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?