Agreed it’s an obvious take, but Australian director Gillian Armstrong’s remake of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, “Little Women,” fairly begs for a feminist reading.
What does the film reveal about how women have changed in the 126 years since the book was written? What sort of evolution has taken place since George Cukor directed his version of the book in 1933? What aspects of this family’s decidedly American lives still speak to us today?
Meeting at a Beverly Hills hotel with Armstrong; Denise Di Novi, who produced the film, and Robin Swicord, who wrote the screenplay, one encounters a trio who groan in unison at the mention of “feminism.”
Armstrong has a particular aversion to the label, as it’s something she’s been trying to transcend since 1979 when her debut picture, “My Brilliant Career,” led to her being branded as a maker of women’s films. A turn-of-the-century tale of a young Australian girl who spurns her handsome suitor for the sake of her writing career, “My Brilliant Career” revolves around a heroine much like “Little Women’s” Jo March.
The similarity between the two characters gave Armstrong pause--in fact, she initially declined to do the film, which has proved to be one of the critical hits of this Christmas season, for that very reason. Once she passed that hurdle and signed on to do the film, which stars Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado and Claire Danes, she came up against the daunting realization that she was a foreigner taking on an American classic.
“The first thing I did after agreeing to do it was read the entire history of the Civil War--I needed to know what was going on in America at the time!” says Armstrong of the film, which was completed last summer during an 11-week shoot in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Armstrong’s interest in the realities of 19th-Century American life, and Louisa May Alcott’s place in it, led to what could be described as a politically correct “Little Women.”
Her film is rife with allusions to issues of class and race that are altogether missing from Cukor’s film. (Anyone who thinks Cukor’s peaches ‘n’ cream version is a classic that cannot be improved obviously hasn’t seen it lately; the redoubtable Katharine Hepburn plays Jo March in a manner alarmingly reminiscent of Marjorie Main’s Ma Kettle.)
Indeed, one of the most intriguing things about Armstrong’s film is the wealth of information it presents about the Alcott family, which served as a model for the Marches of “Little Women.”
The daughter of philosopher and educator Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May grew up in the center of New England’s Transcendentalist Movement, receiving private tutoring as a child from family friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Radically progressive in its day, Transcendentalism espoused the values of equal rights, education for all, self-reliance and charity work. In an effort to highlight Alcott’s philosophy, screenwriter Swicord embroidered her “Little Women” with bits and pieces not in the book, but drawn from Alcott’s life.
“People have told me I’m a ‘90s feminist putting words in the mouths of these fictional characters, but the things brought to the foreground in our film are there in the book. You have to know what you’re looking at to see them though, because they’re not at an expositional level,” says Swicord, who watched the previous versions of “Little Women” in preparing to write her script.
(Armstrong’s is the sixth attempt to bring “Little Women” to the screen; there was a silent version, the Cukor film of 1933, a version starring Shirley Temple that was never released, Mervyn Le Roy’s 1949 film that starred June Allyson, and a 1978 TV version that altered some of the book’s key plot points and spun off into a short-lived series.)
“For instance, you know the mother goes to work at a place called the Rooms, but you don’t know she was the first social worker in Massachusetts,” Swicord says. “You know the family doesn’t follow one religion and that they believe they have a responsibility to improve themselves. It’s suggested throughout the book that the mother is a homeopathic practitioner, so we tried to underscore that--19th-Century women were barred from most medical schools, so many of them went into homeopathic medicine.
“Then there’s an episode where one of the girls is struck at school and the mother decides to educate her at home; corporal punishment was the rule in the 19th Century, but the Transcendentalists opposed it. There’s also an allusion to the fact that the school the father runs is shut down because he allows a dark-skinned person to attend.
“Alcott put these things between the lines of the book because if they’d been openly addressed, she probably wouldn’t have been able to get it published,” Swicord adds. “I tried to write the film as I imagined she would have written it today, freed of the cultural restraints of the time she lived in.”
To play devil’s advocate, one points out that although their film is an enlightened version, it could be described as a story about pretty girls who get married; where’s the feminism in that?
The question obviously hits a tender spot with the women, all of whom are married and have children. (Armstrong has daughters age 9 and 6, Di Novi has a 4-year-old son and Swicord has daughters age 8 and 11.)
