The Film


The 1994 adaptation of Little Women was directed by Gillian Armstrong with a screenplay by Robin Swicord, and boasted an impressive cast: Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale are just a few members of a fine ensemble. The film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, and was nominated for three Academy Awards (Actress in a Leading Role, Costume Design, and Original Score). This is the third adaptation of Alcott’s novel: the first was in 1933, directed by George Cukor, and the second in 1949, directed by Mervyn LeRoy.[1]

What stands out in the 1994 version is the incorporation of more historical events and aspects of Alcott’s life, such as the influence of Transcendentalism, and the blatantly feminist mindset that the screenplay takes, which would have been a popular mindset during the 1990s. The film was applauded for its attention to detail: the layout and decoration of the house used in the film was designed to mimic Alcott’s real home, Orchard House (where she wrote the novel and imagined its events taking place). Costumes are passed down through the sisters – a dress worn by Meg in one scene may be worn by Amy in a scene that takes place four years later.

While its incorporation of historical events is notable and mostly well-executed, the film mentions them mostly in passing, as they are not vital to the main narrative of the story. A conversation between Mr. March and Mr. Brooke about the struggle faced by freedmen quickly fades into the background as the camera moves through the house looking for Jo. When Meg is invited to a wealthy girl’s coming-out party, her host, Sally, chides her for having such a plain dress. Another girl insists, “The Marches haven’t bought silk for years. They have views on slavery.” She then asks Meg if it was true that Mr. March’s school had to close because he admitted “a little dark girl.” When Sally denies any blame in buying silk that is made in the North, Meg informs her, rather angrily, that the silk mills use child labor. However, the scene ends with Sally gleefully telling Meg, “I’m going to make you my pet.” Meg’s vanity wins out, and she lets Sally dress her up. When Laurie, a close friend of the family, sees Meg drinking at the party, he says that he thought her family was part of the temperance movement.

The only scene that focuses entirely on a historical issue is when Jo is staying in New York, in a boarding house full of men. She is seen sitting among several of these men, who are arguing over women’s right to vote. One man claims that “a lady has no need of suffrage if she has a husband.” Another insists that as a moral force in the country, women should have the right to vote. Jo tries to participate, but cannot get a word in until her friend, Professor Bhaer, intervenes. Jo claims that “women should not vote because they are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” Jo’s rational and simple logic is applauded by the men. It isn’t the most groundbreaking speech, but it shows Armstrong’s dedication to providing accurate historical opinions. The filmmakers seem to do the best they can with including historically relevant events and ideas without weighing down or delaying the plot.

It is Marmee, played by noted activist Susan Sarandon, who is burdened with the screenplay’s sometimes heavy-handed pro-feminism speeches. When Meg asks Marmee why Laurie may do as he wishes, Marmee replies, “Laurie is a man. And as such, he may vote, and hold property, and pursue any profession he pleases. And so he is not so easily demeaned.” Marmee goes on to say that she only cares what the girls think of themselves, that they are more than “decorative”, and that they can make the world a better place. The screenwriter’s agenda is rather transparent, but Sarandon executes it so genuinely that it is impossible not to admire her.

The strengths and weaknesses of this film lie in the details. The mentions of the temperance movement, race relations, social reform, and suffrage, while small, are notable nonetheless because such things are absent from the previous adaptations. The film’s flaws are mainly due to the addition of modern ideas or practices to a post-Civil War story, such as Jo and Professor Bhaer’s “date” to the opera, during which they kiss. Such behavior would have ruined Jo’s reputation, but to a modern audience the love scene seems normal, even innocent.[2]

[1] Pat Kirkham and Sarah Warren, “Four Little Women: Three Films and a Novel,” in Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 81.

[2] Shirley Marchalonis, “Filming the Nineteenth Century: Little Women,” in Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1999), 264.

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