live and love in Civil War era Massachusetts. The series is directed by Vanessa Caswill. Rainer Stolle and Heidi Thomas share writing credits.
The first installment (of 3) takes us through the standard narrative track, coming to an end with news of Mr. March’s wounding on the battlefield and Jo’s resulting haircut.
With such a rich cinematic history of story-telling behind the Louisa May Alcott story, the thought of a television remake is certainly concerning. After all, the story is set in Civil War era New England. The settings are rich, gorgeous, iconic and above all, expensive. Luckily, this version hasn’t scrimped on the aesthetic of the world. Everything from the quaint nature of Orchard House to the more opulent Laurence estate feels the part. Interestingly, the creative team takes a more naturalistic view on the story. It’s wind-blown, free and naturalistic. It feels far more relaxed than the restrained and polished earlier versions. It isn’t hard to screw up a period piece, and the cast and crew have done a stellar job creating the iconic world of the story.
Unfortunately, this version is not without its struggles. Probably the biggest of these come in the form of the script. While many of the plot beats are the same, this version has made a few tweaks (likely due to the change in medium). On first viewing, the story feels unduly weighed down by overly clunky exposition (of the “People don’t talk like that!” variety). As this is the first part of the series, hopefully the dialogue will become more natural as we get a feel for these characters. However, as of right now, the flow is a struggle.
A solid performance can take emphasis off a weak script. However, this version rounds out its cast with a host of newcomers, the most experienced being Kathryn Newton, fresh from her success in Blockers. While many of the young performers shine on-screen, they struggle in the face of script issues. Certain line readings feel awkward. Character motivations don’t feel fully developed. However, this is a long mini-series and it will be interesting to see how the performances change as the narrative years pass.
While this version will span three hours, it ultimately feels rushed in places. This hits strangely as the narrative develops storylines which are largely ignored in other versions. Things like Mr. March’s military service, Beth’s shyness and Laurie’s lonely and poor-little-rich-boy life are all brought into focus in this new telling. However, the added material stands in the way of the world feeling fleshed out as other sequences are cut to compensate. Laurie and Jo’s initial meeting is sped through to a hasty conclusion, Jo and Amy’s fight does not hit as hard as it should before they are made up, and its ultimately difficult to feel for these characters until Marmee receives the telegram about her husband. This script is just trying to do too much at once.
As a novel, Little Women is a work of literature (and a vital piece of popular culture) which can, and does tie into a sense of nostalgia for a great many young women. While this newest incarnation does have a draw, )and will likely fill this powerful nostalgic role for a number of younger viewers), at this early junction it pales in comparison to the previous tellings of the age-old story.
My Verdict: Let’s see where this goes from here…
The next installment of Little Women airs Sunday on PBS.