The roles that Amy, Jo,
Beth and Meg choose, define, and struggle with seem to entice
people to make a film version of the novel once every generation
or so. We seem almost compelled to rework the novel to fit into
our own time frame, to find the ideals of today in the pages
of Alcott's nineteenth-century text. Strongest of those compulsions
is our desire to make Alcott into Jo. Indeed, Alcott's reading
public wanted so much to believe that Louisa's life was Jo's
that much of her life today is still being confused with Jo's
story. This confusion appears in the most recent film version
of the book, directed by Gillian Armstrong, in 1994. In this
latest adaptation of the novel on film, a winsome Winona Ryder
plays Jo as a much more feminine and vulnerable character than
Katharine Hepburn's brassy portrayal in the 1933 film, or June
Allyson's awkward and sometimes whiny version of Jo in the 1949
adaptation. Perhaps this modern version, by making Jo less boyish
and wild, hopes to make her seem more human and therefore a more
believable representation of Alcott's life.
Not only is Jo more feminine
in this modern screenplay, she is clearly meant to be the character
and historical representation of Louisa May Alcott. This blending
of fact with fiction might seem necessary if readers of Little
Women want to believe that it is possible that someone did
live this life for real. It is easier to imagine Alcott as writing
strictly from autobiography than from a purely fictional basis.
Jo is familiar in a way that Alcott is not. We know who Jo is
because we can identify with her struggles for self-definition,
written into the pages of the novel. We want to assume the same
familiarity with Alcott, so we confuse the writer with the character.
This desire to pretend that Jo is Alcott is a direct extension
of the tendency, still alive today, to see the "roles"
women play as their real lives. By confusing the "role"
of Jo with the life of Alcott, we can be satisfied with our rose-colored
version of history, and we perpetuate the very myth that Alcott
The film begins, as most
of them do, with a wide shot of Concord, where the Alcott family
spent most of their lives, and where they are buried. Alcott's
novel never defines the city it is set in, but it seems that
the film producers feel we should assume, based on the fact that
Concord was the author's home, that the book also takes place
there. In the 1994 version of the film, the March family lives
in a house that looks just like Orchard House,(14)
(to go to the Orchard
House webpage, click here). Since the film's credits gratefully
acknowledge Orchard House for its help, even if they did not
film on location, they certainly used the house as a reference.
To paraphrase the girls on their way to the Christmas ball, "Let
us be historic or we die!" (LW 25). Later in the film there
is a voiceover in which "Jo" refers to their home as
Orchard House, and there are references to skating on Walden
Pond. These are the first elements in the film that are clearly
meant to assure us that what we heard is true, Jo is Louisa,
the Alcotts are the Marches. We are not watching frivolous fiction
but serious historical truth.
The screenwriter of this
film version, Robin Swicord, liberally mixes historical research
with the elements of Alcott's novel in order to grant the audience
a feeling of enhanced realism. The film attempts to establish
itself as biographical history rather than fiction. The women
of the 1990s want to fashion Alcott as an early feminist, thus
establishing a basis for an argument that there is a long tradition
of radical notions in this favorite girls' novel. The brand of
feminism the film upholds is generally more a specifically modern
one, though, and sometimes steps beyond what the nineteenth-century
feminists might have done. Still, perhaps if we can associate
Alcott's feminism with Jo's fictional life, we can justify our
continued love for a novel that upholds and supports the very
rigid roles for women and strict moral codes that we have been
trying to thwart for years. We are just as torn between feminism
and wanting to be little women as Alcott's women are, but we
do not want to admit it, and so we try to find the feminism in
the midst of the domesticity.
An important element of the film that assures us that Jo is Louisa
appears in Susan Sarandon's portrayal of Marmee. Marmee is clearly
meant to be a radical feminist woman of the 1860s, and she is
probably someone's idea of what Abba Alcott must have been like.
In some ways, Sarandon even resembles Abba physically; they have
the same mouth and stubborn, square jaw.(15)
Sarandon's own public persona is that of the concerned and politically
aware mother figure, and it was probably for partly these reasons
she was chosen for the part. Thus reality and "role"
are ever more blurred.
