Its difficult to conceptualize just how challenging the 1868 novel Little Women is to adapt until youre watching all three hours of the latest attempt, arriving on PBS May 13. At first blush, the story seems an obvious enough choice: its a wholesome tale of four American sisters coming of age in the early 1860s, during a hard year for their family and the whole country. “Christmas wont be Christmas without any presents,” begins the narrative, as tomboy Jo March (Maya Hawke) lies on the floor and grouses about the financial straits of their family. Kids today still care about Christmas presents; at least at the beginning, Little Women feels approachable.
But quickly—much faster than it does when rendered by Louisa May Alcotts gaily written prose—the story of these four “poor,” mostly home-schooled girls with unconventional ideas about God, family, and purpose turns into an especially bizarre hybrid of Victorian moralizing and passive-aggressive family dynamics.
This is a roundabout way of saying that while PBSs attempt isnt good, its doomed precisely because its a faithful adaptation. Little Women strained credibility as a heartwarming tale even in the celebrated 1994 film version; in 2018, the story reads as unadulterated tragedy. Each spirited daughter is not just forced to reckon with the proscribed role of women in the world; they are also heartily encouraged to embrace their confinement, through their parents faith-based home-schooling. Jo is a literary heroine for the ages—and one often claimed by the queer community—but she spends most of the story suffering, almost entirely because she is unconventionally brilliant. Meanwhile, its pretty, blonde, straight Amy (Kathryn Newton) who nabs the hunk and his attendant fortune.
In The Guardian,Samantha Ellisobserves that the titular protagonists only become “little women” after “being tamed and subdued and ditching their dreams”—or perishing, like poor Beth (Annes Elwy). Amys the only character who accepts that she must conform to advance in life; and so, fittingly, she does. This production is a spirited, pretty endeavor that particularly excels at bringing the rural, dilapidated charm of Concord, Massachusetts, to life—but its sensibilities are so misapplied that saucy, savvy Amy and petulant matriarch Aunt March (Angela Lansbury) are the most human characters in its roster. In the novel, theyre biting and sometimes unpleasant; on screen, they manage to cut through the saccharine cheer of the story. Indeed, the most triumphant moments of this Little Women are the isolated instances in which Lansbury—a gift in any cast—interacts not with the March girls or their benighted parents, but with a scarlet macaw and an errant chicken. (The macaw, which lovingly nibbles on Amys hair bow during one memorable scene, is the second-best comedian in the cast.)
The realities of Little Womens subtext do not stop the PBS production from trying very hard to sell the viewer on the soft-focus nostalgia of a period piece. A folky, emo score fills every aural nook and cranny, effectively rendering the story without a moment of breathing room. We first meet the girls dressing each other, tying on petticoats and corsets with an intimate affection that is practically romantic; when Jo takes up a pair of scissors and approaches Amys hair with teasing menace, the undertone is less sisterly than sexual. And while the March girls, headed by oldest Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), are all played by enthusiastic performers, frequently they seem disconnected from each other—as if they are each marooned in their own conception of Little Women. At first, this comes off a bit charming; by the third hour, when one sister is flirting with another sisters longtime beau, the emotional through lines are particularly disorienting.
The saga takes the viewer through the end of the Civil War and a flurry of romances, as each girl finds her path through her teenage years. Fans of the book will recognize almost all of their favorite scenes, with some elisions for simplification (sorry, extended Pilgrims Progress metaphors!); a surprising but useful departure from the book adds rather more mouth-to-mouth kissing than Alcott would have approved. And some components of the miniseries do work rather well. Each daughter has a recognizable individual relationship with Marmee, who in Emily Watsons reliable hands comes across as a character struggling with burdens rather than a cipher for domestic tranquility. To the productions credit, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and director Vanessa Caswill locate several textual grace notes that make the book feel alive—such as the constant presence of newborn kittens, whose little mewls never fail to delight Beth. At the same time, so much of the books meandering plotlines has to be excised that one wonders why they even bothered to cast Michael Gambon as old Mr. Laurence; he has barely three scenes in the whole miniseries.
Hawke, the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, has her parents charisma in spades, and at times throws off a glance that resembles her mothers so much that its uncanny. Her Jo is self-involved and tempestuous, and though Hawke is enthusiastic, Jo is not sharing scenes so much as sprawling over them. Still, Hawke has a knack for drawing the viewers attention. It is utterly bizarre, as it was for Winona Ryder before her, to pretend that Hawkes “one beauty” is her long hair. But in this production, thats just one of the many things the audience is expected to understand—like the craze over pickled limes at Amys school, or how the March family is “poor” but still retains a servant, or their insistence on charity to the point of literal self-destruction, as evidenced when both Beth and Father March (Dylan Baker) contract long illnesses while serving others. At their best, adaptations offer new insight or modern context for classic literary works. This PBS production is sweet, light, and frothy—but its in no danger of doing either.
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Sonia SaraiyaSonia Saraiya is Vanity Fair's television critic. Previously she was at Variety, Salon, and The A.V. Club. She lives in New York.