As a longtime Little Women enthusiast, I am always ready for any new adaptation of the classic saga of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. I’ve read the book multiple times and seen multiple screen versions (for my money, the Winona Ryder 90’s one remains the most cinematic and satisfying) but it is a story that can be retold endlessly, since every generation and every fan has their preferred version. So I was perfectly ready to be drawn into the world of the March sisters all over again with this new three episode BBC miniseries that aired over Christmas in the UK last year and is now premiering on PBS, fittingly enough on Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, there was something about this faithful, yet dry adaptation that fell flat in some important places.
Exceedingly well cast and mostly well acted, the series boasts a fine and feisty heroine, played by Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman), who's making her screen debut and is a very appealing and appropriately independent Jo. Also best in show is Emily Watson, whose Marmee is authentic and world weary and who manages to effortlessly make the platitudes that come out of her mouth sound realistic and convey her as a wise, experienced, working class woman of the Civil War era. Dylan Baker brings some life into the usually thankless role of Robert March, father to the girls, while Michael Gambon and Angela Lansbury are classy British perfection as Old Man Lawrence and Aunt March, respectively.
I think the biggest fault here lies in the casting of the other sisters, unfortunately. Willa Fitzgerald gives us a very stiff (and seemingly dim) Meg, whose romance with the tutor Brooks falls completely flat and uninteresting, while Kathryn Newton’s Amy comes across as entirely too modern for a 12-year-old in the 1860’s. In this Little Women, Amy isn’t just spoiled, but could be a rival to any of the sophisticated, manipulative schemers on Gossip Girl. It’s a bit off-putting. Also jarring is the decision to use Newton to play both young and adult Amy, the change in years accompanied only by a change in hairstyle. Past versions may have struggled with whether to recast Amy or not, but I think it’s essential in selling her eventual marriage to Laurie, which is always difficult for an audience to accept in the first place.
Speaking of Laurie, he’s one of the other bright spots in this series. Jonah Hauer-King is well cast and very likable, and the Jo/Laurie relationship, always the heart and heartbreak of the book in the eyes of tortured fans going on over a century and a half, is centered strongly here and rips your heart out in all the ways it’s meant to. This particular version plays it up even more passionately, emphasizing the closeness, tension, near misses and gasp, even kissing (!) that the book did, rendering the eventual conclusion to their will they/won’t dynamic even more frustrating. But seeing it play out this way made me wonder whether previous adaptations had it right in choosing to downplay the Jo/Laurie stuff slightly, so as not to simply crush the audience in disappointment that turns downright unsatisfying. As it is, writer Heidi Thomas seems to feel similarly, since Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer (who is not an older man in this series, but looks like just a young hunk with a beard) is trimmed to the bare minimum of existence, as is Laurie and Amy’s connection.
Annes Elwy fares a little better as the fragile Beth, whom she plays as suffering under the weight of her fears, rather than the mousy saint she usually is, but her death scene isn’t nearly as effective somehow, since this Beth seems more resigned to her fate and indifferent about her life in general, making it harder to care about her. The pacing of the series is solid, the production design lovely, and the sense of time and place striking, especially considering it was filmed in Ireland, which must stand in for Civil War era New England. What also works is the decision over which episodic events to adapt from the book. You can always pick and choose if you want to distinguish one adaption of Little Women from another, but it amuses me how little any writer seems to care about adult Amy, who has far more things happen to her in the book than ever make it to the screen in any version.
Part of that decision however, lies with the true meat of the story revolving around Jo and Laurie, which is unavoidable and yet always a bitter pill to swallow. Someday I’d like to see someone go ahead and do a modern day telling of the story perhaps just inspired by the characters, to allow for a better resolution to one of literature’s great unrequited romances. Or is that fan fiction? Maybe in a way, but everything’s inspired by something else, and I think we Jo and Laurie shippers have waited long enough, don’t you?