It was a solitary January day circa 1996. The only thing remarkable about it is that I was home. Colds, then as now, were rarities for me, and this was a particularly virulent form that had me missing school. Both my parents worked at the time, so I climbed my miserable form into the recliner in front of the television and began perusing the channels alone. It was not long before I came across Little Women (1994). The only reason it caught my eye is because my sister had a copy of the Louisa May Alcott classic novel of the same title on which the movie is based, a gift from her godmother on the same Christmas I got Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Because I had so many books (even then), and she had so few, it was easy to keep track of my sister’s stock. Now, I had no intention of ever reading Little Women. Still, even high school me was a sucker for sentimental stories, particularly when they are set in Transcendental Era New England. A snowy Christmas, the comfortable stuffiness of Victorian confines, and a principled family? What more could a guy like me want?
We pick up Little Women at the beginning of the Civil War. Our four March sisters are: the de facto leader due to her age Margaret “Meg” (Trini Alvarado); next in line is the headstrong Josephine “Jo” (Winona Ryder); then there is the sickly but sweet Elizabeth “Beth” (Claire Danes); and finally the youngest, and prone to fits of vain romance Amy (Kirsten Dunst). With their father, Robert (Matthew Walker), serving the Union, their prospects for a cheery holiday look grim. They are momentarily buoyed by an impending celebratory breakfast, but then their mother, Abigail (Susan Sarandon), affectionally known as “Marmee,” reminds them of a poor German family in town with nothing to eat. Feeling their privilege, they decide to take the food to their less well-off neighbors. Along the way, they have an encounter with the new young man living across the street from them, Theodore Laurence (Christian Bale). Jo later meets Theodore at a dance, who she decides to call “Laurie.” The two strike up a friendship, particularly over their awkwardness at such social gatherings. Before long, Jo is inviting Laurie to become a member of the March sisters’ “Pickwick Society,” named in honor of Charles Dickens’ first novel, for which Jo is the principal writer. At first, the other sisters are against this proposition, citing the fact that they do not behave as proper ladies with each other, and act out the silliest farces with each other as penned by Jo. Laurie reassures them that he has nothing but the best of intentions, and proposes a special mailbox where they can each write to each other their deepest secrets, keeping them confined to that location. This wins them over, and Laurie now has a new set of friends. As he is integrated into the March life, the family must deal with other issues. For example, there is the strictness of Amy’s teacher, who forces Amy to be homeschooled because he takes a dim view of women getting an education. The biggest challenge for the family, outside of their father being away, is Meg reaching the marrying age without any real prospects due to their relative poverty. With debutant season coming up soon in nearby Boston, Meg is faced with going in a second-hand dress. When she travels there, she becomes swept up in the gossip of her more well-off friends, who dress her up in a style not fitting with her more reserved country upbringing. Luckily, she is saved by Laurie. Yet, it is not Meg on which Lauri is keeping his eye, but rather Jo. One evening, Laurie takes Jo, along with Meg and his tutor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz), to the opera. Amy feels left out, and rebels at being told she is too young to attend. Her rebellion takes the form of burning a manuscript that Jo had been working on, for which Jo swears she will never forgive Amy. Feeling the sting of disapprobation, Amy does what she can to make amends, following Jo and Laurie everywhere. This includes when they go ice skating. Unfortunately, she falls through the ice, forcing Jo and Laurie to act quickly to save her. The troubles are not over. Soon there arrives news that Robert has been wounded in battle, and that Marmee is getting on a train at once to get to Washington, D.C., to care for him in the hospital. This leaves the sisters to fend for themselves. In the midst of them struggling on their own, Beth comes down with scarlet fever. Laurie’s grandfather, James Laurence (John Neville), offers to care for Beth, and she begins to recover in time for the next Christmas. And this is not the only miracle of season, for on Christmas day, Marmee and Robert return home. Further, John and Meg announce their engagement. At their wedding, a downcast Jo, who does not like how things are changing, looks downcast. Laurie attempts to cheer her up, and in the process asks Jo to marry her. When she turns him down, she feels she needs to get away. At first, it seems that her Aunt Josephine March (Mary Wickes), for whom Jo once worked as a companion, might take her to Europe. Yet, since Beth’s illness, Amy took over that duty, and the now grown-up younger sister (Samantha Mathis), is the one going abroad with their aunt. Instead, Jo heads for New York, where she works as a governess at a boarding house and on her career as a writer. It is there that she meets the German professor Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne). They share a love of poetry and music, and an attachment forms between them, even if he does not have her enthusiasm for lurid scribbles. What calls Jo back to New England is Beth, who is dying. This brings back Amy as well, who has become engaged to Laurie while they were in Europe. After Beth dies, it inspires Jo to write a novel based on the events of her life with her sisters, alternatively titling it “My Beth.” She sends it to Friedrich to give to his publisher friends, which brings the German professor to Massachusetts to personally give the news of the book being published. The film concludes with Friedrich proposing to Jo in the rain, which she accepts.
Again, apologies for the long plot synopsis of Little Women. I really need to work on these things. Still, I do not feel too bad as the book is quite lengthy. This has posed a challenge for moviemakers seeking to bring the story to the silver screen. As I detailed in my review of the 2019 version, I enjoy the 1994 one more. The update starts the story with Jo presenting her work to New York publishers, only to be rejected. It then goes on to jump around in the narrative, going from the time when the March sisters were younger, to more present happenings when Jo is in New York and Amy is in Europe. There is no discernible rhyme or reason to the switching around of events, other than something happening that reminds Jo of another time. Today’s film follows the more linear approach of the novel, which I appreciate. It is not that I cannot follow a non-linear plot. I simply feel that movies have enough to do without also making the viewer keep track of where it is going next.
Since they are essentially the same story, I will ask that you refer to my review of the 2019 iteration for my full Catholic critique of the story. With this Little Women, though, there is one brief moment on which I would like to linger. When John and Meg are being married, the March sisters and their mom form a ring around the couple, singing “For the Beauty of the Earth.” It is presented as a new age song of which the elderly people in attendance do not approve. The film also slightly obscures its Christian tones. It concentrates on “For the beauty of the earth. For the beauty of the skies. For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies.” Then it begins to fade with “Lord of all to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” The lack of wanting to present something as the Christian hymn it is a separate issue. Despite my enjoyment of it, I once wrote it off as a Protestant toon. That was until I heard it in Mass, and it is now my favorite hymn. It speaks of the presence of God in everything, and how we should give thanks to Him who sustains it all. I am thankful for this movie introducing it to me.
In reviewing this version of Little Women, along with the 2019 one where I mentioned the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series as well as the book, I realized that there has been no accounting of earlier cinematic renderings of Louisa May Alcott’s most famous work. The novel’s main character, Jo, has been reprised by the likes of Katherine Hepburn in 1933, and Elizabeth Taylor (of all people) in 1949. In either case, I prefer the 1994 format. Failing that, give me the recent 2018 PBS series. Anything but the 2019 one.