Yup, there’s a new Little Women adaptation just hitting American shores — a TV miniseries created by the BBC. I watched the three-part series as aired in the UK last year, Americans are getting a two-part-er, which makes me worry they’re editing things down for us glare… This version was made by various Brits: producer Colin Callender (Wolf Hall, Howards End), and scriptwriter Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife). And their goal seems to have been to stay as true to Louisa May Alcott’s novel as possible. So, how does this version measure up?
Yes, I’m one of those who love this novel. I’ve read it multiple times, both for Alcott’s beautiful writing but also for the gorgeous character portrayals and, yes, the cozy feeling of family love that threads throughout the whole story. And I love the 1994 adaptation, although like many, feel like Winona Ryder was miscast as Jo.
So how did the adaptation stack up? Overall, I’d give the series a solid A-. The cast is mostly great with a few minor wobbles, the story follows the book pretty closely, and the costuming is very realistic. It’s silly, but I wish it were broadcast in winter, as a cozy, emotional story just seems more appropriate then and I honestly wasn’t REALLY in the mood to watch this (but I care about y’all, so here we are!). In fact, I probably will go back and watch this next winter…
Heidi Thomas, the screenwriter, was a huge fan of the book. Her interest was getting at the heart of the March family: “I found a study of the human condition so intricate and moving that it took my breath away. It was as welcoming, warm and funny as ever, but it was also truthful, brave and reflected life in all its imperfections” (Heidi Thomas: adapting Little Women was a dream come true).
The standout is Maya Hawke as Jo. I normally get irritated at children of famous parents (Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) — it feels like they just walk into roles others dream of for a lifetime. But Maya is great. She captures Jo’s tomboyishness, heart, gawkiness, and angst. Maya told Vulture:
“If there was something that hasn’t been done in the other versions that I wanted to bring out was Jo’s anger and her clumsiness… I really wanted her not to be that graceful because so often women, especially in movies, are always so beautiful and so graceful. I’m not graceful. It always made me feel really insecure about how awkward and silly I was. I really wanted to put a woman on the screen who was awkward and silly, and sometimes beautiful and sometimes not” (Little Women’s Maya Hawke on Her Famous Parents and What It’s Like to Play the Latest Jo March).
The story definitely takes its time — something highlighted by the producer Colin Callender: “The 3 hours has allowed us to spend time with all four sisters and the mother as well. In many of the [other] films that had been made…Jo takes most of the focus” (‘Little Women’ producer says new miniseries perfect for #MeToo era). It will be interesting to see if the American version is indeed edited down, or if they split up the episodes differently.
The story follows most of the key points, although the religious angle was downplayed (especially the focus on The Pilgrim’s Progress), and The Pickwick Club and all the amateur theatricals are totally missing. I always love the picnic scene when I read the book, and yet again it’s not translated well to screen. I also missed the whole bit where Meg spends too much money and has to grovel to her husband, because, the whole patriarchal element of things is icky but interesting.
I agree with the reviewer at the Radio Times (How different is the BBC’s Little Women from Louisa May Alcott’s original novel?) that the four main actresses’ ages are a problem. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are supposed to be 17, 15, 13, and 12 at the beginning of the story. However, Meg (Willa Fitzgerald) comes off as too mature, and while Amy was cute and petulant, there’s NO way actress Kathryn Newton reads as anything less than 17 to start. Then, when Amy and Laurie hook up, she reads as too young.
Speaking of Laurie, I’m not sure if it was the actor or the script, but I even more felt like he married Amy simply because he couldn’t marry Jo, not because he was actually in love with her — something the 1994 movie handled so much better.
I also felt like Angela Lansbury as Aunt March was too damn nice under her crusty exterior. Sure, there are supposed to be some good bits about Aunt March, but those come out very late in the book!
Costumes in Little Women
The costumes were designed by Irish designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldhomnaigh (Love and Friendship, Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited), with hair by Sandra Kelly and makeup by Sharon Doyle. Mhaoldhomnaigh and all the filmmakers were very focused on realism and authenticity, as well as differentiating characters, and it shows. There’s a lot of gowns that read as homemade instead of bad high school theater production, and when the hair got messy it mostly read as actually messy hair, instead of strategically placed tendrils (I’m looking at you, The Beguiled).
