Little Women 2019: An Essay

Or, another overly long breakdown

So, this next post is going to be a bit different. I’ll be focusing on a specific piece of media I watched several years ago, explaining the good, the bad, and how I think it could be improved. It’ll be somewhat similar to my posts about Little House on the Prairie (https://kirstenhardin.com/index.php/2022/10/28/little-house-on-the-prairie-fixing-the-final-season/), Jake Sisko (https://kirstenhardin.com/index.php/2022/11/25/jake-sisko-wesley-crusher-done-right/), and Agent Carter (https://kirstenhardin.com/index.php/2023/02/24/agent-carter-an-unfortunate-cancellation/), which are all available on my website, kirstenhardin.com.

This time, I’ll be talking about Little Women 2019, and the various reasons why it wasn’t the best adaptation.

As always, a spoiler alert is in effect from here on out.

I’d like to preface this by saying that I do genuinely like Little Women 2019 ... overall. I think it’s a much better adaptation because it generally stays true to the book. The main problem with previous adaptations is that they focused on things that shouldn’t have been focused on, such as Amy’s romance with Laurie, and left out some other important things, like Jo’s conversation with Beth before she dies. They also put too much focus on “romance as the solution to all problems,” and had characterization issues (which are still present but are much less glaring than before).

However, this movie has one giant flaw: it doesn’t stay true enough to the books. One reason is that it jumps around too much. It switches back and forth between the past and the present like a yo-yo, nearly giving the viewer whiplash. If the movie had made that clear, then it would’ve been fine. But the only thing separating narrative from flashbacks is a banner at the beginning of the first flashback and some lighting changes for the rest. The only way someone could follow is if they knew the book — otherwise, they would’ve been completely lost. It’d be nice if it stuck to the original chronology — it’d be a lot less disorienting.

But there are other, much larger reasons. The movie explicitly references the book in a large number of quotes, and yet pulls them out of context and in some cases doesn’t even get them right. Also, it completely eviscerates some of the best characters, which is strange considering it was quoting from the source material.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s fantastic that the movie explicitly quotes the book, especially since there are several cases where it makes more sense. But several times, the context is changed or parts of the quotes are eliminated, which is frustrating when the movie is trying to closely follow the book. For example, during the debutante ball, Meg’s friends tell her that they have a “sweet blue dress” that she can wear to the party ... but then the dress ends up being pink. Another example is when Marmee is reading her husband’s letter. Here, there are some changes to more “modern” words, which is odd due to the number of direct quotes from the movie. In addition, any references to religion are cut out entirely. That change was expected, though it does make some scenes harder to explain.

But the biggest error is Meg’s put-down to Aunt March when they’re talking about John Brooke. There are a few lines in the movie:

Aunt March: You’ll regret this when you’ve tried love in a cottage and found it wanting.

Meg: It can’t be worse than some people find in big houses.

Louisa May Alcott

While these are the best parts, they lose their impact because they’re completely out of context. In the movie, Meg says these lines to Aunt March after her wedding, when she’s leaving with her new husband. But in the book, Aunt March goes to the March house to try to convince her not to marry John because he’s poor. Meg’s just rejected his proposal, but after Aunt March tries to eviscerate his character, she defends him and only then realizes how much she loves him. It’s an important moment of growth that they completely leave out of the movie, which makes love the entire reason for her marriage. And that explicitly contradicts both the movie’s message and the book’s.

This brings us to my second point: the movie completely eviscerates some amazing characters, undermining both its message and that of the book. Ironically, the only well-adapted character is Amy. She goes from a spoiled brat to someone who’s honestly tolerable and who should marry Laurie. That’s an improvement from the last two adaptations, where she stayed just as annoying from beginning to end. Hannah is also pretty much perfect, though she’s more of a minor character than the others. Her main flaw is that she’s not really that different from the March family, but as she’s not integral to the plot, it’s not a huge problem.

But other than Amy, every other character is undermined in one way or the other.

First is Mr. March, Jo’s father and a relatively minor character in the story. The problem with his characterization (as in the other adaptations) is that he’s never there — he’s always away at the war, and even afterward, he’s not present in the March family life. However, this is completely inaccurate. Mr. March doesn’t have a significant presence throughout the first half, but after returning he becomes an integral part of the March family life, and both he and Marmee help Jo cope with the death of her sister Beth. If the movie wanted to remain true to the book, it would include this, instead of entirely cutting him out of the second half.

Then there’s Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s grandfather and adoptive parent. In the movie, he’s too nice to the March family, always speaking gently and softly and never raising his voice. But in the book, he’s gruff towards everyone, except for Beth because she reminds him of his granddaughter. The movie did include this, which is excellent as he was very important to Beth in the book (and because it wasn’t included in the other adaptations).

Marmee is next. She’s Jo’s mother and one of the only reasons their household kept running. For the most part, she’s much like the book — kind, warm, motherly, and offering sage advice whenever it’s needed. But she falls into the same trap as most of the other characters: she’s just so ... lifeless. She feels like a brightly colored cardboard cutout of her usual self, which is strange considering everything else.

