In the canon of beloved novels, Little Women has been a treasured part of many childhoods. From cultural references (warning: very old spoilers) to many affectionate adaptations, the BBC bravely chose their latest screen version as the star of their Christmas schedule.
It’s a starry affair, with Emily Watson portraying matriarch Marmee, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as Mr Lawrence. The younger actors are less known but no less talented, with Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya Hawke playing tomboy Jo in her first ever role. Playing opposite her is early Hugh Grant look-a-like (or is that just me?), Jonah Hauer-King. Hauer-King was last seen briefly in Howard’s End and, in this, portrays the family’s neighbour Laurie.
Episode one sped through a number of beloved events from the novel, racing through the plot at a pace that felt far rushed than earlier film adaptations. However, this series has three episodes to play with, so it will be interesting what they choose to emphasise from the latter half of the book. Hopefully there will be some more time to reflect on the later decisions made grudgingly by Alcott in the novel (particularly in regards to marriage), and which have prompted plenty of discussion over the years.
In terms of style, this Little Women is undoubtedly a glossy affair, with beautifully crafted costuming and intimate camera shots giving a new closeness to familiar scenes. There’s a passion behind emphasising the drama in small family squabbles, from Jo’s surprisingly violent fury at Amy for burning her manuscript to Beth’s debilitating social anxiety. This exaggeration won’t go down too well with some book purists, but it keeps the stakes high for those less familiar with the plot.
This episode is also careful to emphasise the difference between the Lawrence and March houses, enjoying the cosy warmth of the March living room against the grand, melancholy halls of the Lawrences. Far away from both is the house in the village that the girls visit on Christmas, where a woman lives in poverty with her young children. The shadow of the American civil war hangs over them all, leaving repercussions, grief and worry in its wake.
The four girls are the beating heart of the series and utterly essential to its success. It’s fortunate then that newcomer Maya Hawke is brilliant as Jo, capturing her easy smile and quick temper in a way that never strays from endearing. Willa Fitzgerald (Royal Pains) and Kathryn Newton (Big Little Lies) are also great, although as a small silly quibble, I do wish that Newton’s hair wasn’t quite so clearly dyed. As a fellow blonde and unasked-for-advice-giver, toner can make a big difference in making it look natural. Still, it’s an inconsequential issue otherwise. The standout of the four is Welsh actress Annes Elwy, who has just a few small credits preceding this role. She gives real heart to a character who could easily be a passive bystander, embodying her own personal struggle for self-improvement with earnestness.
As someone who grew up loving the book and then retrospectively studying it, there’s far more depth to Little Women than many people like to give it credit for. So far this adaptation isn’t straying as far as it could, but it’s more experimental than the 1994 version. Either way, the book holds a place in so many hearts that any adaptation isn’t going to please everyone. For myself, it’s a bit of a treat, albeit a rushed one. I’m just excited to find out what they choose to do with that final episode.