OK, so I feel rather late to the party on this one. I’ve been waiting since this movie’s Christmas Day 2019 release to watch it. That’s been ever since my little sister’s review of it on Facebook, when it first came out. With all of the stuff on my plate, I forgot to notice it being in a local theater. Sometimes I feel like I really do live at the end of the world, living out in the country, 8 miles from an international border. Sigh. (Note: I have since moved and no longer live in the boonies. I started writing this post months before I published it.)
I only go by one movie theater regularly to drive the 20 minutes “into town.” That theater doesn’t show new releases. By the time I finally realized that Little Women had been showing at the closest Cinemark, which I can’t see from my regular driving route, I had a day left to watch it and I already had stuff planned. So then I had to wait for it to be released as a DVD. Noooo!!!!
Oh the agony of more months of waiting time!!!! Finally, I noticed it had been released and then…promptly forgot about it, amidst the craziness of topsy-turvy pandemic life. Then, after hearing girlfriends chat about it during a picnic, I finally got around to renting it on amazon, and watched it twice. We watched it once for date night and loved it so much we then showed it to the kids for a special family movie night. Whew! Was it worth the wait?
Before I dive into that, just so you know, I have to preface any more of this review with saying that I am a huge Little Women fan, such that I have thoroughly studied the book and its author, Louisa May Alcott. So, if you want to walk down memory lane with me, read the next few paragraphs. If not, and you just want the review of the 2019 movie already, skip to the line I have in bold, below, that says, “Here’s what I loved.”
My Memories of Little Women
I have fond memories of my dear mother reading the LW book as a bedtime story to my sisters and me when we were tweens. This happened when we lived in upstate New York, a lot closer to New England (the setting of the story) than AZ. My mom had one of those cheap paperback mini-abridged versions that has text and black and white line drawings alternating every page. I can picture us in one of the bedrooms of the two story house with the sloping ceiling, darkness outside the window, snuggling into bed while she read aloud, feeling light and warmth from both her voice and the book.
I was fascinated by these four sisters who resonated with my own sisterly life. They seemed the same in some ways, with the fighting and arguing, yet were different too, since they lived a hundred years ago. First off, there were four of them, not three. Then they had things like corsets, long dresses (the era of 70s maxis was before I turned 8), ice skates, and pickled limes. All things that I thought were old-fashioned. I had never been ice skating yet so that seemed extremely quaint. The March girls also had a curling iron. Santa brought us one for Christmas, the winter after Mom read the book. I wondered if it would ever burn our hair like it did when Jo used it with Meg’s, when they were getting ready for the big ball.
I loved hearing about the girls’ brotherly relationship with the quintessential boy next door, Laurie. Laurie sounded so fun! Then on many occasions, I listened to my grandmother tell of her short-lived acting career. It consisted of the one time she was in a school play, which was Little Women. She took pride in the fact that she got to play the most elegant Amy. Wearing a long gown with a hooped skirt, she had fun watching it bounce up every time she sat down. (Grandma was an excellent seamstress and dressmaker so she was into fashion.) To top off all these yummy, nostalgic feelings for the book, I’ve always identified with Jo’s strong desire to write.
Then, as a teen, I devoured the classic on my own for my honors English class for a book report. I loved the book even more. When I was pregnant with Baby #2, I got with my sisters–in-law for a special viewing of the 1994 movie version with Winona Ryder over a holiday break. I love that version. Let’s just say that Christian Bale = the perfect Laurie, forever more!
Oh, and the music soundtrack by Thomas Newman for that version! Especially the opening theme song. It just sounds like Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled up together. So glorious!
I was so excited to share the movie with my daughter (Baby #2) when she was old enough to appreciate this pioneering, original girlish coming-of-age story. We watched it as a whole family when she was maybe 12? We borrowed it from the library and promptly lost the DVD after the screening, so I was forced to buy a new copy to give to the library and keep the library’s scratched up version for myself. When DH recently brought home a brand new copy of the 1994 version from Walmart, finding it in the bargain bin for only $1, I was elated! I could finally watch it without the skipping and not fret about due dates. (It never occurred to me to simply buy a digital copy online.)