According to The Telegraph, Mhaoldhomnaigh and her team made most of the costumes themselves, then rented a small number from Italian costume houses. Mhaoldhomnaigh said, “The Italians have done a lot of films set in the 1860s, thankfully. We were able to find costumes that would work for Concord, Massachusetts, which is quite amazing.” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes — and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York). She did focus on trying to get the period right, using paintings as well as written sources for her research: “I loved written accounts from the Civil War, with women talking about clothing and how they made things” Little Women: Bringing The March Sisters’ Wardrobes From Page To Screen).
Director Vanessa Caswill expanded on this idea:
“One of the things that was very important to telling a truthful story was to empower the women in it by not making them dolls. We asked them to grow their underarm hair, because that would have been authentic, and not to have visible make up, because they wouldn’t have worn any.” (Little Women Production Notes)
Writer Heidi Thomas talked about this focus on making the costumes realistic:
“In our series, their clothes — a permanent cause of worry in the book — are sometimes shabby, and their hair looks as though they have done it themselves. Because of course they would have done it themselves, just as Marmee makes her own bread and mends everybody’s stockings.” (Heidi Thomas: adapting Little Women was a dream come true)
And indeed, you see a lot of very lived-in clothes on the March sisters:
There was also an attempt to show a real wardrobe. Designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldhomnaigh commented:
“Rather than create entirely new looks for the social events the girls attend, we made dresses which were a variation on their regular everyday outfits. This is typical of the period, as well as reflecting the Marches’ financial circumstances, and the fact that the girls would have had to be inventive with the few outfits they owned. The costumes are really individual, and tailored to the characters — Jo has very stripped back dresses that she can move freely in, while Amy is happy to have a multitude of bows.” (Little Women Production Notes)
And talking to The Telegraph:
“The girls had a small wardrobe. They wore the same dresses a lot and made their own clothes, that idea of things being homemade was very important to me.” Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes- and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York)
The conscious choice was made not to put the March sisters into hoops except for evening parties. According to The Telegraph, Mhaoldhomnaigh “mostly eschewed these ‘cumbersome’ layers because the March girls worked and had chores” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes – and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York); and The Costume Rag, “The crinoline was the height of fashion in the 1860s so we’re keeping them for evening wear because the girls are quite young and we want them to have a bit of freedom,” The Big Task of Dressing Little Women. On the one hand, yes, trying to do housework or gardening in a crinoline would be interesting, but I’ll point out that wearing multiple petticoats isn’t terribly comfortable either.
Looking at individual characters in detail:
“There always is that kind of tomboyish quality. She doesn’t wear trousers — that would just be silly — but her dresses can look slightly … limp. It just enables her to be able to run around and climb trees.” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes — and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York)
When Jo goes to New York, Mhaoldhomnaigh said that she “wanted to convey the sense of somebody who’s becoming aware of a more literary and artistic milieu.” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes — and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York)
“She’s very doll-like in her silhouette — she would have lots of petticoats under her skirts.” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes — and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York)
“Meg is quite feminine, but in a way that’s slightly restrained, very proper. She’s always trying to be a good girl and follow the rule book. Aside from one Cinderella moment at her first ball (when we dressed her in a beautiful off-the-shoulder dress in a sea green jacquard) she’s typically wearing long sleeves, covered up with round necklines.” (Little Women: Bringing The March Sisters’ Wardrobes From Page To Screen)
Beth “is somebody who doesn’t go in for any kind of ostentation.” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes- and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York)
“I loved some of Beth’s dresses because there was a simplicity to them that really embodied that character.” (Little Women: Bringing The March Sisters’ Wardrobes From Page To Screen)
Amy “is the girl who is so feminine and so pretty all the time, and happy to get to wear the really fancy silk dresses after she gets married.” (Little Women: the story behind the ‘homemade’ costumes — and why Maya Hawke still wears her Victorian coat out and about in New York)
“Amy is the youngest but the most coquettish, the most fashion-conscious.” (Little Women: Bringing The March Sisters’ Wardrobes From Page To Screen).
Finally, there’s a behind-the-scenes video with interviews with the costume designer, which you should definitely check out!
What did you think of the 2018 version of Little Women?
