Embrace Your Liberty: Little Women (1994)
On Christmas Day, 1994, a new cinematic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women debuted in theaters. It was the first time the iconic March sisters appeared on screen since 1947, and was carefully curated with a female gaze by director Gillian Armstrong, and screenwriter Robin Swicord. The opening–complete with an upbeat soundtrack of bells coupled with the image of two boys dragging an evergreen tree as they run through the snow-blanketed surroundings–squeals of holiday spirit, but this adaption is more than a movie that should be reserved for a specific time of year. Alcott’s classic character study of four sisters, based on her own familial relationships and life occurrences, was truly perfected in this mid-90s debut that maintains its value today.
The world was first introduced to hopeful Meg, daring Jo, gentle Beth, and passionate Amy in 1868 when Alcott’s novel was published. Since then, their story has stayed relevant with multiple appearances on the dramatic stage, in television, and several cinematic interpretations, including an upcoming release from director Greta Gerwig. Each version varies in its authenticity to the original source material.
Some have hailed “Little Women” as a ‘feminist’ novel, stating that Alcott’s representation of alternative feminine personalities was a start to female empowerment in American literature. Though some of the talk of early feminism might be based in fact, Alcott herself saw writing as more of a trade than an art. Her goal was more focused on providing money for her family, which differed from the romantic writers of this era, who believed strictly in expressing the deep felt emotions one finds in their heart. This view of writing as a mere job was beneficial when editors wanted changes made to the original manuscript in order for it to be more relatable to the late 19th Century reader. Despite this, there were certain details and expressions that remained, making Alcott’s rebellious ideas evident in the lasting legacy of the novel.
Swicord kept this fact in the forefront of her mind when writing the screenplay that would eventually become the 1994 film. She studied the author’s history, life, and the novel in order to truly capture what Alcott originally wanted to express through her characters. All the dialogue is Swicord’s original writing, which refreshes the tale while still keeping it representative of Alcott’s ideas.
The entire first act establishes the post-Civil War setting quickly but takes its time to fully reveal the complexity of each March sister. Their interactions between each other and their mother, who they call Marmee, shows how each girl reacts to the same situation. The common catalyst in situations lies in the bold and fearless Jo, whose rash and sometimes careless decisions allow her sisters to display their emotional responses.
One of my favorite moments is when Jo is styling Meg’s hair for a dance. The four girls get to talking and Jo forgets that her older sister’s hair is wrapped around the hot rod, ultimately burning off a lock right in the front. Meg’s secret vanity is revealed as she yells of her ruin and runs for a mirror to examine the destruction. At the same time, sweet Beth immediately strokes her shoulder and reassures her distressed sister that it will grow back. All this time, Jo is showing a slight bit of her temper as she places the blame on Meg who allowed her to style her hair in the first place. Finally, sweet Amy, only twelve years old, comes up with the solution to put a bow in the front before revealing a romantic sentiment when telling her sister that scores of suitors are not needed, only one–the right one. This simple scene, which lasts less than two minutes, displays the four varying temperaments that dwell in the March household.
Ultimately, Jo’s story comes to the center of the plot. Since the film relies so heavily on the attitudes of the sisters, it is the only realistic option once the four young ladies embrace adulthood and create narratives that are separate from each other. While Beth obviously is content with being less adventurous than her sisters, even prior to her acquiring scarlet fever, Meg and Amy’s initial need for vanity matures past insecurity as they start their own adventures involving their passions. Jo’s maturity is like one of a mustang as she physically looks older and wiser, however, she is still dissatisfied with her path in life. Her fight against the status quo is evident in the paradoxes of her character: she is confident yet insecure, unafraid to be bold then regretful of her decisions. “I want to change,” she says after expressing her frustrations with herself to Marmee, “but I can’t. I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.” Marmee answers perfectly, explaining to Jo that her talents are unnumbered which is why she cannot expect to live an ordinary life.
This heavy emphasis on the second oldest March sister is further emphasized by the casting of Winona Ryder. Ryder loses herself in Jo March. Her earlier roles of Lydia from Beetlejuice or Veronica from Heathers are nowhere to be seen as she throws away her own identity to encapsulate a free-spirited young woman in the 19th century who is searching for what it means to exist in such suffocating times.
The most important quality Ryder possesses is evident in her eyes, as she uses them to show the shift in emotion that quickly occurs for Jo. They constantly sparkle and show life even in the most desperate of times, such as when Jo regrets her decision to cut off all her hair in order to earn a little cash. When she first reveals her sacrifice to her family, she is confident in her decision. Even with little Amy yelling “Your one true beauty!” as Jo takes her bonnet off, her eyes are bold and confident, knowing that she did the right thing. This initial spark turns to grief and embarrassment as she cries to Beth later that night about her loss. Ryder is brilliant as Jo, her optic acting–mixed with the special touch in the writing–makes for an audacious and inspiring character to take the lead of this adaptation.
This particular version is perfect and only continues to entertain and spark interest upon rewatches. I would know as the countless viewings that started in childhood with a VHS purchased from a discount bin inspired a love that goes beyond mere nostalgia. Critical examination has only reinforced this bold opinion. I will not say that any new takes on Alcott’s tale will not captivate viewers and inspire young watchers to fall in love with these characters as I once did. However, I will say that it will be incredibly hard to match the accomplishment of Armstrong’s film.