Little Women
Produced by Denise DiNovi
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Based on the book by Louisa May Alcott
Screenplay by Robin Swicord
Released by Columbia Pictures

As the recent effort to remake Little Women suggests, Hollywood has remembered that an almost certain way to make a profitable film is to turn a bestselling children’s classic into a movie. After all, when Hollywood makes family films, entire families buy tickets, as well as popcorn, sodas, and candy, and replacements for what the kids spill, devour, or quarrel over while the movie’s running. Unlike artsy-grotesque films, movies which appeal to families also enjoy profits from movie tie-in products (try marketing a Hannibal Lecter Happy Meal). Among Hollywood’s oldest traditions is modifying these classics to insure good box office sales. A 1930’s version of Moby Dick, for example, has Ahab saved by the love of a good woman; and when discussing the casting of apostles for a film version of The Last Supper, Samuel Goldwyn is said to have exclaimed, “Why only twelve?—Go out and get thousands!” In the past, moviemakers modified stories to make them more entertaining; now, however, they modify plot and characterization for political purposes.

Hollywood still does not quite grasp what it is about literary classics that attracts the general public. The film industry regards these stories, whose appeal extends across generations and geography, not as fully articulated works of art which express a coherent vision but as loose scenarios into which stars can be plugged and through which they can articulate their fashionable politics.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Columbia Pictures’ recent reinvention of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Alcott’s 1868 novel teaches a number of important moral lessons, most of which Columbia Pictures hurls overhand out the window. This is a pity, as Little Women offers a feminist view of life—an unfashionable feminism, admittedly, one grounded in self-reliance, endurance, and commitment rather than in a politically correct scramble for “privileged victim” status. Their “self-esteem” firmly intact, Alcott’s young women are less apt to remind us of Gloria Steinem than of Katharine Hepburn, who, in 1933, starred in George Cukor’s more faithful interpretation of the novel. Alcott demonstrates that a woman can choose the kind of life she wishes to lead, provided she recognize and emend her character flaws and not compromise her ideals.

Little Women was, after all, intended to be edifying as well as entertaining: John Bunyan’s religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress provides the novel’s structural framework as well as the source for several chapters’ titles and themes (e.g., “Playing Pilgrims,” “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”). Good minister’s daughter that she was, Alcott created four recognizable types of young women, each of whom must overcome some weakness in her character in order to move from childhood to maturity. Meg is responsible but proud; Jo, talented but stubborn; Beth, sensitive but overly shy; and Amy, charming but vain. Each endures many tests of character, including financial problems, conflicts with family, friends, and lovers, and the illnesses and deaths of loved ones. Ultimately, though each retains her essential nature, the four “Little Women” become responsible, mature adults through self-discipline, hard work, and mutual devotion. Most importantly, Jo, the focal point of the action, refuses to marry until she finds a man who takes her intellectual and artistic aspirations seriously.

Now, this may seem a sturdy enough little story just as it is. But Columbia Pictures does not approve of the lessons Alcott’s novel teaches. The religious elements are attenuated beyond recognition, with Alcott’s lessons about faith and morality replaced with anachronistic diatribes on the inequity of the sexes. Even the female casting choices undermine Alcott’s original purpose: the robust Claire Danes, for example, plays the fragile Beth. Danes struggles to conceal her athletic build by stooping while she lopes through the picture, until, mercifully, her pink eyeshadow deepening conspicuously as she nears her final moments, she expires.

More troubling, however, is the casting of Gabriel Byrne (whom Ken Russell cast as Byron in Gothic) as Professor Bhaer. Though a talented actor, Byrne is considerably younger and sexier than Alcott’s original. Alcott sharply differentiates Jo’s two suitors to call attention to the reasons behind Jo’s choosing Professor Bhaer for a husband. The other suitor, Laurie, is an adolescent girl’s fantasy beau—in addition to being young, handsome, rich, amusing, and from a socially prominent family, he is kind and thoughtful and is sincerely fond of Jo and her family. The average 14-year-old is horrified when Jo ends up marrying Professor Bhaer, a recent immigrant who, though also kind and thoughtful, is middle-aged, poor, pudgy, and socially awkward.

Long before she meets Bhaer, even before she embarks on her career in journalism, Jo deliberately terminates her romantic relationship with Laurie before it progresses beyond mild flirtation. Jo knows that she and Laurie are ill-suited for each other as marriage partners; passionate, headstrong people, each needs a spouse who will complement, not duplicate, his character—someone “steady,” as they used to say.

Unfortunately, “steadiness” is not a virtue much beloved of Hollywood these days. It would have been a considerable challenge for screenwriter Robin Swicord to show why Jo prefers a man who, though poor and middle-aged, takes her intellectual and artistic aspirations seriously to a man who, though handsome, wealthy, and kind, is unable to provide her with the intellectual companionship she desires. Instead, Hollywood blanches when Professor Bhaer criticizes Jo’s writing. Neither Jo’s family nor Laurie has ever seen Jo’s lurid melodramas as anything but ripping good tales which handily pay the bills. Professor Bhaer, however, recognizes her talent, and gently tells her she is wasting it. At Jo’s urging, he politely but acutely criticizes her writing. Jo’s welcoming of his astute criticism helps her to mature.

