[1932/1933 & 2019] Little Women I

I sat down with Zach Schonfeld, who’s been a longtime contributor and friend to this blog to talk about Little Women, both George Cuckor’s 1933 version and Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version, along with a smattering of version in between. It’s been made more than a handful of times, for better or for worse.


Sam Sklar  

So, let’s talk about Little Women. We’re going to talk about the one that came out last year as the main focus, but it’s been remade many times. I think this was the fourth time it was made as a movie.

Zach Schonfeld  

Actually no. I wrote a piece about the original silent film adaptations which have been lost. So there are two silent film adaptations in 1918, and 1919, then the 1933 version, which I recently watched, and which was nominated for Best Picture, as you know, then 1949. So that’s 1-2-3-4. And then there were a few television series adaptations, which I don’t think you’re counting. So forget those. Then ‘94 that’s five. So ‘94 is the fifth and then in 2018, there was some Christian film production company, which made a “modern” retelling of Little Women, where it’s actually set in the 2000s. And, instead of going off to fight in the Civil War, the Dad’s going off to fight in the Iraq War. So that was the sixth, and the Greta Gerwig version was the seventh version of Little Women for film. 

So there there are seven film adaptations. But only five of them are available. Two of them are lost films.

Sam Sklar  

Plus a TV series.

Zach Schonfeld  

Plus a whole bunch of television adaptations, including an ABC adaptation from the 70s, which is ranked as the worst Little Women adaptation of all time. Apparently, William Shatner is in it. I’m curious about that. But I haven’t watched that yet. I’ve seen the ‘33, the ‘49, the ‘94 and the 2019 film adaptations. I’ve seen all the major film adaptations.

Sam Sklar  

So you chose not to watch the Christian remake?

Zach Schonfeld  

Actually, I want to see it. I just haven’t gotten around to it. That one everyone acknowledges is bad, pretty much. The others, people debate. You know which of them are the best? Yeah.

Sam Sklar  

Let’s focus on the 1933 and the 2019 ones.

Zach Schonfeld  

Because those were both Nominated Best Picture. 

So the ‘33 version—my understanding is that for many years, that was the gold standard of Little Women adaptations; that was the movie that for many decades that everyone knew. Katharine Hepburn was the classic Jo March. She defined how Jo March would be depicted on screen. She’s sassy and funny, but also super angsty at the same time. 

(When I was talking to my grandma about going to see the new Little Women. She was like, “Oh, I love the one with Katharine Hepburn.” That’s the version that old people grew up with—the ‘33 version.)

I think it is a classic. I don’t think the other sisters are as memorable as Katharine Hepburn. None of the other performances really stood out to me. And then just recently, I watched the 1949 version, which came only 16 years after the ‘33 version. And it’s very similar—the screenplay is the same in parts; they used some of the same lines; they used the same music. The main differences: one. June Allison played Jo in the 1949 one and she tried to imitate the Katharine Hepburn performance in a lot of ways, but she’s just not as good. She just doesn’t pull it off—she’s not as charismatic. She’s petulant and annoying as Jo. That is a real fault of the ‘49 version. 

And two: the ‘33 version is obviously black and white, while the 1949 version is in Technicolor. And the filmmakers really took advantage of full color. You can tell that they’re soundstages. You can tell how fake all the scenery is, like it looks like a ‘40s Hollywood soundstage; it’s very artificial looking. 

The very last shot of the movie, when Jo accepts a marriage proposal from Professor Bhear, and then goes back to her house, the camera shows her house and then it pans up and there’s a shot of a full rainbow in full color. It is corny as hell. But you can tell at the time people were excited about movies being in color because it was a relatively new invention. But personally, I thought the 1949 version was inferior to the 1933 version in numerous ways. It was like the same movie, but slightly worse.

