Little Women has been a staple of the American literary diet for ages, and film history began to seize its potential early on (including several silent adaptations). Brave, considering that there are few characters as familiar to readers as the March sisters, but as it’s turned out, most all of the major adaptations have been relatively well-received, despite their differences in narrative, tone and character portrayal. In this video Be Kind Rewind takes us on a tour of the various screen adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel so that we might better see how a ‘timeless’ story is reshaped and contemporized, whilst keeping its charm and insight intact.

Enjoy this brief exploration of Little Women through the history of cinema, curtesy of the research and creative efforts of Be Kind Rewind.

Legendary producer David O. Selznick was behind the first sound adaptation in 1933, and its major focus on the wholesomeness of the girls’ childhood exploits, whilst downplaying the economic prospects of their lives and marriages, a simplicity depression-era audiences responded to. This escapism carried over to the glossy technicolor and star-billing of the 1949 adaptation (once again produced by Selznick and written by Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason). The clearest alteration is a more charismatic professor
Bayer, who is now tall, handsome, Italian, supportive and enigmatic. It’s a change meant to make Jo’s marriage more understandable to audiences, who’ve wanted her to end up with Laurie since the novel’s first volume was published, and Alcott responded with a sort of joke of a marital resolution.

By the 1990s an adaptation of a beloved novel for giiiiiiirrrrllllsss would be classified as a “needle-in-the-eye-movie” for the non-female demographic, and therefore extraordinarily hard to get greenlit. The 1994 film, coming decades after the last film adaptation, had to be thoroughly contemporized to appeal to a modern female audience. Characters are tweaked again: mother Marmie becomes a stronger figure in the girls’ lives, and Bayer’s role is expanded to make him a better intellectual match for Jo, while Jo’s
love life ultimately plays second fiddle to her ambitions as an author.

Little Women Adaptations

For the latest adaptation, writer/director Greta Gerwig broke further from the mold than any filmmaker before her, but ended up with a film that has probably the greatest spiritual resemblance to the original novel. Gerwig’s use of intermingling parallel timelines, of the girls growing up and grown up, illuminates the novel’s themes more than they had been before, whilst drawing the non-Jo sisters from the periphery of the story. Amy, often played as annoyingly servile to the expectations skirted by Jo, receives the
greatest expansion by far, so that her and Jo’s approaches to the economic prospect of marriage read as two different but equally legitimate ways of navigating womanhood in their time. Alcott’s presence as author and equivalence with Jo is played on, especially in the film’s treatment of Bayer (the ‘romance’ of Jo’s marriage rendered an in-joke on the level with Alcott’s, and the audience is essentially given an out to believe Jo has simply written her own book to end that way to appease her editors).

‘Little Women’ Through the Years