Tuesday, December 11, 2012

the march sisters redux

Over Thanksgiving the Lifetime network premiered an update of Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women, a new holiday film, The March Sisters at Christmas. I generally avoid the chick-flicks that are the network's specialty, but I have always been a huge fan of Alcott's novel and was intrigued to see where they would take the story in modern times. Lifetime wasn't kidding when they called it an update, as the film tried hard to milk trends like Twitter while basically following Alcott's well-known narrative.

 In The March Sisters at Christmas Jo and her sisters are desperate to save Orchard House, their childhood home (where all the twenty-something March sisters still reside), that their mother is intending to sell. She needs to downsize the family digs as her husband, who has been serving in Afghanistan, has been wounded and may not be able to bring in an income when he returns from the front. Mom steps off-stage to retrieve the girls' father, leaving her daughters to pursue their fairly confused love lives. Sometimes the film tries too hard to be contemporary or relate to the Gossip Girl generation, as it has the sisters fighting constantly with each other and calling each other names like "slut-sicles." Really? But it does try hard in other ways, with filming locations near Worcester, Massachusetts keeping the story close to its New England roots.

Jo (Julie Marie Berman, General Hospital) is a celebrity tweeter and aspiring novelist who may be getting closer to her editor, Marcus Bhaer. Boy next door Teddy (Justin Bruening, All My Children) loves Jo, but she just thinks of him as a friend, maybe even a brother. Not to worry, as theater stage manager, Amy (Molly Kunz), the baby of the family, is waiting in the wings. We know that lawyer and older sister Meg (Kaitlin Doubleday) will get back together with her intended. The only character who is not very clearly drawn is Beth (Melissa Farman). She still plays piano, as in the novel, but she has no career, no ambitions. She doesn't even perish at the end of the movie. Did the writers wimp out, or are they hoping to parlay the television movie into a series?

The March Sisters at Christmas was O.K., but all of the updating just really underlined for me how much the story doesn't lend itself to cinema. The strength of the story is in the characters, their life together, and their ambitions. Jo is a feminist icon, and for good reason. She didn't want to take the traditional path her sister Meg aspired to, of a husband and babies. Not at least until she had adventures and her own, and a career as a writer. She helped support her family. And she wanted to be in charge of her love life. She couldn't or wouldn't settle for the handsome Laurie/Teddy choosing her as his soul mate. She wanted to to go out in the world and choose for herself.

The March Sisters in the movies

Amy (Joan Bennett), Marmee (Spring Byington), Beth (Jean Parker), Meg (Frances Dee), and Jo (Katherine Hepburn)

Amy (Elizabeth Taylor), Meg (Janet Leigh), Jo (June Allyson, and Beth (Margaret O'Brien)
Meredith Baxter (Meg), Ann Dusenberry (Amy), Dorothy McGuire (Marmee), Eve Plumb (Beth), and Susan Dey (Jo)

Jo (Winona Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Amy (Kirsten Dunst), Marmee (Susan Sarandon), and Beth (Claire Danes)

Beth (Melissa Farman), Jo (Julie Marie Berman), Amy (Molly Kunz), and Meg (Kaitlin Doubleday)

Jo's turning down of Laurie was a huge disappointment to me as I read Little Women at the tender age of 10 or 11, as I had fallen for him and couldn't quite understand why Jo hadn't too. As much as I wasn't completely on board with Professor Bhaer, I read a lot of Alcott over one long ago summer, devouring the next two sequels, Little Men and Jo's Boys. I don't think either of them hold a candle to the first book, although I remember liking the character of Nat. I also read Eight Cousins, centering on a young orphan girl named Rose, which I liked more than the other two books, but can't recall if I read its sequel, Rose in Bloom.

There have been numerous attempts to turn Little Women and its timeless tale of family and survival during tough times into a film.
1933 film with Katherine Hepburn as Jo. it's a nice film, but Hepburn is so Hepburn that she never really became Jo for me. 
1949 film with June Allyson as Jo, a blonde Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, and a woefuly miscast Peter Lawford as Laurie. A real Hollywod Techicolor version, but the costumes are great and Allyson does capture Jo's spunky side. 
1994 film with Winona Ryder as Jo, Cristian Bale as Laurie, and Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer. This version may come the closest to the original novel of the adaptations, especially in its depiction of the Jo/Bhaer romance, which was more than a little inscrutable in the book. And Bale shows his sweet side as a perfectly cast Laurie.  
There was also apparently a 1978 television film starring Susan Dey as Jo and William Shatner (!) as Professor Bhaer — I haven't seen it, but am curious to check it out.

The March Sisters at Christmas is just the latest attempt to retell Alcott's story. It reminds me that I have to pick up Geraldine Brooks’s novel March. I suspect that a literary adaptation is still bound to be the most successful format for a new way to look at the March sisters.
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