Sam Sklar  

Hollywood did that in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They took a lot of the same intellectual property and recycled it, right? There was really no shortage of works to draw on. But technical limitations forced many hands—there was very little science fiction and things requiring a lot of technical work were very challenging and very expensive. These pastoral stories kept getting remade with a lot of ensemble casts. They were cheaper and a tried practice.

Zach Schonfeld  

And part of that is because Hollywood was changing so quickly. There are all these silent films from the ‘20s and they would remake them in the ‘30s as talkies because all of a sudden they had sound. And then they would remake them again in the ‘40s or ‘50s in color, because all of a sudden you had color. Movies were changing at such a quick rate that they kept remaking movies that had already been popular not that long before.

Sam Sklar  

I mean, it makes sense from any perspective you look at it really, especially as time marches (ha) on. Sixteen years between these adaptations, you have a whole different audience of young people coming up, and the older people are looking for some nostalgia and to compare and contrast the different ones. It would be interesting to talk to someone—I’m not sure this person is alive anymore—that saw the ‘33 version in theaters and the ‘49 version in theaters, and then the ‘94 version in theaters, I’m pretty sure that person would have to be 120 years old.

I’m always interested in talking to people who have experienced a similar thing over time, and asking how their perspective changes—following these two paths of their own life experiences and the story, which stays the same, but with each director who puts their own “take” on it. And so there was a big 45 year gap between adaptations (minus a TV adaptation, these productions must have been extremely bloated if they’re going to be put on for TV. The movie really works well at just over two hours and I can’t imagine them stretching it out for longer than that.) 

It works really well as a movie, but I’m not sure it would do so well as a TV show, and yet, they did it anyway. And they’re going to keep doing it.

Zach Schonfeld  

Like many younger people, my introduction to the story was the ‘94 version. That was the first version of the movie I saw and my familiarity with the plot was all from the 1994 version. So going back to the ‘33 and the 1949 version recently, which I hadn’t seen before, I was surprised by certain things that were left out of those film adaptations.

For instance, when Amy burns Jo’s manuscript. That scene is such an important, pivotal moment in the 1994 film as well as in Greta Gerwig’s film, so I’m very surprised that that scene just is not in the 1933 version at all. In my head that was such a formative moment in the sisters’ relationships. So I was surprised that it wasn’t in the ‘33 version. When they were writing the screenplay for the 1994 version, whoever wrote that screenplay [Robin Swicord] must have noticed that scene in the book and was like, “Wow, this should be in the movie. This is an important moment.” It’s also, not coincidentally, left out of the ‘49 version.

Sam Sklar  

I’m trying to think if there was anything culturally different about American life in the 1860s, when the book was written, and in the 1930s, when movies started to come out about why the director and the producer and screenwriter would choose to leave such a pivotal scene out.

I guess the relationship between women and the breaking of bonds between women was less important? Were all the movies before this last one, directed by Greta Gerwig, directed by men?

Zach Schonfeld  

The 1994 film was directed by a woman, Gillian Armstrong. She is a Australian film director. 

Sam Sklar  

That might give us a little insight into how a woman’s intuition about what kind of events in women’s lives might be more significant or very different than what a man would think. The small little interaction was seen as the throw away in the earlier versions and maybe in the later versions. The female directors may have found a little bit more value in displaying these day-to-day interactions to build a relationship, rather than the big sweeping moments, like Amy falling into the ice skating rink, which is a pivotal moment, but it’s an action moment. 

So men are drawn to it, I guess? Or maybe the “man” of the ‘30s was drawn to the action and the producers wanted to market it to that type of audience, which was interested in a little disturbing scenery rather than a book burning. Hard to say. 

This is also a theory that is backed up by absolutely nothing! We can’t really ask George Cuckor his opinions on this. 

The book was really long when it came out, over 700 pages. The book is two thirds of Lord of the Rings length and that got three movies. That’s where maybe they were coming from with trying to adapt it into a longer series. There is a lot of material there. But I think a lot of that material is better on the page. 

