News broke last week that Greta Gerwig had chosen an adaptation of the classic novel Little Women for her directorial follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Lady Bird. According to early reports, the movie will feature a powerhouse cast including Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Stone and others.
This is certainly not the first time Louisa May Alcott’s classic book telling the story of the March sisters and their lives both within the confines of their family and without. What’s notable, though, is that it’s not even the first adaptation of the book in the last year: PBS’ recent miniseries was much-acclaimed and retained the story’s original post-Civil War setting while later this year Lea Thompson stars as the family matriarch in a version that updates the story take place in the present day.
There’s a discussion to be had about whether or not it’s better to keep trying to adapt the same material over and over again and how much one version really adds to our understanding or enjoyment of the themes Alcott conveyed in her book, including commentary on women’s roles in society, or if there’s more value to be gained in creating something new or at least reaching into other sources.
That conversation is best left to others. I’m more interested in looking at how previous film adaptations were sold.
Little Women (1933)
Katharine Hepburn takes on the iconic role of Jo in George Cukor’s film, the first adaptation to be made in the era of talking pictures after two silent films in 1917 and 1918. The trailer offers the barest of glimpses into the story, instead spending much of the first half of its running time touting the cast of studio contract players stepping into each of the roles. In the second half the focus is squarely on Hepburn, obviously identified by Warner Bros. as the breakout star in this, her third big-screen role. Still, the setting and the drama of the story are still on display, but it seems the studio was counting to a great extent on the audience’s familiarity with the material going in.
Little Women (1949)
This one is much more centered around the story of the March sisters, particularly Meg’s quest to land a husband and Jo’s stubbornness around the idea of romance and love. The trailer here doesn’t appear to assume as much knowledge of the framework and characters, explaining more of each to the audience even as it sells an all-star cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, silent film star Mary Astor and Peter Lawford.
Little Women (1994)
I couldn’t find a trailer for the 1978 version, so we’ll skip right to the 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth, Christian Bale as Laurie and other heavy hitters in other roles. Here the story is very much being sold as a prestige drama, which makes sense given the mid-90s were the peak era for that kind of movie, with strong emphasis on the candlelit romance and ability of the women to overcome and deal with hardships. It’s also positioned not only as a story that’s “lived in the hearts of generations” but specifically as a treat for the whole family during the holidays, with lots of snow-covered scenes helping to remind audiences it was coming out on Christmas of that year.
Little Women (2018)
One of the few versions to update the setting of the story, this one takes the March sisters into the 21st century. The trailer starts off by telling us this is the 150th anniversary of the original book’s publication, seeking to create a sense of this being an event. The same themes as other adaptations are seen here, presenting it as a drama of how family ties will help you through any hardship. That’s all in stark contrast to the poster, which isn’t too different from the 1994 one-sheet in that it’s a group show of Marmee and her girls except for the how Lea Thompson has an amused but exasperated look on her face that gives it the look of a mid-90s John Hughes comedy.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.
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