USA / 1995
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Writer: Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott)
Cast: Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Trini Alvarado, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale
There are some books that are sacred texts which filmmakers tackle at their peril. The works of Jane Austen clearly fall into this category, as does Louisa May Alcott’s 1850s family drama Little Women. As if to pre-empt any criticism of her screenplay, which updates the sexual politics of the original, Robin Swicord says, “Little Women could never have been published if its politics were on the surface. It had to be buried in the story. I wanted to bring all that out to inspire this generation of women. I hope that young girls emerge from the movie feeling stronger and less like they live in a male-dominated world.”
In the fourth big-screen adaptation of the novel, Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) directs a strong ensemble cast, including Susan Sarandon as Marmee, head of the March household in the absence of her husband, who’s away fighting in the Civil War. Her daughters range from the headstrong Jo (Winona Ryder) and sweet Beth (Claire Danes) to domesticated Meg (Trini Alvarado) and wilful Amy (Kirsten Dunst and later Samantha Mathis). The film follows the trials and tribulations of the girls, from early poverty and a family tragedy to Jo’s later efforts to secure both a husband and a successful writing career, and Amy’s relationship with an old family friend, Laurie (Christian Bale).
Successfully eschewing sentimentality, Little Women is a triumphant retelling of a classic story, boasting an array of fine performances (particularly from Ryder, who received an Academy Award nomination for her efforts). The Independent on Sunday claimed that Armstrong’s film “is the best screen adaptation yet of Little Women. What can’t be doubted is that it is the most authentic. It’s both a heart-breaker and a heart-warmer.” The Times agreed, noting, “This new Little Women is an unexpected triumph. Armstrong makes us feel right at home with the moral values and customs of New England in the 1850s. Contemporary feelings are not forgotten, either. Whenever the feminist angle can be heightened, it is. But nothing is distorted.”