Zach Schonfeld  

Every screen adaptation of the book needs to take some liberties. You can’t show everything, but it’s revealing which scenes different adaptations choose to include or leave out.

Sam Sklar  

It’s a different medium. When critics or audiences complain, “Oh, you know, the book is better. I like the book more.” It’s reasonable to have that opinion. But I will view a movie as a different piece of art than a book is. I don’t expect a movie to be a faithful adaptation of a book, necessarily, because it’s a different way to tell a story. 

Let’s continue on with the ‘94 version. Let’s talk about the modernity of the 90s—how the time period changed how Armstrong would tell the story; and casting Winona Ryder as Jo March. Do you think she was a good Jo March?

Zach Schonfeld 

I really like Winona’s performance.

Sam Sklar  

She has that big nervous energy that she brings to a lot of her roles. She plays skittish but very much sympathetic

Zach Schonfeld  

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, nobody was better at coming of age on screen than Winona Ryder. So many of her great performances from that era. There’s some famous quote from an interview where Winona Ryder is like, “I’ve come of age on screen like 1000 times.” [Ed. She says more like 900 times, but who’s counting] She was so good at playing troubled teen protagonists in Beetlejuice and Heathers and Mermaids (which is underrated). A lot of those movies were classic Gen X roles depicting the troubled goth teens the 80s or early 90s. 

It was a logical extension to cast Winona in a period piece where she plays a troubled teenage girl from the Civil War era. But yeah Winona is one of my favorite actresses. She really brings this brooding, angsty core to Jo March and I think she did a great job in that film. I think she was nominated also for Best Actress.

Sam Sklar  

I think so. [Confirmed]

Zach Schonfeld  

Yeah,  she was a nominee for back-to-back Oscars for Age Of Innocence and Little Women.

Sam Sklar  

She was the it girl for a while. 

Zach Schonfeld  

Early ‘90s was the peak of her career; she was really hot. She was starring in a major role every year from ‘88 up until ‘95 or ‘96.

Sam Sklar  

She fell off a little bit after the late ‘90s.

Zach Schonfeld  

She had the whole breakdown; she got arrested for shoplifting. She went through a rough period.

Sam Sklar  

Stranger Things was a big resurrection for her! She brings that nervous mom energy now. She’s got goth mom energy instead of goth teen energy. In 30 years, we’ll have nervous grandma energy. That’s a cool trajectory. I thought she was great opposite Christian Bale, who played Laurie.

Zach Schonfeld

I mean, the other thing I really like about the ‘94 version is I love Gabriel Byrne as the professor.

The ‘94 version is probably my favorite of the adaptations, overall. Maybe it’s because it’s the first one I saw. So I’m attached to it. But it’s also because I love Winona Ryder, and I think she and Gabriel Byrne have a lot of erotic chemistry, despite their 20-something-year age difference. I like Gabriel Byrne as the professor, I think he does a great job. And yeah, that movie just touches all the bases. 

Sam Sklar  

You’ve also got a young Claire Danes in one of her first roles and Eric Stoltz as the sadman, John Brooke.

Zach Schonfeld  

Right? It really is a who’s who of mid-’90s stars.

Sam Sklar  

The other thing about this movie that’s different in the 2019 version, is they had two actors play Amy as she grew up. It was a really young Kirsten Dunst and an older Samantha Mathis. But in the 2019 version, Florence Pugh played both the younger and the older version. She has a very youthful face. And so the transition was a little awkward because 13-year-old Amy and 21-year-old Amy look identical—some people get an “adult face” young, but it was a little jarring to see everyone else not necessarily need to age and then her just not age at all. 

Zach Schonfeld  

I’ve been outspoken about the fact that I don’t love some of the liberties that Gerwig took with the story. And, in particular, I think part of why I felt like the nonlinear narrative and the constant jumping in time didn’t quite work for me is because the sisters look the same at both ages. They don’t look older or younger— they look the same—and it’s hard to tell how old they’re supposed to be. Having Florence Pugh playing a 14-year-old just doesn’t work; she’s in her 20s. It’s not believable for her to be 14 in that film. They should have hired a younger actress to play Amy as a teenager.

