Rosie Best explains why the BBC’s latest adaptation of Little Women is more of a salted caramel than a sickly spoonful of sugar.
Everyone knows that the few days between Christmas and the New Year are meant for lazing on the sofa and gorging on delicious sweet treats. This year, the BBC helped us indulge in this tradition with a brand new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 American classic, Little Women. But, unlike that Percy Pigs/chocolate orange combo I consumed for breakfast on Boxing Day, this dose of sweetness was well-balanced – neither sickly nor overpowering.
Heidi Thomas’s adaptation retained the spirit of the book which, despite its reputation, is more of a salted caramel than a spoonful of sugar. In this year’s version, Maya Thurman-Hawke’s Jo provided the pinch of salt: the character’s (sometimes over) zealous nature was wonderfully encapsulated in everything from her infectious, genuine grin to her palpable (and 100% justifiable) rage when Amy burns her beloved novel.
2017’s adaptation also portrayed a Jo-Laurie relationship which was a lot more ambiguous – and intriguing – than I remembered. In the novel, we learn to see things mostly from Jo’s perspective and whilst we like Laurie, readers generally seem to support Jo’s decision to reject his marriage proposal without much doubt or lingering. However, Jonah Hauer-King evokes more empathy than his written counterpart: he dejectedly tells Jo, eyes downcast, that he grew his hair out because “I thought you might care for it.”
The other sisters were generally well cast. Kind, an obvious source of sisterly guidance, and perhaps the most typical of the siblings, Willa Fitzgerald’s Meg is true to Alcott’s original. But Thomas adds an important element of likeability to a character is who is younger than she sometimes seems: Marmee asks “Meg, have you been drinking wine?” and Meg replies, giggling and rosy-cheeked, “I had punch, does that have wine in it?”
Beth was played by Annes Elwy, who reassured me of not just of my sympathy but of my admiration for her character. The scenes in which she struggles and eventually forces herself to leave her sanctuary and accept Mr Lawrence’s invitation to play the grand piano were especially moving and relatable for anyone who has battled the same demons as Beth.
Of the four sisters, the only one who felt slightly out-of-synch with Alcott’s character was Amy. Played by twenty-year-old Kathryn Newton, the youngest girl looked much too old to contemplate an action as spiteful as burning Jo’s book, or to have such a childish preoccupation with pickled limes.
Alcott’s own interest in her father’s transcendentalist beliefs rendered the role of the individual – especially female individuality – particularly important in Little Women and the BBC’s adaptation did well to capture this.
However, for me, Emily Watson’s Marmee was disappointing. In the novel, Marmee’s defining characteristic is her religious zeal – particularly her obsession with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Heidi Thomas’s decision to cut out what is a major influence for the Marches is understandable but it leaves the character of Marmee motivation-less and slightly flat. Viewers lack an insight into the driving force behind the matriarch’s pervasive goodness.
That being said, Watson’s performance in the final episode of the series is, admittedly, pretty great. Beth’s death is as sad as ever and Marmee’s final words can force a sob out of even the most well-prepared viewers.
Fans of the novel will also have picked up on small details such as Jo’s continual munching on apples – a recurring image in the book and a nod to Amos Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands experiment – and the copy of Transcendental Wild Oats pinned on Jo’s wall. Evidence of Thomas’s careful adaptation but also of a thorough and informed production, these details help to ground the series in an important and often underrated book adored by generations of readers.