Many of Abba's beliefs are
rewritten and worked into Marmee's dialogue. For example, Abba's
support for New England clothing reforms is translated to film
when, in true Bloomerian style, Sarandon's Marmee spouts lines
about the harmful effects of corsets on the development of young
girls' bodies. The film Marmee also argues that women should
have the same rights as men to vote, hold property, and work
outside the home, and she heals Beth with homeopathic medicine
almost the minute she arrives back from Washington D.C. This
last element is an interesting addition. In Alcott's text, Beth's
scarlet fever turns, of its own accord, early in the morning,
sometime before Marmee arrives. In the film version, after the
ineffectual male doctor has pronounced that there is nothing
he can do, Marmee bustles in, pulls the stifling blankets off
her sleeping child, begins rubbing her feet, and directs Jo and
Meg to gather vinegar and water so that they can "pull the
fever down from her head." The next morning, as Jo rushes
into the sickroom, she finds Marmee feeding a revived Beth while
the backlit glow of morning sunlight haloes their red hair. Sarandon
beams at the camera with placid self- assurance -- clearly this
Marmee wasn't worried in the least. In fact, we might even wonder
why Beth continues to fail with such a competent doctor in the
house. In some ways, Sarandon's Marmee seems to represent the
more prevalent modern single mother, rather than a woman who
is alone while her husband is serving his country. There is a
clear bond between the girls and Marmee in the film-- she is
not only Mother, she is also a confidante (Hollander 11).
Obviously the 1990s director
and strong lead actress wanted to make Marmee even more of a
feminist than she is in Alcott's text, so they liberally lace
historical facts about women of the era with Marmee's characterization.
The film makers seem to believe that adding historical "fact"
to the fiction of Alcott's story makes the story more relevant
to '90s audiences. What they do, though, is further confuse the
issue of who Alcott really is, and make the film liberally ahistorical.
In one scene, Amy exclaims that her teacher says that "it
is as useful to educate a woman as to educate a female cat,"
to the horrified gasps of Jo and Marmee, who look as though what
the teacher said is the unusual thing. In reality, his opinion
was a dominant one among many educators in the nineteenth century.
That they are horrified and astounded at this idea is more of
a 1990s truth. Later, when Marmee claims that "nothing provokes
speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself,"
she is again spouting today's values in the novel's Victorian
setting. It sounds as though it is possible for a woman to consider
"enjoying herself" as appropriate, when in reality,
the most common role for the Victorian woman would be to stay
silent and demure.
In their insistence on adding strength to Marmee's character,
the film makers clearly look to what they assume was Marmee's
"real world" counterpart and incorporate Abba's causes
into Marmee's monologues. Compare the earlier statement by Sarandon's
Marmee with Abba's complaint:
A woman . . . may perform the most disinterested duties --
she may die "daily" in the cause of truth and righteousness.
She lives neglected, dies forgotten. But a man who has never
performed in his whole life one self-denying act, but who has
accidental gifts of genius, is celebrated by his contemporaries,
while his name and works live on from age to age. He is crowned
with laurel, while scarce a stone may tell where she lies. (qtd.
in Saxton 143)
Of course, it is important to note that while Abba wrote these
words in her own journals, she did not voice them on street corners,
as Sarandon's Marmee seems likely to do. Most of Abba's public
activism was centered on advocating abolition and working for
relief societies for the poor. While she worked tirelessly to
try and improve the conditions of Boston's lower class, her outspoken
nature eventually led to her being fired in her job as missionary.
Abba may have been willing to be outspoken and wage a tireless
campaign against social ills, but her very willingness to do
battle embarrassed the Friendly Society of the South Congregational
Unitarian Church enough to close down the Missionary Room that
Abba ran (Bedell 276-80).
Marmee, in Alcott's novel,
also works for the poor, but she never discusses corsets on the
street with the next-door neighbor's tutor. Still, what the film's
additions do is attempt to mesh what history has told us about
the lives of nineteenth-century feminist women with one of our
favorite stories. The addition of historical information does
not really make the film outrageously ahistorical, but it does
make the film very different from the novel that Alcott wrote.
The film suggests that perhaps we can understand the nature of
Alcott's "roles" for her little women in the context
of 1990s feminism.
These additions to Marmee's
character are not the boldest additions: the blending of historical
fact and fiction is made even more obvious in the depiction of
Jo's trip to New York. The trip to New York is packed with elements
that do not appear in Alcott's text. The Jo of the film meets
a very handsome Professor Bhaer, with whom she discusses everything
from her own stories to Goethe; he is far from the distracted
older scholar who appears in Jo's letters home in the novel.
Together they also recite the lines of a Walt Whitman poem, "Manhattan."
Jo tells Bhaer that her parents are from an "unusual circle
in Concord" and then asks him if he is familiar with the
Transcendentalists. The two drink espresso, go to the opera unchaperoned,
and kiss in public. These scenes pique the viewers' imagination,
turning the problematically asexual relationship that Alcott's
Jo has with Bhaer into a more satisfying one. The modern viewer
could never imagine an independent and feminine Jo marrying Bhaer
without sexual attraction, so these additions flesh out the romance
between Jo and Bhaer, romance Alcott felt uncomfortable with.
