Review: Little Women – Episode 3

January 11, 2018

Finally Lost In Drama reaches our episode three review of Little Women, although very late – sorry! A case of festive frivolities and the inevitable flu that followed wiped out writing for a period. A very belated Happy Christmas to those who celebrate it and I hope the winter break went well for you all. Catch up with our reviews of episode one and two if you haven’t already!

Now, the final episode of Little Women has been rewatched so let’s start. I won’t lie – it’s rather surreal to be watching this pure chocolate box of an adaptation once the haze of indulgence has gone. In fact, it’s hard to imagine this particular adaptation being aired at any other time of the year, although the promised US air date of Mother’s Day may make it slightly more at home.

After the last two episodes have felt both sparse and crammed in equal measure due to some strange pacing issues, there was much hope that the problems wouldn’t extend to the final episode. Indeed, pacing becomes less of an issue here and crucial plot events get more space to breathe this time around. The costumes are still absolutely stunning and the camera angles are gently intimate.

Nevertheless, it feels a little overwrought considering this was rumoured to be a ‘gritty reboot’ in the early days of production. There’s nothing gritty about this adaptation, which is remarkably unambitious for an adaptation of a novel with so much below its family-friendly surface.

When it comes to the novel, Louisa May Alcott infused so much anger into her work. Like Jo and her sensationalist stories, Alcott wrote her own stories under a pseudonym before Little Women took on a life of its own, growing a following that would never cease. Alcott, a passionate feminist, felt the pressure to continue from her daily letters from fans, and controversial decisions like Laurie’s failed proposal and Jo’s union with Professor Bhaer all take on a new meaning when you understand the author’s resistance to expected conventions.

Anyway, I digress. Alcott and her relationship with her creation could easily fill ten essays of their own. In regards to this final episode, there’s definitely more space to breathe and allow the final crucial scenes some weight. Of the sisters, Meg remains crucially neglected following her questions about her own marriage. Yet in the little she has, she gives birth to her baby and in a very Alcott turn, shares a touching moment with her mother following an experience that is unique to women.

The highlight of the four sisters is still Annes Elwy as Beth, who adds her own gravitas to a character who can easily slip from a sweet character to a passive martyr. Here, Elwys lends her a spirit and grace that hasn’t been brought to the fore before.

In an intriguing decision, they take some of Beth’s lines before her death in the novel and hand them to Emily Watson’s Marmee instead. Despite taking time from Elwy, they do actually work better spoken by a mother, and lines like this become so much more heart-rending as a result –

‘She was the one that I never made plans for. She was the one that I couldn’t imagine married. She was the one I couldn’t picture with an infant in her arms.’

Marmee (note: only referred by that name in this adaptation) has, like many mothers, spent most of her life caring and worrying for the way her children’s lives would develop. The agony of recognising that one of those children would have a life cut short is something that few of us can truly comprehend and it’s an affecting scene.

When it comes to the narrative surrounding Jo and Laurie, this version again makes a crucial change from the novel. Jonah Hauer-King’s Laurie is so devastated by Jo’s rejection of his proposal that he crouches and cries – a far more vivid portrayal than either the book or earlier screen adaptations.

Those concerned with period accuracy may question the extent to which a young man of the time would express his emotions like this to someone, but at the same time Laurie is proven to be someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, especially with Jo. It doesn’t feel far away to me, and perhaps more crucially, provides vital screen representation of a man’s tears treated without judgement. In the confused time that we live in, that’s a modern concession that actually can provide something crucial for viewers.

We also meet a controversial character for fans of the novel – Professor Bhaer. Whether he’s a good match for Jo is a debate that polarises everyone, but this adaptation takes some strides to make their pairing a little more ‘conventionally’ suited.

In the book and adaptation, Bhaer is intelligent and something of a father figure to Jo. Unlike the source material, this adaptation makes Bhaer much younger and gives him a bit of the cute hipster guy treatment, as opposed to the older, sterner man of the novel. He’s far more playful and Jo’s vulnerability following Beth’s death is emphasised in a way that suggests writer Heidi Thomas was well aware that this ambitious tomboy would need some seismic emotional motivations to change her outlook on marriage.

Still, as hard as this adaptation tries, and despite Maya Hawke’s brilliant fledgling portrayal, Jo and Bhaer’s union will never be truly lovable. In the closing scene, they’re shown in some kind of contented compromise, happy in comfort. Just as with the book, I’m left with the same feelings of disappointment for the heroine. Mind you, that’s me talking.

This has been an odd adaptation of Little Women and an odd period drama in itself. Disappointingly, it’s not one that I’ll likely return to in a hurry. There have been some positive changes from the text – Heidi Thomas’ decision to hand over certain lines and Elwy’s stronger portrayal of the passive Beth are just two. Despite historical inaccuracies in costuming, it’s undeniably a good-looking adaptation and the young actresses do well with what they have.

However, pacing issues mean that the adaptation seems to lose the essence of the novel in plentiful time. On occasion, as with Bhaer and Jo for example, this version works overtime to keep the more problematic parts of the novel acceptable for a large audience. There’s certainly beautiful moments with the family too and yet, it’s difficult not to think about the missed potential. We all rolled our eyes justifiably at the awful phrase ‘gritty reboot’ when production was first announced, but perhaps this needed at least a pinch of grit. In the end, we’re left with the simplified facade of the novel without any of the rough, testing feelings behind it.

There’s a challenging adaptation ready to revisit Louisa May Alcott’s text in a way that does her justice – it’s just not here yet.

More about Jen Scouler

Jen Scouler is a magazine journalist, film critic and the founder of Lost In Drama. With degrees in both English Literature and Digital Journalism, she has experience of writing for popular print and online publications. Jen is also devoted to her metaphorical novelist aunties - Aunt Jane, Charlotte and Jo are particular favourites - and is usually found with an Earl Grey tea in hand.

1 Comment
    1. I just watched episode 3; thought it was much better than the first two although agree with you that this adaptation is not one to revisit… Personally I didn’t like how they switched Beth’s words to Marmee: always found it more moving when Beth says them.. I remember Beth in the book as being really angry about dying; I could be wrong, I read it decades ago! I think I’d have liked a gritty reboot….
      Good piece, I look forward to more stuff on L.M Alcott!

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