Even later as an older mother, and not a “little woman” anymore, I love the book. I have enjoyed finding out the depth of Louisa May’s character and her family relationships. The following books about Louisa have captivated me over the years:
–Marmee and Me, a biography of Louisa and her mother by Eve LaPlante
You can read my review of that book here.
–My Heart is Boundless, a collection of Marmee’s letters
This past summer, I finished reading this bio of Louisa to my kiddos.
So, all that is to say that I really, really wanted this movie to be faithful to the book! I had high hopes for it, but was skeptical because of how tempting it is for modern movie makers to add their own agenda to classic works.
Here’s what I loved about the 2019 Little Women movie:
All three of those are so gorgeous! Although the hairstyles were anachronistic. I don’t think Jo (Louisa May Alcott in real life) ever wore her hair with wispy bangs and a tousled, shabby chic criss-cross updo. But that’s OK, I’d rather look at fun hairstyles than staid buns any day.
-the wholesomeness of it all. It is so easy for movie makers to corrupt and mock wholesomeness. None of that happened here. The freshness, the wholesomeness, the goodness of the classic story was all preserved. No potty jokes, no vulgarity, no sexual innuendos, no bad language. It was so refreshing to watch a great family movie with nothing offensive!
Here’s what I didn’t love:
It was all wrong! Jo is not supposed to be blond! This version has a blond (maybe even close to strawberry blond) Jo. She looks kind of like Megan Follows. I kept thinking I was watching Anne of Green Gables, what with Saoirse Ronan’s delicate nose and freckles, similar to Megan’s. Emma Watson was swell as Meg (older sister Anna in real life), but Soarise as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy (May in real life) were not the best fits. They are great actors, I just wouldn’t cast them in those roles. Having, as my sister said, a buxom 30 year old with a husky voice playing 12 year old prepubescent Amy was not quite right.
Then there’s Beth. She’s not supposed be blond either! (In real life Beth was Elizabeth) The artificialness of her bleached blond hair was so out of place. And Laurie! Although he was good-looking, he looked like he was 12 for the whole movie! He just didn’t seem mature and manly enough. Christian Bale of the 1994 movie has spoiled us all. We will never have a better Laurie. The only actors that seemed perfect for the roles were Bronson, the girls’ father, and Hannah, the housekeeper.
-Taking out the huge Christian element of the original work.
In the book, Little Women, Pilgrim’s Progress by British author John Bunyan is a major overshadowing theme for the whole work. This is because in real life, Louisa’s parents were Christian and read that book to the Alcott girls. This makes sense, since the book has been one of the most widely read books, next to the Bible, in the English language. It was such an influence of Louisa’s life that she used it as a major theme of Little Women. Such that the first chapter is called, “Playing Pilgrims,” because she portrays the fours sisters pretending to be pilgrims. I’m not referring to the pilgrims we talk about at Thanksgiving. I’m talking about devout Christian people who are following Christ because they want to get to heaven, like the character Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress (although the Thanksgiving Puritans wanted that too).
The Alcott girls would pretend to carry their “burdens” on their backs and climb the stairs in their home, pretending to go to heaven. The only acknowledgement in this latest movie to this Christian element is displaying that chapter heading, “Playing Pilgrims,” on the top of the page of Jo’s manuscript of Little Women at the end of the movie.
Marmee also gave the girls each a copy of the New Testament for Christmas one year in real life. That shows up up in the book as well, in the first chapter. You can see literary analysis of the Christian element of LW chapter by chapter here and read a summary here.
-Adding a modern feminist spin to the book.
