PBS’ three-episode miniseries of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women came to a finale over the weekend, originally airing on BBC in December. I have a personal connection to Alcott’s classic, inspired by her own life, which I have previously discussed on this blog. The Oscar nominated 1994 film adaptation of the book, starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon, played on repeat in my VCR as a child, one of my favorite films. That kind of fan-favorite nostalgia sets a high bar for its successors.
This new adaptation does not replace the 1994 film, which presented heartfelt, poetic scenes of the four March sisters in Orchard House that almost cannot be outdone, but it does allow audiences to experience the story of Jo (Maya Hawke), Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Amy (Kathryn Newton) and Beth (Annes Elwy) anew.
While this miniseries does not have the mature voice of its predecessor, it does align well with the book in terms of tone. Alcott’s novel is almost a how-to book for young mid-nineteenth century women in transcendentalism-influenced New England, told through sweet vignettes of the girls learning character and morality from their mother and each other.
The series begins with Christmas in the March house. Their father away fighting in the Civil War, the four sisters and their mother experience a financially burdensome holiday with no presents. On Christmas morning their mother, or Marmee (Emily Watson), returns from attending to a poor family with a number of sick children. Encouraged by their mother, the girls collect their coveted breakfast and tend to the poor family as well, offering them a hot meal and cleaning their home. The narrative weaves through scenes of the girls learning life’s many lessons while awaiting news of their father and developing a friendship with their neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Jonah Hauer-King).
The first episode stays true to the book, although the period-faithful dialogue lands clunky at times and it begins to feel like one scene barely finishes before another begins, not leaving a breath for the audience to take in each beat. The miniseries finds its stride in the second episode, as though the show matures along with the girls. Jo becomes a writer- but struggles with her identity, Amy gets a taste of the un-coddling real world, Beth fights for her life when she contracts Scarlet Fever, and Meg falls in love with Laurie’s tutor.
The second episode finds closure on a beautiful montage as Meg’s fiance goes off to war, Laurie studies at college, and the four sisters shift into the blurred line that inevitably leads to womanhood. You’ll want to bring out the tissues for the third episode, as the March family bears a tragic loss and the girls fully realize themselves, finding maturity and new beginnings. Unfortunately, the series ending leaves something to be desired, as Amy and Jo find love. There simply isn’t enough screen time or proper development given to either of these relationships, leading to an end that has built substantial momentum, but falls a little flat. Jo’s romantic relationships have always been a problem for the story- and its fans- and it probably doesn’t help that Alcott herself initially never wanted Jo to marry, making the end of her journey feel a bit forced.
I cannot separate my nostalgia and personal connection from this story. Upon completing the series, I felt like my childhood self, experiencing the trials, heartache and joys of the sisters again. There is something refreshingly simple about Little Women that I cannot help but love. After spending countless hours watching gritty shows like Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale (don’t get me wrong, I love these shows), the innocence of Alcott’s story reminds me of the beauty in the world, telling a story so true to the coming-of-age experience that it still holds up a century-and-a-half later. When I was ten, reading the book for the first time, my tears splattered onto the pages of the sentimental, heartfelt story and I wept just as much during this miniseries.
* Featured Image Credit: BBC