When we see the difference between our expectations of "romance"
that show up in the film and then consider Alcott's sanitized
version in the text, we can clearly see that there is something
missing in the novel's romance. Surely if Alcott had been so
inclined, she could have written more than a two-dimensional
portrayal of Jo's romantic experiences, and the film makers would
not have had to fill in so much. But Alcott gives us no frame
of reference for adult romance in the novel because she prefers
her "little women" to remain in the world of perpetual
childhood. This stasis proving impossible, the women must be
gently married off or killed; either way, they stay out of trouble.
It is not only Jo's scenes
wherein the 1994 filmmakers mix the facts of Alcott's life into
the fiction of Alcott's novel. When Meg goes to the Moffats'
party, one girl asks, "Is it true that your father had to
close his school for admitting a black boy?"(16)
and Aunt March provokes Marmee by criticizing Mr. March's "new
philosophies." Since the school closing and philosophies
are true of Bronson but not of Mr. March, the film clearly means
to imply that the two are one and the same. Thus the very details
that Louisa might have wanted to forget are added to our own
modern public construct of the novel's truths, which, we are
assured by these additions to the fiction, are the same as Alcott's
truths. But Alcott herself has already shown us that appearances,
even truths, are questionable. These details are followed up
with the most identity-confusing addition to the film, which
appears at the end. As Jo writes her novel, there are voiceovers
by each girl that consist of dialogue directly lifted from the
pages of Alcott's novel. Jo sends the novel off, and it comes
back titled Little Women, published by James T. Fields.(17) Jo is now firmly established as the author
of Little Women, and her identity is forever blended with
the real author, Louisa May Alcott. The film takes Alcott's revision
of her own life another giant step, and succeeds in revising
an entire historical era. The 1994 film depiction desperately
wants to portray the fiction that Alcott created as historical
fact, and it revises what Alcott wrote in order to please its
The reason that these "facts"
and their unmistakable identification with Alcott's life in the
latest film version are so important is that they clearly illustrate
the public's strong desire to believe that Jo is Louisa. Both
the reading public and movie watching public want to believe
in the same fiction that Alcott wanted to believe in, that families
like the Marches really exist. Any girl who watches the film
and then reads the text, with its explanatory note that the book
is based upon "the memory of [Alcott's] own family and growing
up" (LW 1983 edition, back cover), will surely believe the
novel to be far more "true" than it actually is. Why
is it that the public wants so desperately to believe that Jo's
story is really an autobiography of her author? I would argue
that it is because, when we concede that even the roles "good"
women play might be made-up "performances," we call
into question our definitions of what makes women women. Under
these conditions, it is hard to say what separates "good"
women, like Alcott or Jo, from "bad" ones, like Pauline
or Jean Muir. Even today, society is not completely ready for
these questions about our most basic roles and assumptions.
As film critic Anne Hollander
has pointed out, an analysis of the various film versions of
the novel reveals that the values of the March girls can be manipulated
to support the dominant social roles for women during the eras
in which the films are produced. When we view the 1933 version,
we are reminded of a nation during the Depression that needed
to see the March girls' benign poverty and nostalgic family togetherness.
The 1949 version, with its two shopping trips, reinforces how
important it is for a woman to be a consumer, and the 1994 version
supports strong, unconventional, feminist women.(18)
The novel lends itself to this type of adaptation in the film
versions because the novel too is a manipulation of society's
strictly defined roles for women. These various roles can be
seen in each of Alcott's characters; all of their roles can be
defined and clearly labeled, as we have seen in our earlier discussion
of the text. The different roles the little women play are specifically
drawn from Alcott's keen observations of what made women, both
individually and collectively, successful, and each little woman
is also a careful exploration of an element of Alcott's dreams
and family relationships.
If a group of Little Women
fans were to gather and discuss their favorite character, most
would probably choose Jo-- she is the most vibrant character
in the novel and her struggles with self-identity and expectations
is one most teenage girls can identify with. But my personal
favorite has always been Amy. I could never really say why until
I saw the 1994 film version's characterization of her. Because
Alcott sketches Amy as such a powerful woman, the portrayal of
her character in the various film versions produced before 1994
have been problematic. The 1933 version of Little Women
casts a mature woman as Amy; in fact, the actress who played
her, Joan Bennett, was pregnant at the time. It is impossible
in this film version to believe that Amy is younger than Margaret
O'Brien, who plays Beth, although they try to make her seem a
young girl by dressing her in a pinafore through most of the
film. Similarly, hitting closer to the mark but still off, the
1949 version of the movie casts Elizabeth Taylor as Amy. Taylor
plays Amy generally as a spoiled, bratty child, with far fewer
redeeming characteristics than the Amy in the novel. The movie
focuses on Amy in a number of scenes, and she is a petulant but
pretty princess. But since this version advertises itself as
a romance where Laurie is the prize, Amy is successful where
the others are not.