This comes in the form of pronouncements about marriage. Yes, Louisa never married, but it wasn’t because she was against marriage because she thought it was bad for women. She wasn’t interested in it for herself, but…that doesn’t mean she thought all women shouldn’t marry because she thought it negative. That message subtly is brought out in this movie version however, with statements by Amy and then with the frame story ending. It shows Louisa talking to her publisher, bargaining with him about the financial terms of the publishing contract. He tells her to have Jo get married at the end of Little Women.
She agrees, saying something like, “I sell my main character into marriage, and I get the copyright.” I could be wrong, but after my years of studying Louisa, I’m pretty sure there’s no record of her bargaining with him like that. As far as I can tell, the only thing she stated about Jo getting married was that she would not have Jo marry Laurie. I do grant though, that Meg’s character, which is married off, just as in the book, promotes marriage as the right path for her. So the movie does say marriage could be the right path for some women. I just wish it went that way more in the movie. Amy never said what she said about marriage in the book, however true the words are, for the time period of the book’s historical setting.
-Marmee’s character was diluted. In real life, she was a huge mentor to Louisa. Encouraging her to write was the major way she mentored Louisa. She gave her gifts to write with, such as blank books, pens, and ink. We don’t see that in the movie at all. Another thing we don’t see is her passing on her Christian faith as we do in the book. We don’t see her using her Christian faith as a basis for her guidance. That’s so unfortunate, as we all need Christ and we all need to see faithful mothers pointing their children to Christ, especially if it’s in a beloved classic. In the book she reminded her daughters to use the New Testament to guide their walk as pilgrims, in order to overcome character flaws and achieve their goals.
Here is an example, quoting from the book:
Mrs. March broke the silence that followed Jo’s words, by saying in her cheery voice, “Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrims Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.”
“What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the valley where the hob-goblins were,” said Jo.
“I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbled downstairs,” said Meg.
“I don’t remember much about it, except that I was afraid of the cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milk we had up at the top. If I wasn’t too old for such things, I’d rather like to play it over again,” said Amy, who began to talk of renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.
“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.”
Marmee had them each tell her what their “bundles” were. These were the burdens that so easily beset them. Then Jo asked what their help was to carry these burdens. Marmee replied with, “Look under your pillows Christmas morning, and you will find your guidebook.”
The guide was the New Testament, “that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived.” (from Chapter 2 of LW.)
Here’s a great blog with explanations of how the theme of Pilgrim’s Progress plays out in the whole book.
OK, so enough of what I didn’t like.
Here’s what I’m not sure if I liked or not:
The way the story was told. Here’s what to know if you are going to watch it, especially if you watch it with your kids.
This version is told as a frame story with flashbacks. It’s soooo confusing. We have three layers of Little Women going on here. First, this movie’s version of the story. Second, Louisa May Alcott’s book version of the story, the original story. Third, Louisa’s real life, which the story is largely based on. It’s all intertwined together in this movie.
If you don’t know the original story, you will be totally discombobulated. The back and forth scenes eventually meld together in the climax where Jo claims that she’s sick and tired of women being treated as only objects to be married off. Ironically, in the same scene, she declares that she will marry Laurie, even though she already told him no.
After that scene there are no more flashbacks, as I recall. From that point on in the film, it’s only one time stream. Up until that point, to help you know where you are in the story, here are some tips:
1. The “current time” scenes are shown in cool, blue tones, and the time seven years earlier, which is when the book takes place, is portrayed in warm, yellow tones. At least that is what the video below claims. I didn’t really notice such a clear demarcation.
2. The hairstyles change somewhat. In the present, Jo’s hair is long. For some of the earlier time scenes, her hair is bobbed. Amy, as a preteen and young teen, has bangs in the earlier scenes, and no bangs in the scenes where she is an adult.
