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TV’s ‘Little Women’: ‘A very current story about things that haven’t changed’

Why We Wrote This

The March sisters are still beloved 150 years on, but none more so than Jo, a “magnificent original” whom Louisa May Alcott modeled on herself. A female character who defined her happy ending through her work – not by marrying the boy next door – was revelatory (and inspired many heartbroken letters to Alcott from young readers).

Courtesy of Masterpiece on PBS
A new miniseries based on the book 'Little Women,' by Louisa May Alcott, airs May 13 on PBS. It debuted on the BBC in late 2017. Top row: Willa Fitzgerald as Meg (l.), Kathryn Newton as Amy (c.), Annes Elwy as Beth (r.). Bottom row: Maya Hawke as Jo.

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Beth Santaella says her love for “Little Women” was the basis for a bonding experience for her and her mother-in-law. The two made a pilgrimage to Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Mass. She finds the story to be “timeless.” “It’s good when you’re 10, and it’s good when you’re 43,” she says. An instant critical and commercial success when it was published in 1868, “Little Women” has been adapted as everything from a silent film to anime to an opera. On Sunday, PBS will première a BBC series that marks the book’s sixth foray into television. “It’s a very current story,” says Daniel Shealy, editor of “Little Women: An Annotated Edition.” “It’s about things that have really never changed, or at least have changed little in the 150 years since the work was published…. It’s all about growing up and trying to find your way and your niche in this world.”

In the Brewer family, “Little Women" is so beloved that it became the focus of a special birthday trip.

Thirteen-year-old Sydney had listened to the book on tape and seen the 1994 film version starring Winona Ryder multiple times before she and her mom came all the way from Richmond, Va., to visit Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, Mass.

“It shows [the sisters’] struggles and it shows how they overcame them and their relationship with each other,” Sydney says, after touring the little brown house with the window desk Alcott's father built for her at a time when a woman having a desk of her own was considered almost renegade. Drawings by her artistic youngest sister still cover one bedroom and the walls of her downstairs art studio, and gentle sister Beth’s piano is in the dining room.

TV viewers will get a new take on Alcott’s classic novel – and Sydney’s generation will get its own “Little Women” – with a new BBC miniseries, which will premiere on PBS on May 13. Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, and Winona Ryder are among the actresses who have brought the irrepressible Jo March to life, as she and her sisters – Meg, Beth, and Amy – grow up poor in New England during the Civil War. Fans like Sydney talk about the comfort they experience from watching the March sisters make their own way in a world that had strict rules about what girls were supposed to be like.

An instant critical and commercial success when it was published in 1868, “Little Women” has been adapted as everything from a silent film to anime to an opera. The BBC series is its sixth foray into television.

“It’s a very current story," says Daniel Shealy, editor of “Little Women: An Annotated Edition.” “It's about things that have really never changed, or at least have changed little in the 150 years since the work was published…. It's all about growing up and trying to find your way and your niche in this world.”

PBS hopes the new adaptation – and the fact that it’s debuting on Mother’s Day – will cause multiple generations to gather around the television.

“We thought ... it would be an interesting opportunity for that population – you know, the mother-daughter, the mother-granddaughter people – to unite over a show,” “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton says. “That is my fond hope for it, that not just older people who know the book from back then but younger women ... who might know the book but haven’t seen the previous iterations ... [will] want to see it and then talk about it with someone they love," she says. “I hope a couple of guys, too, by the way.”

For Beth Santaella, love for the novel was the basis for a bonding experience for her and her mother-in-law when they went to visit Orchard House, Alcott’s home. She finds the story to be “timeless.” “It’s good when you’re 10 and it’s good when you’re 43,” the Bedford, Mass., resident says.

Kelsey Redding, a 20-something living in Portland, Ore., read “Little Women” multiple times when she was growing up and watches director Gillian Anderson’s 1994 movie version two or three times a year.

Ms. Redding sees modern thinking in the story. “Even when I rewatch it today, I’m surprised the way that they talk about antiviolence,” she says. Take a scene in which the family is aghast when daughter Amy experiences corporal punishment at school. Also, it’s a narrative that, refreshingly to her, puts women in the spotlight.

“I tried to put my finger on it for a long time – that particular movie, why it stood out so much to me. And I think that part of it has to do with it being such a female-led and strong female plot and everything about it just feels uniquely female,” she says. “Like the relationships in it don’t feel like they’re written by a man. They feel like they are real, like they’re real sisters who fight and who support each other and are jealous of each other.”

All four March girls were educated beyond Victorian mores, with three of the girls and their mom seeking employment outside the home. Alcott herself supported her family with her writing, and her mother was one of Massachusetts’ first social workers. The character who looms largest is Jo, the second-oldest in the family and the one that Alcott modeled after herself. Jo is athletic, scorns ladylike behavior, has trouble controlling her temper, and dreams of being a novelist. A female character who defined her happy ending through work – not by marrying the handsome boy next door – was revelatory at the time (and inspired many heartbroken letters to Alcott from young readers).

“Jo, because she is trying to make her own way in the world and is less concerned with what society has to say about normal customs or who she should marry and what she should do, had to be in a sense very liberating for a number of, especially, girls reading the book,” says Dr. Shealy, a professor in the English department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Elaine Showalter, editor of the Library of America’s “Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys,” calls Jo “a magnificent original.”

“Jo has a way to go, but she never doubts her ambitions or her right to have them or her right to decide how she’s going to marry and under what conditions,” says Dr. Showalter, who is professor emerita at Princeton University. “And all of this is just so lovable and compelling.”

But Showalter says that while she thinks it had a seismic effect on previous generations, she has seen some lack of interest from young readers today. Her own granddaughter, for instance, wasn't inclined to pick up the book.

Shealy, however, believes that for those who do find it, it stays a part of their lives.

“For many readers, especially readers who read it at a significant time in their life, ... it’s a book that resonates with them and one that they keep going back to through the years,” he says.

And like Shealy, Showalter believes “Little Women” has plenty to say to young readers today. “I think character above all is what you go to fiction to discover,” she says. “And the characters in ‘Little Women’ are so tremendous and so, so winning and so timeless.”

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