Copyright Kim Wells, 1998

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      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 complained about.
      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 modern audience.
      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 this place.
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 expected roles?
      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

 Notes (numbering begins in intro)


Figure Three is a photo of Orchard House, and appears to be the same shot that the film makers use as the March house.


It is interesting to note that in casting the film, the film makers also took pains to find an actor who looks just like Bronson-- even though Mr. March's appearance is never described in the novel.


Bronson's school was closed for admitting a black girl, actually.


Of course, Fields was actually the editor who turned down Alcott's work, advising her to stick to her school teaching (Saxton 195). Apparently the fact checker for the film only checked those facts that suited the film's agenda of representing Jo as Alcott, ignoring any real attempt at historical accuracy.


For further analysis of the different film versions, see Hollander's 1995 article in the New York Times.