Sam Sklar  

I probably agree but Florence Pugh has got the acting chops to pull it off. I think she’s a very good actor. So I think that was not necessarily the worst choice in the world. It was just a little strange.

What you don’t like about the non-linear narrative I thought was an excellent choice. I really liked hopping around through time. My one big criticism of the 1994 version is that it read like a Wikipedia article of the movie and was just skipping from one scene to the next without a lot of transition; without a lot of interesting editing. 

It was just, “Okay, then this happens. And then this happens when this happens.” Which is a fine way to tell a story. And it wasn’t boring, necessarily. I wasn’t bored by it. I thought it was a little bit. I got a little tired during some of the middle of the movie because it was just plodding along trying to get to the next action point.

Zach Schonfeld  

I found the 2019 version disjointed. And again, maybe this is because I’m a little bit attached to the 1994 version. I appreciate what Greta Gerwig was trying to do—she was really bringing a new approach to the storytelling, putting her own spin on it. But I felt like a nonlinear narrative just ultimately undermined the emotional impact of the story because it doesn’t flow the way it’s supposed to flow. 

It felt disjointed to me; it didn’t have the same emotional impact as the previous film versions. Part of the problem was that there’s not enough of a visual difference between the characters as teenagers and the characters as 20-year-olds to really convince you that they’ve aged all that much. Emma Watson and Saiorise Ronan looked essentially the same in the scenes when they’re children and in the scenes when they’re adults. And for that reason, one, it’s not believable that you’re jumping back and forth seven years in time. And two, it’s a confusing experience for any viewer who’s not already very familiar with the plot. 

Sam Sklar  

That’s a reasonable take!

Zach Schonfeld  

I wasn’t confused because I knew where the story was going. I had already seen the ‘94 version numerous times. But I felt like some of the narrative decisions that Greta Gerwig made didn’t really serve the story. It drew attention to itself and it just didn’t serve the plot in the way that one would hope that it would. 

There were some aspects of the screenplay that I didn’t love. It felt like some of the lines about feminism and about women voting were very clearly written by someone in the 20th or 21st century 

There is a piece in Jacobin that took aim at this movie. And to be clear, I didn’t hate the movie; I thought there were many things to admire about it. But this piece sums up some of what I didn’t like about it. 

Eileen Jones writes:

This version is being credited as the ‘feminist’ Little Women, meaning that there are a series of stilted Pantsuit Nation speeches made about women’s unequal status in society, and contrived you-go-girl scenes featuring Jo facing down male publishers in their domain. I half-expected to see a Hillary Clinton or Ruth Bader Ginsberg cameo, playing some professional woman role model offering Jo encouragement to lean in.

Sam Sklar  

This Little Women is very much an auteur piece, if that’s what you’re saying, because it’s very much Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and not Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” as directed by Greta Gerwig.

Zach Schonfeld  

Here’s the thing. I love Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird was one of my favorite films of the decade. Francis Ha, which she co wrote with Noah Baumbach, is an amazing film.

I think she’s a true original. And she’s such a talented writer. And she’s such an imaginative screenwriter. I’m more interested in Greta Gerwig telling her own stories, writing her own films. When I heard that she was adapting “Little Women,” I was a little disappointed because that story has been done so many times before. And I knew she would put her own spin on it. But I’m more interested in Greta Gerwig’s original movies. What she did with Lady Bird was ultimately better and more satisfying than what she did with Little Women, which has already been filmed and filmed to death many times before.

And I feel the same way about any screenwriter who really excels at writing original films

Baumbach is her romantic partner and has been her collaborator many times in the past and he’s also great at writing original screenplays. If I heard that Noah Baumbach was doing an adaptation of Beetlejuice, I would be disappointed because I think Noah Baumbach is great at writing original screenplays. 

