March Madness: The Best (and Worst) of Little Women
I’ve watched every movie adaptation of Little Women I could get my hands on. I like some more than others, and I have my favorite actors, so I came up with this list of my personal “best” and “worst” (or least favorite). I did not realize it would turn out this long when I started it, but it’s Little Women and I have strong feelings. Here goes!
Best: Saoirse Ronan (2019)
Jo March is the first literary character I fell in love with, and though my feelings about the book have changed considerably since I first read it, to this day Jo remains one of my favorite characters. It seems my favorite movie versions change as I grow older – when I first saw June Allyson in the 1949 movie, I thought she captured Jo’s rambunctiousness and free spirit perfectly. She was the perfect “book Jo”. But then Winona Ryder came along in 1994, and I appreciated the finer nuances of her characterization better. A few more years later, and now I would say that Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal is the best – she is the most fully realized and complete Jo March showing both the strong and vulnerable parts of the character. I know this is also due in large part to director/screenwriter Greta Gerwig’s vision. Her Jo is the strong independent woman who achieved something on her own and did not need to settle for any man – in other words, her Jo is Louisa May Alcott herself.
Nay: Katharine Hepburn (1933)
I said it and I’m sorry. But Hepburn was a little too stagey and dare I say it: overacting. *gasp* I felt that she was shoving Jo’s Awkwardess, Tomboyishness, and Unconventionality down my throat so hard. (CHA-RISTOPHER COLUMBUS!) I know it seems blasphemy to mention anything other than praise for the legendary actress, and believe me I feel bad saying this, especially since I love her in almost everything else I’ve seen her in. I can’t bring myself to put the word “worst” next to her name, so I’m just calling her Jo “nay”. I know I’m in the smallest of minorities here. I’ve read several articles naming her as the best Jo March but I simply can’t agree.
Best: Timothee Chalamet (2019)
I rolled my eyes when I first found out that they were making yet another Little Women, and more so that Timothee Chalamet was going to be Laurie. I thought he would bring nothing but that brooding vibe of his. I now know I was so wrong. Chalamet brought to life the young, boyish, and impetuous playmate and neighbor; and also the mature, responsible husband who never quite loses his playfulness. That proposal scene with Saoirse Ronan was amazing – you could practically see his heart breaking because he couldn’t convince Jo to love him back. I would have been okay with only having Peter Lawford (1949) as the standard even though he was more of a wimpy and dandified Laurie. Thankfully the movie gods had something more in store for us and now at least we have a stronger Laurie, who I can believe is worthy of the love of the March sisters.
Worst: Christian Bale (1994)
Christian Bale was too intense as Laurie. Too intense, that it seemed like he was already channeling his future certifiably deranged characters. I missed the lightheartedness and boyish joy of the character, and when he was nursing his broken heart in Europe, it was easy to see that Jo dodged a major bullet. Run as far away as you can, Jo! Run away and find an older, poorer, professor-type man to fall in love with!
Best: Elizabeth Taylor (1949)
Elizabeth Taylor was luminous as Amy March. She played the vain, selfish little girl so well that we are left breathless by her transformation to the beautiful grown-up woman who sets off for Europe with Aunt March. The fact that we don’t see her burn Jo’s manuscript or fall in love with Laurie in this movie is a huge reason why it’s easier to love her. But Taylor also played Amy as kinder towards Beth and more compassionate towards her family. Coupled with her sheer star power, she is the best Amy in my book.
Worst: Samantha Mathis (1994)
Amy is the most difficult to like of all the sisters. It’s a fact. This is why you have to have the same actress play the young and adult Amy. Because at the very least you want to have some form of payoff for the audience – that somehow the annoying brat that you couldn’t stand grew up and became a little less annoying. But in the 1994 movie, we get introduced to an entirely new Amy (Samantha Mathis, taking over from Kirsten Dunst). We don’t know her. Who is this stranger who will take Laurie away from Jo? We already hate Amy for everything she’s done and will do to Jo (assuming you’re #TeamJo, of course), and to be asked to feel any affection for this unknown is too much. It may not be all Mathis’ fault, but she does not help the situation with her characterization of adult Amy as nothing more than a haughty snob. As much as I irrationally hate her, Amy does genuinely try to be a better person and grows up to be a refined lady, not the insufferable elitist who acts as if she’s above her family as Mathis made her out to be.
Best: Eliza Scanlen (2019)
Beth is a difficult character – she’s the quiet sister who doesn’t have big dreams, who stays home and plays her piano and takes care of her dolls. This seems a bit heartless to say, but her only dramatic moment is her death. This means that she can come across as one-dimensional. Scanlen was able to get past all that and show us a complex Beth who isn’t just a saint, but someone who had a personality. Of course we are all distraught when she dies, but with Scanlen, there’s a lot more behind that feeling because we got to know this Beth. I had never seen her in anything before Little Women, so it was a great surprise to fall in love with her portrayal.
