Little Women (1994)

Little Women (1994): United States – directed by Gillian Armstrong

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains…I don’t know why they rated it PG

This is not the first time that Louisa May Alcott’s novel has been put on the big screen, and I doubt it will be the last.  I fear I am not familiar with the source material, so my only means of judging the film is how the story turned out in film form.  As far as an adaptation of a classic novel, Little Women is a solid, well-produced and strongly-acted film.

The story revolves around the March family toward the end of the Civil War.  They reside in Concord, Massachusetts, and their father is off fighting the war.  The four sisters eke out a noble, though not terribly wealthy living guided by their wise mother, Marmee (Susan Sarandon).  The four sisters vary in age and temperament, and are the titular centerpiece of the movie.  In fact, since very little happens plot-wise, it is these four characters that carry the film.

Of the four, Jo March (Winona Ryder) is the fieriest, and the center of the tale.  She is put off by the requirements society has imposed upon her to be proper and lady-like.  She only puts up with her ridiculous dresses because that is all she has to wear.  She finds escape in the adventurous tales she writes.  She reads to her sisters and the four of them act out plays in the privacy of the attic.

The first half of the film is dominated by the presence of a mysterious young foreign boy who lives next door.  His name is Laurie (Christian Bale) and he, too, is not particularly fond of the trappings that come with his situation.  His family is quite wealthy, but that’s not what attracts the attention of the March sisters.  His boyish charm and sense of playfulness adhere him to the family, though Meg March (Trini Alvarado), herself a stickler for proper etiquette, prefers his tutor, Mr. Brooke (Eric Stoltz).

The biggest break in the story comes when the film jumps ahead several years, and a young Kirsten Dunst is replaced as the youngest sister, Amy March, by Samantha Mathis.  Dunst’s spark and cuteness are suddenly gone, and the film feels a little deader.  At the same time Laurie spends most of the time off-screen, and is replaced by Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer.  Jo, in an attempt to get away and realize her dream of writing for a living, goes to live in New York, where she meets the poor philosophy professor.  They immediately develop an intellectual bond that deepens rather quickly.  At the same time the March family is forced to deal with the continuing illness of Beth March (Claire Danes).

It has taken several paragraphs to summarize very little.  This is because the movie revolves around the sisters and their relationships to each and the men in their lives, not the events that take place.  Their father is a strong influence and is sorely missed during the war.  Mr. Brooke provides stability for Meg, but Jo thinks she shouldn’t settle for someone as unexciting as he.  Laurie is adored by all the sisters, though his affections eventually shift from Jo to a sophisticated older Amy.  The sisters bicker and quibble, but their relationship, as Amy notes, is stronger than marriage.

The primary draw of the film is this bond between the sisters, and I suspect it is also responsible for the book’s popularity.  It doesn’t hurt that the film is well-made.  The acting is very good, with a strong and credible cast.  It says something about the actors involved when so many were quite young when they made the film and still went on to have successful acting careers as adults.  The material has been adapted adequately and there are some highly amusing lines, the majority of which go to Dunst.

I suspect the film will mainly appeal to women who have sisters, as they will better understand the complicated bonds of sisterhood.  Not being a sister, nor having any brothers, I was unable to become emotionally involved with much of the story or characters.  I still enjoyed the movie, primarily on account of the source material and the strong acting.  The writing, too, is quite enjoyable, as are many of the characters.  Overall Little Women is a solid production and a worthy adaptation of classic literature.

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