Greta Gerwig is an amazing talent and I want to be clear that I love and respect her work, and I will be more excited when she writes her own original screenplay than when she adapts something that’s been adapted so many times before. 

But I get it. Reboots make a lot of money for Hollywood. Adaptations make a lot of money for Hollywood. People love going to see stories that they’re already familiar with. That’s really what drives the business in Hollywood. I get that’s how Hollywood works. I’m sure that I’m sure there will be another Hollywood adaptation of Little Women during our lifetime, probably within the next 30 years.

Sam Sklar  

For what it’s worth, if Greta Gerwig finding success—commercial success and critical success—with this film allows more producers to give her more money to write her own stuff, then I will take it every time. I will take it if screenwriters and directors and filmmakers we love for writing original screenplays every once in a while do an adaptation so they can keep their head above water. 

Zach Schonfeld  

But so why do you think the 2019 version was nominated for Best Picture and the ‘94 version wasn’t?

Sam Sklar  

That’s a really good question. So I think there’s two things there. The first one is the expanded list of nominees. I’m not sure the 2019 version would make it onto a list of the top five movies of the year, like they nominated before 2008 (and after ‘43). And ‘94 was also incredibly stacked. I don’t think I don’t think the ‘94 version makes it in any way you look at it. 

Zach Schonfeld  

I agree that it’s not one of the top five movies in 1994.

Sam Sklar  

I don’t know if that’s the mood where the nation was at the time. I’m not sure the nation needed another adaptation of an old book at the time.

Zach Schonfeld  

You’re right. But 1994 was a very stacked year that was the year that Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption were both nominated for Best Picture. And the academy being a bunch of cheeseballs gave it to Forrest Gump.

Sam Sklar  

I think that was the right choice.

Zach Schonfeld  

Oh, you’re insane. Forrest Gump is not a great move. 

Sam Sklar  

I am insane! No, I didn’t say it was the best movie. I’ve said it definitely was the movie that 1994 will be best known for.

Zach Schonfeld  

It’s a corny, nostalgic movie that is a good movie for children. I don’t think Forrest Gump holds up. Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time. Pulp Fiction, obviously, is a masterpiece. That decision by the Academy has not aged well at all in my opinion.

Sam Sklar  

And I disagree. I think they got it right. And unfortunately, I love the other two; the other four movies nominated I think are great. It was a really stacked year. Besides Shawshank and Pulp Fiction, you’ve got Four Weddings And A Funeral and Quiz Show. Quiz Show is super underrated. 

Forrest Gump was not the best movie released in ‘94 by any means; I think Pulp Fiction and Shawshank are better movies. I think what the Academy’s job is to put film into context. In the early ‘90s were coming to an end and I think this is what best represented the early ‘90s

Zach Schonfeld  

Ok, I think it should have gotten to Shawshank or Pulp Fiction, both of which have aged much better than Forrest Gump. The other reason that the reason that Little Women didn’t get nominated is, in recent years, there’s been a real outcry over the lack of diversity in Academy Award nominations, specifically the fact that movies directed by women and revolving around women’s stories have not been recognized by the Academy in the past. This wasn’t so much of a consideration, even 25 years ago.

And I think the Academy has taken some minor steps to rectify that. Greta Gerwig wasn’t nominated for Best Director, but both of her movies that she’s made as a director have now been nominated for Best Picture. 

In the ‘90s Twitter didn’t exist; social media didn’t exist. So even if people were upset about the Academy not recognizing movies made by women or people of color, we didn’t have social media to amplify those protests and bring them to the media’s attention the way that it happens today. I’m pretty sure every movie nominated for Best Picture in 1994 was directed by a white man, is that correct?

Sam Sklar  

Yes.

Zach Schonfeld  

Okay. Well, there you go.

END OF PART 1.

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