Those March Women
Most girls remember where they were when they first read Little Women. The day I eased the large book from the shelf, little did I know I’d entered a rite of passage. Transcendent and timeless, its pages spoke about love, friendship, and independence in a way that would lend itself to the stage and screen for generations to com
Altogether, I counted fourteen adaptations of Alcott’s masterpiece. Plays, musicals, films, and a ballet introduced the March Women to audiences all around the globe. Marian de Forest wrote the first production in October 1912. Like Alcott, de Forest excelled at being lightyears ahead of her time. As an accomplished playwright, she paved the way for women in the theater.
I knew none of this when I returned from school to find my mother watching George Cukor’s 1933 movie version on Valley Playhouse. There, Katherine Hepburn, bigger than life, burst across the TV screen. She played Jo, full of moxie and snark. The dialogue between those March sisters rang true and surprisingly funny. The lines proved moral and sincere, but not hokey. I adored it. Later, I discovered the film aired in the Depression era, and that like Jo, Hepburn shot to icon status, representing the independent women.
My elementary schoolmates, having also read the book and seen the movie, blossomed into their roles as March women. My friend, who wanted to run off to Paris to paint, exemplified Amy. Another, who loved beautiful dresses, claimed Meg’s role. Still, another wanted to be the otherworldly Beth. I, of course, patterned myself after Jo. We were on the threshold of leaving childhood behind. Lunch recess provided the place to act out our feelings and bond as sisters.
In 1994, Gillian Anderson’s Little Women made my favorite read come alive to impart a delight and comfort at a time when I was trying to make it as a writer. Winona Ryder’s interpretation of Jo presented the dreamer as well as the woman in the workplace. More than any of the remakes I had seen, the movie depicted the writer’s struggle. I could easily identify with this Jo March. She hit where I lived and breathed. Watching the interaction between the March Women was like being invited into the family with open arms.
That’s probably why when my husband asked if I planned to see the new 2019 movie, I said, “No.” I didn’t want it to tarnish the last in the many versions I’d seen through the years. I refrain from mentioning all of them. I’m writing a blog, so I need to keep it short, but let me add a tidbit. There’s a mini-series famous for featuring William Shatner of Star Trek as Professor Bhaer.
I can’t say why, but I did end up perched in front of the big screen once again, taking in Greta Gerwig’s edition. At first, I wrote in my notes, “I don’t like this.” They had set the end of the story in the beginning. When I got over the uncomfortable jolt, I let go and allowed these March Women to carry me along come what may. I laughed, I cried, and thoroughly appreciated the performances by the all-star cast. This Jo, played by Saoirse Ronan, came across as spunky and self-reliant. The themes reflected the feminist fight for equality in a new way.
After I’d existed in Alcott territory this last time, it dawned on me that although the March Women are forever young, they change with each new adaptation. Why? I believe the times we live in require us not to rewrite the original but to find a new facet to an ageless story. True, the March women have come a long way, baby, but we’ve traveled the path with them. That’s what makes Little Woman special and keeps it always in our hearts.