Many self-proclaimed feminists, however, equate being “taken seriously” with being praised, not criticized, especially by men. Unaware of the irony of her position. New York Times film critic Caryn James deems it disrespectful of “the bearish Professor Bhaer” to tell Jo that she should be a great writer rather than a tabloid hack: ” [He] scolded her for writing sensational stories; then she married him anyway.” Ms. James just doesn’t get it: Jo marries Bhaer not in spite of his criticism of her writing but because of it. Indeed, Bhaer is among the strongest feminists in the novel: though a professor from Germany—the intellectual center of 19th-century Europe—he recognizes artistic potential in a young woman with little formal education.

Sadly, this movie dismisses Alcott’s message that someone who is not “young and sexy” can nevertheless be desirable, and that intellectual companionship with someone who challenges you to make the best of yourself is essential in a mate. Such, at least, are the values Alcott’s novel presents, and such are the values of those of us who love Little Women just as it is.

The filmmakers’ anti-male bias becomes especially apparent when we compare the male characters in the two versions of Little Women: whereas Alcott’s portraits of even the minor male characters are complex and subtle, the men in the movie are mere caricatures. Consider, for example, the film’s treatment of Mr. Davis, the teacher who strikes Amy’s hand with a wooden rod for bringing pickled limes (a status symbol) to class. Amy tells her mother that Mr. Davis said it was “as useful to educate a woman as it is to educate a female cat.” The outraged Marmee condemns his sadistic sexism—”By law Mr. Davis may beat his pupils freely—as well as his children and his wife and his horse,” and withdraws Amy from the school for his “brutal punishment.”

Alcott’s original narrative is, however, considerably more complex: Amy is not a blameless victim, nor Mr. Davis a sexist ogre. Alcott’s Mr. Davis is a “much-enduring man” who had “done all that one man could do to keep half a hundred rebellious girls in order.” Though Alcott criticizes Mr. Davis’s bad temper, she sympathizes with the challenge he faces of controlling a classful of adolescent girls: “Boys are trying enough to human patience . . . but girls are infinitely more so, especially to nervous gentlemen with tyrannical tempers.” Alcott’s Amy is also presented as more culpable than her twin in the film: she compounds her fault by trying to conceal some of the forbidden fruit after she has been ordered to discard it. Amy’s vanity prompted her to assume that the rules just would not be applied to her and that her mother would offer her unqualified sympathy (which the film Amy gets). Kindly but firmly, Alcott’s Marmee informs Amy that she deserved punishment for knowingly breaking the rules; though Marmee disapproves of corporal punishment, she ventures that, in this case, “I’m not sure that it won’t do you more good than a milder method.” Marmee removes Amy from the school, not simply because she disapproves of Mr. Davis’s teaching methods, but also because Amy’s female friends are encouraging her to develop poor values.

Or consider the treatment of Dr. Bangs, old Mr. Laurence’s personal physician, whom he sends to tend the ailing Beth. Fearing Beth may die despite his best efforts, Dr. Bangs suggests that Marmee be sent for. Rather than be grateful for Dr. Bangs’ assistance, however, the movie’s Marmee bursts into Beth’s bedroom, certain her daughter has received inadequate treatment. “Dr. Mom” declares that Beth’s feet have not been kept properly warm, and, with a woman’s instinctive understanding of folk medicine, calls for vinegar to “draw the fever down.” Once again, the male professional is incompetent and insensitive, the female amateur omnicompetent and omnicaring.

Nor do the other male characters fare better. Alcott’s crusty but charming old Mr. Laurence virtually disappears, as does the father of the Little Women, Mr. March. (So insignificant is Mr. March that one reviewer referred to the family as a “single-parent household”). Other male characters violate the conventions of polite behavior, at least by 19th-century standards: as if they were cohabiting, Bhaer enters Jo’s bedroom without knocking, kissing her familiarly on the back of her neck.

Even Laurie (peculiarly called “Teddy,” which he rarely is in the book) does not escape feminist revision. His first gaze at the girls is salacious, and he professes interest first in Meg, then in Jo, and then in Amy, without ever making the reasons for these changes in his affections clear; one expects Marmee is next in his apparent determination to wed a March girl, any March girl. While in Europe, Laurie is reduced to a level of degradation undreamt of by Alcott: he swills liquor from a flask and associates with women of ill repute (as the bare legs of his overdressed companion suggest).

In an act of ultimate absurdity, children’s writer Laurie Lawlor has produced a novelization of Robin Swicord’s tin-eared screenplay of Alcott’s novel. Apparently, Columbia Pictures sees nothing peculiar about novelizing a novel, nor anything wrong with revising one woman’s vision to advance another’s political agenda. Only 133 large-type pages (in contrast to the 449 small-type pages of the unabridged Signet Classic), Lawlor’s dreary little polemic lacks Alcott’s style but maintains Swicord’s shrillness. It is, if anything, a parody of Alcott. Like the pre-Bhaer Jo, Lawlor is wasting her talent by pandering to her least informed readers’ prejudices.

By reducing the roles of Alcott’s men while artificially inflating the roles of the women, both movie and novelization attempt to bring Alcott’s characters into accord with politically correct feminism. What are produced, however, are shallow caricatures rather than complex human beings, for diminishing the male characters diminishes, correspondingly, the female characters. Concerned about the unwillingness of men to attend this movie, director Gillian Armstrong mused, “We could change the title.”

Perhaps Columbia Pictures should have changed the title to something more appropriate—Littler Women.