I thoroughly enjoyed this. I wouldn’t say it was as good as the critics are making out, purely because it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and anyone who hasn’t read both Good Wives and Little Women several times is probably going to be completely confused. However, if you are familiar with them, then it’s great – excellent performances from the entire cast, and gorgeous shots of beautiful New England. It’s a very 21st century interpretation – religion is out, politics are in, and feminism and humour are played up. Obviously not everything in the books can be fitted into a film, but pretty much all the iconic scenes are there … just in a very strange order.
Religion out! None of the Pilgrim’s Progress stuff is mentioned – which is a wise move, because it doesn’t really work on screen. More importantly, the preachy stuff is out. Meg is not, apart from a bit of moaning from Laurie, made to feel guilty about borrowing a friend’s dress and getting dolled up for a party. Mr March does not make patronising remarks about Jo’s behaviour. And, hooray, no canaries die! So Marmee is a much more appealing character than she is in the books. I still wish she’d got Jo a new party frock, though. If the Marches could afford to employ a servant, send Amy to a posh school and give food away to the Hummels, then surely they could have run to a length of poplin. Failing that, didn’t Marmee have an old dress of her own that could have been made over to fit Jo? Ma Ingalls would never in a million years have let Laura go to a dance in a damaged frock.
Politics and feminism are in. I think everyone assumes that the Marches are Abolitionists, but it’s never actually spelt out in the books. It is in the film. Quite strongly, too. Marmee tells a black friend that she’s “ashamed of her country”. And Professor Bhaer talks about going to California because they’re more tolerant of immigrants there. That’s interesting. We’re in the 1870s, so before the big waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe that get the denizens of Beacon Hill calling for immigration restrictions, but there were issues even before then, especially from the Hungry Forties onwards. I’m not sure what Chinese-Americans are going to make of the idea that California was some kind of great melting pot, though.
We also get Jo arguing with her publisher over his insistence that fictional female characters be married, and Amy making a powerful speech to Laurie about how married women have no rights to their own property or even to their children. The idea of Jo wanting to be a boy/the man of the house whilst Father’s away is very much toned down, in favour of Jo wanting women to have more choices. Aunt March, on the other hand, is shown as being obsessed with the idea of the girls marrying well – which doesn’t really come out in the books, except when she says she doesn’t want Meg to marry John Brooke, and that’s there more as a way of making Meg realise how she feels than anything else. That scene’s missing from the film. So is the scene with Laurie and Amy getting engaged in a boat. They have a snog at a chateau instead! There’s a lot of kissing and hugging, perhaps more than there should be in the 1860s/1870s.
Aunt March is given a bigger role generally. She’s the one who takes Amy to Europe: the rather pointless Carrol relations are missed out. Mr Laurence only has a bit part, but he’s more appealing than he is in the books, and there’s a nice scene with Jo comforting him after Beth’s death – in the books, he seems to be forgotten when Beth dies. A lot of older books have storylines in which an adult develops a close relationship with a child who’s not a relative, in a very nice, innocent way, but I’m not sure authors feel able to write those sorts of storylines any more, which is understandable but sad.
And, as I said, pretty much all the iconic scenes are in. The only one I really missed was Meg struggling to make jam! And there are some really, really famous scenes. Jo having her hair cut, Amy burning Jo’s book, Amy falling through the ice … .
I thought Beth’s death could have been “done” a bit better, though. And I didn’t like the way they showed Amy and Laurie’s return. In the books, the Marches know that Amy and Laurie have got engaged, just not that they’ve actually got married, and Jo’s said even before then that they’re well-suited. In this, it comes as a complete shock, with Jo assuming that Laurie’s coming home to propose to her again, and being ready to accept. Amy even says that she’s been worried about how Jo will react. I just wasn’t keen on that, because it upsets me that a lot of people vilify Amy as someone who commits the ultimate betrayal, stealing her sister’s man, and it isn’t like that at all. Jo has turned Laurie down, and therefore he’s quite entitled to marry anyone else he likes. Amy does generally come across very well in this, though, and I’m glad of that. I wish fans wouldn’t give her such a hard time!
And the humour is played up, which is good. OK, the jam scene’s missing, but there’s a lovely ensemble scene in which the rest of the family suss that Jo and Professor Bhaer (played by a French actor whose German accent sounds very Gallic, but never mind) are keen on each other, and persuade Jo to go after him. The theatricals are nicely done, as well – enough to get the point across, but not too much. And there isn’t one weak performance.
The jumping about is very confusing, though, especially as the characters aren’t introduced: it’s just assumed that you’ll know who they are, and what’s going on. It also gives the game away: it means that you know from the start that Meg marries John and that Jo turns Laurie down. I’d be interested to know what anyone who’s seen the film without having read the books made of it. But, as long as you do know what’s going on, it’s a very entertaining couple of hours’ viewing.