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There have been many film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, ranging from downright dull to unforgettably beautiful. The latter designation really only belongs to one version of this classic story—the 1994 Little Women, starring Winona Ryder. This movie honors the timeless novel on which it is based, allowing the positive messages of the tale to shine through, unhindered by any significant negative content.
Thanks in part to Ryder’s captivating performance as the famed Jo March, this film is destined to be a classic in its own right, illuminating the soul of Alcott’s story by bringing it to life onscreen with a level of artistry and excellence that leaves an indelible impression on viewers’ minds and hearts.
For those who aren’t already familiar with Alcott’s most famous publication, Little Women tells of the March girls—four sisters living in a close-knit family during the final period and aftermath of the Civil War. The second oldest of these daughters is Jo March, who is an independent tomboy, imaginative writer, and aspiring author. Like the novel, the film focuses on Jo and sees events primarily from her point of view as it follows the pivotal years of her late childhood and early womanhood.
These years are filled with plentiful hardships, but also much joy. The difficulties are what enable Little Women to convey one of its most powerful messages—the crucial importance of family and love during times of trial. When the film begins, the March girls are in one of their greatest periods of difficulty, as they face poverty and the worrisome absence of their father, who is fighting in the war.
Their mother, ever a pillar of support and wisdom to her daughters, manages not only to help her children through this time, but also teaches the girls through word and example how to overcome one’s circumstances. As a result, the March girls learn to think of others when they are broken with personal sadness and to be charitable even when they have almost nothing.
The March sisters are far from perfect, however, which creates many instructive opportunities, both for the girls, and for viewers. Mrs. March is never lax in addressing her daughters’ less-than-stellar moments, but she deals with them in a loving, patient, yet firm manner that raises the bar high for parents. Her love and support is clearly unfailing. Her wisdom and commitment to building her children’s characters is remarkable. As a result, she has the undying respect and devotion of her daughters, who look to their parents for the final answer to any question and the final word on any dispute.
At the same time, the gentle, unwavering guidance of Mr. and Mrs. March ensures that their children know how to be discerning, thinking people who will make a positive difference in the world with their ideals, convictions, and morality. With their parents’ guidance, the March girls learn how to traverse the challenges of being a woman during the late 1800s, while not compromising their femininity or hiding their true, intelligent and confident personalities. Along their path to womanhood, Jo and her sisters experience lessons in friendship, forgiveness, kindness, love, death, grief, poverty, romance, and much more.
One of only a couple potential dangers in this film that discerning audiences should be aware of is the transcendentalist basis of the March family’s ideology. This foundation for the central characters’ worldview was present in Alcott’s story, as well, so the content is nothing new. As in the book, the film’s handling of this German romantic philosophy, which encourages finding oneself (and spirituality) through personal insight and experience, isn’t ultimately too problematic.
In the movie, the ideology is mentioned only once in conversation as being adhered to and believed in by the March family. The characters discussing the subject, which include Jo, seem to condone the transcendentalist worldview, but the philosophy isn’t brought up again. Thus, it is likely that, despite some praying and talking about God, the March family’s morality doesn’t stem from Christian belief. Nevertheless, the values exemplified and taught in this family match the truth taught in Scripture, and, therefore, set a positive example for Christians to follow. The other more minor content concern is that the formal women’s dress for the period, shown in a few scenes, features low-cut necklines.
Director Gillian Armstrong shows great respect for the source material, taking her time to explore the uplifting messages as she develops the story onscreen. Adaptations are not easy, but screenwriter Robin Swicord and Armstrong conquer the formidable task, as they achieve what all film adaptations of books should. They manage to stay true to the heart of Alcott’s novel, while crafting a great literary work into stellar film material. The movie is elegantly shot, the period costumes and set detail exquisite, the musical score beautiful, and the storytelling, despite the difficulty of trimming a novel down to film length, is masterful.
All that said, the acting remains the ultimate reason why this version of Little Women trounces all the others before it. Ryder is superb in the leading role, mesmerizing as she reveals a multi-layered Jo never before realized onscreen. The depth of the character as Ryder presents her creates a touchable reality that finally brings Jo, not her circumstances or her adventures, but Jo herself—her longings, regrets, losses, hopes, and dreams— to the forefront of this story.
If that were not enough, Ryder isn’t the only strong actor in the film. Mrs. March is played by veteran Susan Sarandon, who seems to never disappoint and here slips into the formidable role and historical time period as naturally as if she were born to them. Another treat is seeing a young Christian Bale who combines his trademark intensity with boyish charm, making the character of Jo’s best friend Theodore (“Teddy” or “Laurie”) Laurence into an irresistible scene-stealer. Even Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes appear, just starting on their careers in 1994. They both do well, but Danes, in particular, gives a memorable performance as Jo’s sweet younger sister, Beth.
With such splendid acting and the other high production values, the 1994 Little Women is an adaptation with which even Alcott herself could be pleased. The story that began as a heartwarming, memorable classic of the written word conquers another artistic medium through this film, emerging as an equally moving and timeless cinematic tale. Viewers of all ages can happily reap the benefits of that success.
Check out these similar titles:
Anne of Green Gables (Sullivan Entertainment, 1985)
Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995)
Sense and Sensibility (Columbia Pictures, 1995)