Worst: Claire Danes (1994)
I think Claire Danes missed the memo. Beth is shy and timid, not a mentally impaired overgrown child. Book Beth is a quiet yet powerful presence, and a huge influence on her sisters even though they have stronger personalities. So her death hits us incredibly hard. But Danes is the furthest from Book Beth, and I cannot bring myself to feel anything for her. How can you feel any sympathy for a girl who cries like that?
Best: Janet Leigh (1949)
The Meg I pictured when I first read the book was naturally the one on the cover. (Now that I think about it, it seems strange that my version featured Meg instead of Jo.) I can’t say that Janet Leigh was exactly how I imagined Meg to be, yet when I saw her I immediately felt that she was perfect. She was a very charming Meg, the young and romantic woman dreaming of love. We don’t see her much after she gets married, and this is probably the one thing I missed most in this Meg. It’s in the writing, but we don’t see the closeness between her and Jo. However, it’s just a quibble that doesn’t take anything away from Leigh.
Worst: Emma Watson (2019)
Emma Watson wasn’t really that bad, but she didn’t quite get the accent, which made her sound affected. Her acting is affected to begin with, so it was a bad combination altogether. That early scene at the dressmaker’s with Sallie Moffat is particularly cringe-worthy. But there is one thing that does save Watson’s Meg. Greta Gerwig writes more of the relationship between Meg and Jo so we do see the wonderful closeness they share.
Best: Mary Astor (1949)
The 1949 adaptation was the first Little Women movie I saw. I was around 10 years old, and I remember being awestruck from the opening scene because I had no idea I could watch my favorite book come to life. And Mary Astor was exactly the Marmee I pictured when I was reading the book, with her quiet voice and gentle strength. Movies you watch as a child leave such a mark on you, and I think that is one of the biggest reasons why Mary Astor remains my favorite Marmee. Another reason is that Astor’s Marmee reminds me so much of my own mom.
Worst: Laura Dern (2019)
I appreciate the fact that the last two adaptations have tried to make Marmee a bit more progressive and highlight her feminist views. And though I do appreciate that Marmee would be a bit run down with all the cares and responsibilities solely on her shoulders (because Mr. March just leaves her!), Dern comes across as depressing. She is the furthest from my idea of Marmee, which is why she is unfortunately the worst for me.
Best: Leon Ames (1949)
When I was a child I never questioned Mr. March’s doings or why he left his family for a long time. I just accepted him as the head of the family, albeit a supporting character in the story. Leon Ames played Mr. March with quiet gravitas and I saw him as a believable anchor for Marmee and their daughters. He was only in a very few scenes, but his restraint and the quiet despair in his voice when he tells Jo about Beth’s sickness is the reason he is top of the list.
Worst: Bob Odenkirk (2019)
My feelings for Mr. March have now changed drastically. He is essentially an absentee father who would rather volunteer to fight and possibly die in the Civil War, let his wife worry about his safety, and leave his family to struggle on their own, rather than stay home and help support them. So Bob Odenkirk has no right to play Mr. March as jolly and easygoing as he does. With a husband like that, I can believe Laura Dern’s Marmee when she says she is angry every day of her life.
Best: Lucile Watson (1949)
Lucile Watson brought the right amount of acerbity to Aunt March, but balanced it with just enough heart. Deep down she cares deeply for the March girls, even though they set out to disappoint her with their hot tempers and poor choice of husbands.
Worst: Mary Wickes (1994)
Aunt March in 1994 did not have much to do. Of course it’s not her fault, but Mary Wickes was probably too frail to portray the sharp Aunt March. We just don’t get enough from her and she didn’t make any impact on the movie.
Best: Gabriel Byrne (1994)
Look at that face. That’s the kind and gentle Professor Bhaer that we know, the one who would help Jo erase Laurie from her mind (not that she was heartbroken over him). Gabriel Byrne was the perfect actor to play the Professor, because even if you did not hate Christian Bale, you know you still wanted Jo to find someone better. And honestly, could anyone be better than Gabriel Byrne? (Not Christian Bale, that’s for sure.)
Worst: Louis Garrel (2019)
Probably the most odious portrayal in all Little Women adaptations I have seen, Garrel completely stripped Professor Bhaer of any warmth or kindness. He was smug and condescending when he critiqued Jo’s work that not even the rose-tinted romcom ending we got could redeem him. I don’t know if Gerwig wrote him like that because her Professor Bhaer is almost an imaginary figure anyway, but whatever the reason behind it, Garrel was simply unlikeable.
If you made it this far, thank you! What are your thoughts on the different versions?