Little Women by Lousia May Alcott, published in 1868 and 1869, may have been a defining novel for young women in its time which so eloquently described the kind of struggles an ordinary family faced during the Civil War era ,however, its 1994 film adaptation is very different from the original text.
On the surface, the costumes, sets and background have been replicated to perfection, matching every detail pointed out about the era in the text. But in terms of plot, story line, ending, character details and definition of femininity and female virtuousness, the female director of the film Gillian Armstrong takes a bit of a leap of faith, far away from Alcott’s restrained version.
Take for instance, in the book, homemakers are glorified to a huge extent and their roles and responsibilities as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers are seen with awe and admiration. On the other hand, the film portrays motherhood as a bit of a cult.
While the film does show the four main female characters (Beth, Jo, Meg and Amy March) in a more independent and feministic light, it ends abruptly at the point where Jo accepts a marriage proposal. Whereas, in Alcott’s novel, the story fast forwards six years later to Marmie’s birthday where the radical thinking Jo is now a mother of two children and has accepted domesticity completely. This shows that in the film version, the readers are left to interpret whether Jo really does conform to society’s version of how a woman should be. But in the book, her change in behaviour and attitude is obvious from the fact that she is completely domesticated.
Another difference between the film and book is the portrayal of Friedrich and Jo’s relationship. In the film, she goes to the Opera with him where they exchange a passionate kiss. This scene is not present in Alcott’s original text. Such behaviour was neither accepted nor appreciated by women of Jo’s time. And if she had done something like that, she would’ve gotten everyone’s tongues wagging.
In the book there was a lot of focus on marriage proposals of the March girls and a lot of talk about morality, values and faith. However, in the film, there was more focus on Jo’s career direction as a writer and trials and tribulations of her writing journey.
What bothers me most about the book is that Marmie as a maternal figure is represented as a flawless, righteous and perfect mother and wife. She has no character flaws and does everything right. She talks in a way that is preachy and moralistic. Her words such as, “Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, to bear and forebear, that home may be comfortable and lovely?” sound a bit too annoying. There is very little power or independence that she shows or demonstrates to her girls. However, in the film, Marmie makes an effort to not let her girls just conform to society’s expectation and she guides them well about how society will always try to suppress women and limit their role as merely “decorative”.
I feel the biggest difference I find in the film version is that the Little Women compromise less in their lives but they compromise more when it comes to the book. I also feel that the term “Little Women” itself is severely derogatory implying that the four women are not yet full adults even when they turn into adult women.
In my opinion, both the book and film are both a bit sappy and melodramatic. The whole book or the film should not be thought of as a discussion on the conflicts women face in their lives or the suffrage of women instead it is a guidebook on how women should behave regardless of how different personalities and likes and dislikes maybe. And how no matter what choices they make, they will still be boxed in the same domesticity box where they are daughters, mothers and wives.
Jo is the biggest disappointment in the film and the book because she may have started off with strange, alien ideas and her masculinity and tomboyishness but she too succumbs to the pressure and becomes something like a Stepford Wife. This fact continues to bewilder me considering Alcott herself remained single all her life.
At the end, one must realise that the film version has been created to appeal to contemporary viewers as well as those who have never read a classic or even this one in particular.
Overall, the book is not practical for the female audiences of today because they have grown up with a range of choices and it is sometimes hard to understand how women once had to battle so hard for them.