Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel, Little Women, has been a well-loved classic from the beginning. First published in 1868, with a sequel, Good Wives following in 1869, the saga came at a time when America was reeling in the aftermath of the Civil War. The book was both timely and timeless. It was also unusual for its day because it featured natural dialogue instead of the elevated language so common in literature then. Not only that, but it took readers into the private world of four sisters on the verge of adulthood, with all their various romances and quirks. In the nineteenth century, such characters were rare, because culture dictated teenage girls should be thinking about their future homes and not the struggle of maturity. It’s a beautiful story that gives readers a lot to think about.
When I found out Little Women was going to be set in the modern day, my reaction was simple: No. Heck no. Decidedly no. Emphatically no. Sure, its messages are timeless, and modern takes on period novels have been successful in the past (Exhibit A: Clueless), but Little Women is so firmly entrenched in the 1860s that to modernize it may render it unrecognizable.
However, my no changed to yes when I saw the trailer:
It doesn’t look so bad at all. It seems to be respectful of the original material and might even be a good movie on its own merits. Again, though, Little Women’s newest remake will have to surmount a few major stumbling blocks.
A Woman’s World
Mindsets and social mores have changed drastically since the novel’s release. Like I said before, teenage girls were expected to marry or prepare for marriage. If marriage didn’t happen, they had to either live with family or take up careers that were respectable for women, such as teaching or running a boardinghouse.
Women who had their own income were better off, as they might travel or pursue other interests. Going to college was very rare, although there were those who did so, despite the strange ideas floating around about smart women. One of my history teachers told us that some people in the Victorian era believed a woman who read too much couldn’t make babies. Yes, that existed.
Nowadays, of course, women run their own businesses, graduate from college just as often if not more than men, and no one thinks a woman’s uterus will fall out if she reads a lot. At least, I don’t believe anyone does.
Girls And Boys Together
Another point that will be different is the March girls’ friendship with Laurie. In the nineteenth century, girls and boys didn’t hang out very often–their worlds were pretty separate, especially once they hit a certain age. In fact, some schools punished boys and girls for playing together. That’s why Laurie’s entrance into the Pickwick Society was such a big deal–it was a place where the Marches let their hair down and behaved differently than they would have around boys or even adults.
Today, no one bats an eye, which will naturally change the March-Laurie dynamic considerably. For one thing, they might follow each other on social media, although it would be nice if the movie doesn’t entrench itself too much in that. I don’t know about anyone else, but I would like to see the charming mailbox Laurie sets up for the two families in the book making it into the modern telling. Its tangibility beats social media any day of the week.
Speaking of not batting an eye, Jo March would find the writing world wide open to her today. Books, magazine articles, blogs (heh heh)–she could write whatever suited her fancy. Her subject matter would be markedly different. Unlike in the Victorian era, melodrama is not as much of a thing, and morality tales are definitely passé.
In Alcott’s day, and in the nineteenth century in general, women writers were still unusual, so much so that some women wrote under assumed names. A couple of famous examples were Charlotte Brontë, who published Jane Eyre as Currer Bell, and Jane Austen, who identified herself simply as “A Woman.” They were a little before Alcott’s generation, but the same stigma carried over.
Another possible change to Jo’s character is whether or not she and Professor Bhaer marry and open a boys’ school. I’m going to guess they probably don’t, because feminism and inclusivity, but who knows.
Beth, Little Women‘s cricket on the hearth, contracted scarlet fever after a visit to a poor German family, the Hummels, and then later dies because the disease has weakened her health. Scarlet fever is not so nearly as common today as it used to be, and it’s treatable with antibiotics, so it’s easy to see why the modern version has Beth as a cancer patient. We may have pretty much figured out scarlet fever, but as we all well know, cancer is still mostly a frightening mystery and not always treatable. Modern Beth having it casts a definite doom over her character, which I’m sure will play out in heart-wrenching fashion.
Press On, Christian
This change may perhaps be the most crucial. There’s a lot of talk about how Bronson Alcott was a transcendentalist, but his daughter may or may not have shared his beliefs. In fact, Little Women is partially modeled after John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
The characters frequently read Bibles, which they refer to as their “guidebooks,” and consider their earthly existence a journey to heaven, often comparing events in their lives to parts of the 1678 allegory. Amy prays for Beth at Aunt March’s house when Beth has scarlet fever. One of Aunt March’s maids, Estelle, is a devout Catholic who encourages Amy to make a special place to pray, and even gives her a rosary.
Considering the way Hollywood is today, there’s a very good chance that this aspect of the novel will be completely left out. Many filmmakers are more interested in feeding Hollywood’s amorality and catering to Asian markets than properly portraying the motivations behind characters’ actions. As flops like A Wrinkle In Time show, bias-driven storytelling never ends well.
I think the reason Clueless succeeded was that its source, Emma didn’t have any major plot elements that were historically bound. Ergo, they could follow the arc of the story without any big changes. In Little Women’s case, as long as the new film stays traditional in scope and doesn’t try to be too trendy or presentist, it just might work. I hope it does. We need its sentiments now more than ever.
Okay, thanks for reading, and hope to see you tomorrow, when there will be murder afoot…