Yet Another Journal

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» Thursday, March 05, 2009
Little Women Revised
I noticed that Netflix had available the Little Women miniseries from the 1970s and decided to add it to the queue. The first half came today. I remember thinking when this aired that it was not a bad version, although I've never been satisfied with any of the adaptations.

Film buffs love the 1938 version, with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, but I always thought she overdid the role. All of the "girls" are too old—one of the actresses was even pregnant when the story was filmed. The 1950s version is like an MGM musical version of the story, all bright colors, and you expect someone to break into a song any minute. I like June Allyson as Jo, but having Margaret O'Brien's Beth be the youngest was sheer bathos and Elizabeth Taylor is just...inappropriate as Amy.

The 1994 version comes very close to the spirit of Alcott. The Marches actually look poor, Kirsten Dunst is a great young Amy, Winona Ryder has spirit as Jo, even if detractors say she's too pretty for the role. Eric Stoltz, however, was an odd choice for John Brooke, and even if all Marmee's feminist polemics were all culled from Alcott, they were sometimes incongruous. Worst was director Gillian Armstrong's attempt to deify the character, when Marmee clearly admits her faults in the book, and Armstrong also made too much of an effort to have the fictional Marches be like the real-life Alcotts. Still, of the three, I like this one best, if just for the wonderful score.

This 1970s version is clearly 70s vintage: the look, the music, the way the girls wander about, just like in Little House on the Prairie, with their hair streaming down their backs. Events that happen singly in the book are doubled up in the miniseries, so that Jo's story publication, Marmee's letter saying Father is better, and Beth getting sick all happen pell-mell in a single scene; Meg's "dressing up" happens at the same party where Jo and Laurie first meet, and the news of Mr. March's illness arrives in summer rather than November, smack in the middle of Laurie's picnic, where Amy is suddenly old enough to be flirting with Frank Vaughn. (Vaughn, I noted with some amusement, is played by a mustachioed John DeLancie!)

Little bits of things are irritating: the March girls clearly wear 1970s rubber boots, lines are read in a stilted manner in many scenes, the house is much too upscale for the poor Marches. The whole opening 40 minutes of the story seem to take place in a couple of days immediately after Christmas, then suddenly it's two years later. The Hummels are added in as an afterthought just before Marmee leaves for Washington, DC, as the whole famous Yuletide opening of the story where the girls forgo their own gifts to buy ones for Marmee and then give up their breakfast for the poor Hummels, is omitted. The overwrought minute or two where everyone thinks Beth has died is a froth of tears and overly loud, irritatingly plaintive violin music. (And where the heck did Amy come from? Wasn't she sequestered at Aunt March's house?)

And there's that everlasting Christmas tree which is in every version of Little Women—which the Marches wouldn't have had...the Christmas tree custom didn't catch on that early. Apparently the greens strewn around the house aren't enough to tell us it is Christmas.

Worst of all is Ann Dusenberry, who begins to improve as Amy ages, but her portrayal of young Amy is startlingly bad. To play spoilt Amy in the earliest part of the story, she seems to spend almost every scene with her upper lip humped up like a disturbed rabbit. The literary Amy is a pest at that point, but Dusenberry turns her into a witch. You almost wish Jo and Laurie had let her drown.

The bright spot in the story is Greer Garson as Aunt March. She's a real trip in the role, although every time she talks, I expect her to segue into the narration for The Little Drummer Boy.

My favorite part of the production is still the theme song. I think I'll slip the DVD into the computer and transcribe that off to Audacity so I can have a copy.

In the meantime, I can only hope part two has aged better. But then a highlight of part two is William Shatner in the role of Professor Bhaer, so, we'll see.

[I had forgotten to mention the really odd thing about this version. In the book, two of Mr. Laurence's children are mentioned. One is a girl who died when she was young. It is her piano that is given to Beth. The other child is Laurie's father, who chafed under his father's strict ways, went to Italy, and married an Italian concert pianist. This is why he objected to Laurie's piano-playing. In this mini-series version, the daughter who loved music and died is combined as a character with Laurie's mother, who married an Italian concert pianist. Laurie tells Jo that his real name is "Theodore Laurence Cerrito" (I think that was the name) and his grandfather won't let him use it. Too weird.]

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