I saw it also. Felt it was really rushed in the last episode. No character development for Professor Bhaer at all.
To be fair, the character of Bhear hardly gets developement in the book. :)
True, but at least in the other films he gets more than 5 minutes of screen time.
Pretty sure it’s three episodes for PBS, not two. It definitely is three on my Passport subscription – I’ve watched them all already.
I wish I was able read the entire review as I have also written one on my blog and wanted to know others’ opinions. I guess I’ll wait for it to be available.
~ Megan Joy
I really enjoyed the miniseries overall – Maya Hawke may be my favorite of all Jo Marches. But I’m annoyed and have been at every version of this that whoever plays Professor Bhaer is not German (in this case, actor Mark Stanley), and has little to no chemistry with the actress portraying Jo. This is true throughout the history of Little Women adaptations. I’m very grateful for the lived-in, true-to-period feel of this version, and I generally love the casting, it’s just this thing that gets me every time.
In a lot of ways, adding Professor Bhaer was kind of Alcott’s fuck-you to the fans of the series who wanted Jo to marry Laurie. She purposefully didn’t want a typical, predictable happy ending for Jo. So Bhaer & Jo don’t make a ton of sense in the book, imo, & it’s always hard to translate that to screen in any version.
Yeah, I love Ryder as Jo. Kendra is weird!
I enjoyed this version as well. The clothes evoked the feeling of being homemade, mended and possibly even hand me downs. I loved the movie, but felt the Marches there were better off at times. The new version felt better somehow. Dr March might have come from money, but his religious views might have separated him from this.
I had the same problem with the actress, Kathryn Newton, playing Beth, she never really looked under 17 or so.
And Laurie at times creeped me out. Didn’t want to take no for an answer, really spoiled, stalkerish.
I feel like I need to reread the book, as I read it so long ago. I only watched the first episode, although I think it’s on prime now, so I could see the others. I thought some things were very well done, but it felt soooo episodic, more like a series of vignettes than one story throughout. I wasn’t happy with Amy either, not the actress fault but she’s not believable as 12, and having her be older and burning Jo’s manuscript page by page just made her seem indescribably cruel rather than someone acting out in anger. It was beautiful to look at, however, and I thought some creativity, like showing Beth’s “shyness” as anxiety was precisely the right way to use modern insights on a classic novel (I’m still glaring at Anne with an E for its victorian child abuse porn vibe).
I think what some people feel is that Ryder doesn’t have Jo’s physicality as described in the book. She’s too pretty and fine to be tall, gawky Jo. But I have to admit I did enjoy that movie.
I agree. It’s not Winona’s fault but she is much too conventionally beautiful to be Jo March.
It says something about me that I can still vividly recall the dress descriptions in Little Women and see that they weren’t followed. Meg’s original ball gown was a white tarlatan and the dress she was given China blue silk.
And Amy is supposed to have curls!
I mean natural curls.
Oh, yes, I remember all their dresses; I was yet another of the millions of girls who read L.W. over and over. This version is very fine–apart from the fact that Amy, as always, looks like she should be hanging out at the mall–but I still prefer 1994, if only because Gabriel Byrne actually makes an attractive Bhaer, and I like Gillian Armstrong’s direction of anything. It’s just hard to film stories that span more than five years; you have to either cast two performers per part, or accept that they’re all going to look too mature to play teenagers (although Maya Hawke manages this very well).
I remember as a mid century suburban girl being mightily puzzled by aspects of Little Women. Why was it bad that Meg and Jo had jobs? How could the Marches be so poor if they have a maid? But the biggest mystery of all was what did it mean that Meg found her new dress wouldn’t wash after ‘cutting the breadths’?? I looked up breadths but it didn’t help.
Maturity and familiarity with 19th century conventions explained a great deal but I can still recall the jolt of realization when I discovered that 19th c. dresses were sold as material and a pattern. Suddenly the cutting out made sense!
I really liked Maya Hawke as Jo. As much as I love Wynona Ryder (and i think she’s amazing), I felt she was too conventionally pretty, and not nearly awkward enough to play Jo.
I agree that Amy looked much older than twelve in the beginning, but i’m willing to give it a pass, because the only other option would have been to cast two separate actresses (something they probably didn’t want to do for a main character in a three-hour miniseries).