If this is the only version of the story you know, you are greatly missing out on the wonder and endearing nature of the original story in book format. You are missing out on the depth and richness of Louisa’s real life, her hard work and heroism, and her family’s thick philosophical heritage. This heritage is partly based on their Christian faith, which was a springboard for her father’s idealistic life and revolutionary educational ideas, branching into Transcendentalism.
My two boys, ages 11 and 15, lost interest in the movie after about 45 minutes. Probably because they didn’t understand the story line. But my 14 year old daughter, who I have never been able to get to read the whole book, was glued. I told the boys that if they can talk about the movie with girls, they will be more likely to impress them. Hopefully they will take that teaching to heart as they get older and of dating age. I’m going to convince my older batch of boys to watch it, the ones of marriageable age.
So, whew! That’s my take on the 2019 movie version of Little Women. I give it 4 out of 5 stars! I highly recommend it for your next family movie night, especially if you have teen girls in your home.
Little Women fans unite! May we continue to learn from and enjoy this classic girlish story about coming of age as Christian young women! I dare anybody out there who has beaucoup bucks to make a movie that is as faithful to the book as the much-loved BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is for that book. Put ALL of the Christian references in the Little Women book into the movie, especially Pilgrim’s Progress, pretty please! Then we will have an even more amazing movie!
Now, because I just can’t get enough of LW…here are some fun things to know about Louisa, LW, and the Alcott family:
-Laurie’s character is based on two people, Alfred Whitman, a family friend who had fun with the girls as the “neighbor boy,” and Ladislas, a Polish young man who Louisa met while she was traveling in Europe as a nurse and companion for an invalid girl. Doesn’t that name just sound delicious? I love saying it. “La-dees-las.” I want to call him Laddie for short. He sounds like a wonderful sport of a guy and idealistic too. Having been part of a revolutionary uprising in Poland, he was cast out with his buddies. Then he met Louisa in Switzerland. They immediately felt each other was a kindred spirit.
-the Alcott family was a lot poorer in real life than the March family in the book
-Anna (Meg) had two boys, not twins, and not a boy and girl
-In real life, it was Louisa who went off to serve in the war as a nurse. Her father came and got her after she got sick. In the movie, the dad goes off to serve in the war as a chaplain, and Marmee goes to get him when he gets sick.
-In real life, Louisa got to go to Europe before May (Amy) did. This happened before she wrote Little Women. This is when she met Ladislas. Ladislas was quite a bit younger than Louisa. Some suspect that they fell in love but there is no record of that.
-In the book, Louisa has Laurie/Ladislas propose to Amy at Vevey, Switzerland, the place where Louisa met Ladislas in real life.
-Louisa/Jo clashed with May/Amy, just like in the movie and the book.
-May/Amy married Ladislas/Laurie, and sadly, died shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Lulu. She stated in her will that Louisa was to be the guardian of Lulu. It just seems like such a poetic turn of events that Louisa ended up raising Lulu. In that way she was able to give Lulu everything she had always wanted to give to May, for despite their fights, they dearly loved each other. It’s also comforting to know that her motherly heart was fulfilled in taking care of Lulu, when she had no biological children of her own.
-Anna’s husband, John (John Pratt in real life, not John Brooke) died when their two boys were still young. This tragic event motivated Louisa to write Little Men. Louisa gave the profit from that book to Anna and the boys to live on.
–Little Men incorporates Bronson’s radical (at the time) educational ideas
-One of these radical ideas was to stop painting the windows on schoolhouses white, so that sunlight would come through the windows and the children could look out through them.
-Louisa would not have become the amazing author she was without the encouragement and mentoring of her mother. Inspired mothers inspire inspiring writers and leaders! We have Abigail May Alcott to thank for giving the world the gift of Louisa May Alcott, her daughter. What would the world be without the gift of Little Women? Not as joyful, for sure. Thank you Abigail May Alcott! It just makes me wonder what classic books we as mothers will inspire our children to write.
For some fun LW resources, like cookbooks of the LW recipes and paper dolls, go here.