Only in the 1994 version
of the movie do the film makers get it right. In the beginning
of the film they cast a young girl as Amy, Kirsten Dunst, and
change actresses to Samantha Mathis in the second half. The actresses
play her well, combining the drive and ambition that Amy shows
with an awareness of her place in society. This is because Amy,
as a woman who knows exactly what she wants from a very early
age and who is willing to use whatever charms necessary to get
it, was unappealing to the public until feminism allowed women
to be selfish and petty without being considered "bad."
In a culture where women are supposed to be nurturing, Amy's
character is problematic-- so she is portrayed incompletely and
generally misunderstood. In Amy, Alcott created a character that
is so progressively strong that she was out of place until the
1990s. She is a spirited character, and never seems to struggle
with her personality the way Jo does. She is also never relegated
to "the shelf" as Meg is, or fade away like Beth does.
This is what has always made her my favorite. Amy shows me something
about my own struggles, that it is okay to be self-confidant
in the face of overwhelming odds.
Just as I learn something
each time I read the novel or see the film versions, the 1990s
film version shows us something new about ourselves through its
insistence on working historical fact into fiction, its blending
of the identities of Marches and Alcotts, and its wish to turn
Little Women into a more feminist text than it already
is. For me, the 1990s version of the film re-emphasizes society's
need to reinforce certain roles and to believe nostalgically
in our most cherished memories of childhood. Perhaps when we
can come to terms with the contradictions those roles sometimes
invoke, we can understand Alcott's own nature, which itself was
sometimes contradictory. Alcott was, above all, a skilled performer,
whose various roles in life changed and evolved. She deserves
to be noticed for her versatility and ability to create such
convincing characters that we refuse to believe they were not
real. She deserves recognition as one of the important creators
of the American novel. Perhaps more studies of her entire body
of work, including all of her gothic stories and such often overlooked
works as "Transcendental Wild Oats," will grant her
My own study is only the beginning of the possibilities for further
exploration of Alcott's works -- future works might look at all
of the gender roles in her works, including those played by male
characters. In order to further our understanding of the state
of these gender roles today, we can learn from a writer who constantly
blends and blurs the sharp lines between and around all traditional
roles. Future explorations should also be made of Alcott's Work
(1873) and Moods (1865). These two novels were the ones
that she felt most passionate about, that she worked on throughout
her career, and that are very seldom critically appraised. They
delve into an adult world where the roles women and men play
are firmly entrenched, but do they challenge or affirm societally
Gilbert and Gubar argue that
"a woman writer must examine, assimilate, and transcend
the extreme images of 'angel' and 'monster' which male authors
have generated for her" and also point out that "self-definition
necessarily precedes self-assertion: the creative 'I AM' cannot
be uttered if the 'I' knows not what it is" (17). Alcott's
entire body of work offers a clue to her struggles with what
Gilbert and Gubar suggest the woman artist must do. Within Alcott's
novels and short stories she explores the issues of what makes
a woman's role valid and useful, and her ideas about the roles
and personas that occur in every walk of life suggest that even
amidst traditional images for women there can be innovation.
Alcott examines both angel
and monster, and in some places deftly blends the two into one
whole and positive character. She shows us that all roles for
women, from angel to monster, are possibly masks which may be
beneficial for the women trapped in apparently limiting roles
if those roles are used to the best advantage. Alcott transcends
the angel by showing us non-angels who are still loved and successful
in the characters of Amy, Jo, and Meg March. She also shows us
the limitations for the angel in the kitchen when her master
of the world refuses to work within that world's male roles by
allowing us a peek into Hope Lamb's struggles. Alcott then transcends
the monster when she allows women who are forced by economic
or personal circumstances into roles that society might deem
monstrous, such as Marion, La Jeune, Pauline and Jean Muir, to
get away with deception and manipulation without major consequences.
She even allows to reader to like those women.
She does these things to
further define who her own "I" might be. If it is "debilitating
to be anywoman in a society where women are warned that if they
do not behave like angels they must be monsters (Gilbert and
Gubar 53), then Alcott's refusal to be controlled by this duality
(so dominant in her own home through Bronson's personal beliefs)
shows her extraordinary strength of will. If that does not qualify
her as a great writer then it surely must qualify her as a great
woman. Louisa May Alcott was a woman who transcended her society's
and her family's expected roles. She was an "actress and
woman" to be reckoned with.
On to Works Cited