Next comes Beth, Jo’s younger sister and the quiet one of the family. Her main issues are that her growth scene is put in the wrong context, and her peace with her imminent death isn’t explained. The main growth scene is when she agrees to go to the Laurences’ house to practice on their grand piano. The lines were all accurate, but the context was completely off. In the book, Beth agrees after Marmee calls her in during a conversation with Mr. Laurence. The problem with the movie version is that she consents in front of her entire family, and that’s something Beth never would’ve done. Her shyness is a central character trait that stays true throughout the book, though it does lessen somewhat. Plus Mr. Laurence would’ve been far too polite and caring of her feelings to bring that up in front of so many people.

Along with that, her peace with her imminent death is not handled well. For one, it’s only mentioned in passing when she’s at the beach with Jo, while in the book it’s a central aspect of her character and one that sets her apart from the rest. For two, she says it in such a curt, impatient tone that the Beth of the book would never have used, as one of her key character traits is her soft-spoken nature. For three, it’s not explained well — it’s essentially thrown out there with no other explanation than “this is how it is.” Granted, the original explanation was religious in nature. But there could’ve been something, no matter how small.

Then there is John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor and Meg’s eventual husband. He’s much the way the books portray him, but he has the same flaw as Marmee: he’s flat and lifeless. They also make his entire purpose to be Meg’s love interest, while in the book he’s far more than that. He fulfills Meg’s dream of having a family of her own, while also showing her that she can accomplish said dream without being rich. This is a perfect follow-up to Marmee’s lecture that riches are noble things, but shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of marriage, and a good example of the book’s message that marriage is a good thing if built on a solid foundation with a good man. The problem with the movie’s portrayal of Meg is that it undermines its message, by making love the only reason for marrying someone.

Next is Meg herself, Jo’s older sister and almost a second mother to her. She too falls into the same trap as the other characters, becoming a cardboard cutout of herself the moment she appears in the movie. The problem is that this eliminates Meg’s character. She’s a motherly, romantic girl whose only flaw is that she’s rather vain and longs to be rich. But here, she exists as nothing more than Jo’s older sister and John Brooke’s love interest. Actually, it seems like both of them could be eliminated without undermining the message, which is simply not true.

Mr. Bhaer comes next, Jo’s German professor friend whom she eventually marries. In his case, he’s nothing like his book counterpart. He’s handsome, young, speaks flawless English aside from a slight accent, and doesn’t go after Jo due to Beth’s death. In the book, he’s plain, has a thick accent that makes it hard to understand him and is Jo’s confidante and eventual husband entirely due to his character. As with many others, the movie completely undermines its message by making Mr. Bhaer a shadow of himself. He’s meant to be kind, counseling, wise, and to love Jo’s writing and believe that she can do it well. In the movie, he doesn’t like her writing and doesn’t bother going after her when she takes offense and runs away. As with John Brooke, this makes love Jo’s entire reason for marrying him and because she doesn’t want to be alone for the rest of her life. That’s not the message of the book, and it shouldn’t be the message of the movie.

Then there is Laurie Laurence, Jo’s best friend and the boy next door. Like Mr. Bhaer, he is nothing like his book counterpart. He has no emotion, and it seems the only reason Jo hangs out with him is because she prefers boys and he’s cute. In the books, he’s energetic, mischievous, talented, and enjoys hanging out with the girls because he’s never had any female company before. He and Jo are alike other than their gender and have a loving, teasing relationship that is absolutely amazing. But in the movie, he becomes the point in a love triangle between him, Amy, and Jo, something that is not emphasized in the book because it doesn’t exist and that’s not its message. He’s nothing more than a love interest, and that’s not who he is in the book.

Finally, there’s Jo, the protagonist and narrator of the book and the movie. She, too, is undermined like most of the other characters. In the book, she’s spunky, impulsive, hot-tempered, and creative, but with a gentle side that’s only seen around Beth. In the movie, she suffers from the same affliction as everyone else: she has no emotion. Granted, she has more than the rest, but still not much. Along with that, her character, like Meg’s, is undermined in a few important ways. For one, she never would have married Mr. Bhaer just for love—she states that in the book and sticks to her decision, even when she becomes lonely. She marries him because she loves, admires, and respects him, and he returns those sentiments. That’s the message of the book, but it’s not the one in the movie. She states that she won’t marry just for love, but then doubly contradicts herself by sending Laurie that letter recanting her decision and marrying Mr. Bhaer simply because she’s lonely and happens to love him. She also never would’ve stormed out on him like she did in the movie; she respected him far too much for that.

A second, and more glaring error is her feminism. Now, Jo in the book is very much against being a young lady, as she sees them as “affected, niminy-piminy chits” with little to no substance. But she would never go so far as to make the outright feminist statements she does in the movie, and she definitely would never wear pants as she did several times. She is a rebel, but not enough of one to completely go against society.

So there you have it. Little Women 2019 is a perfectly acceptable adaptation and much better than the ones before it, but it still needs improvement. Its message should be that someone should marry not just for love, but also because the other person admires and respects you as you do in return.

All in all, it’s worth a watch. But (as is the case with most adaptations), if you want a true picture of the story’s message, read the book.

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