“One of the most radical things about ‘My Brilliant Career’ was that it concludes with the heroine refusing to marry the handsome hero,” an irritated Armstrong says. “It was important to make that statement at the time, but contrary to what it suggests, I don’t think feminism is about refusing to marry and have children.”
Adds Di Novi: “Comparing the ending of ‘My Brilliant Career’ with the ending of our film is indicative of how feminism has evolved. This film is grounded in an evolved kind of feminism--which is funny, considering how long ago the book was written. I think we’re evolving into a more humanist and inclusive feminism that’s able to embrace men and motherhood in a way ‘60s feminism couldn’t.”
Armstrong: “I’m reluctant to say the word out loud because it’s come to be such a terrible turn-off, but feminism is now able to be less strident because we’ve actually made some gains and can relax a bit; nonetheless, there are still terrible fears about it. You wouldn’t believe the number of male journalists who ask me questions like, ‘So, you make these women’s films--I assume you’d prefer to have a woman cinematographer?’ I tell them I’m not a separatist and I love men--in fact, I’m married to one! Feminism has had irreparable amounts of bad press that has led men to assume it’s about women rejecting men. Consequently, we worry about this being portrayed as a feminist film--of course it is that, but there are many other things in it as well.”
“Marriage was an unavoidable economic reality in that time,” Di Novi says. “Louisa attempted to create a male character who didn’t compromise Jo and respected her mind, and I hope the film leaves you with the feeling that Jo will continue to write, and that she and her husband will share a life together as equals. One of the things I love about the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer (played by Gabriel Byrne) is that it begins in friendship and develops from there. Those are the marriages that work and we rarely see them in movies. They prefer to present fantasies because it’s simpler, and the industry knows fantasies make money.”
Armstrong adds, “We have to demystify the idea that there’s a prince who comes along and solves your life. One of the most important things to teach our daughters is that they may grow up and be on their own, so they should be able to look after themselves. My parents had a strong belief in equal education for women--nonetheless, my mother still always wanted me to have a white wedding someday,” she adds with a laugh. “I tell her there are no weddings in our family, but there are premieres.”
But what about the beautiful Winona Ryder cast as Jo March, who describes herself in the book as being decidedly plain, if not homely?
“ Every adolescent girl looks in the mirror and feels unsatisfied, simply because women are conditioned to respond to themselves that way,” Armstrong says. “One of the unpleasant parts of female adolescence is the realization that your life will depend to an extent on how you look--it’s a terrible pressure and most of us are never happy with our physical attributes.
“Yes, Winona is one of the most beautiful women in America, but surrounded by the heart-shaped faces of Trini Alvarado and Kirsten Dunst, who have a traditional Victorian beauty, Winona does look a bit scrawny. Beyond that, it’s never said that Jo is ugly--it’s more to do with the fact that she doesn’t fit and doesn’t care about how she looks.”
Though the politics of Armstrong’s “Little Women” are rooted in reality in a way previous film versions were not, the family life it depicts read as pure fiction in the 1990s, when dysfunctional families are the norm. Di Novi agrees that “most people today don’t have the kind of nurturing family life central to this story--and that’s one of the reasons films like this are necessary. The film suggests that you can be a flawed human being with troubled relationships, yet still honor the bond of family.
“It’s complicated to figure out what’s caused the breakdown in parenting we’re experiencing,” she adds, “but a quote I heard that makes sense is that, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and there’s no village anymore.”
Swicord differs, adding: “We should guard against the impulse to romanticize 19th-Century parenting. Kids were routinely hit in school, and there was much less concern about who got an education then. Moreover, the Marches are not a perfect family. Beth was probably mentally ill, although we don’t know to what extent--we do know she was agoraphobic. Marmee is basically a single mother and the family is very poor.” (The Marches may have been poor, but to live today with the rustic charm they enjoyed you must be wealthy enough to afford Ralph Lauren, who’s done a bang-up job of marketing faux poverty.)
“The girls have their battles, too--you see Jo sulking at her sister’s wedding, for instance. Young women tend to read this book during the years when they’re separating from their mothers and are beginning to see them as imperfect, and one of the wonderful things Susan Sarandon brought to the role is that she allows us to see how she could be idealized, but we also see she’s no different from any woman in terms of how she has to struggle in the world and deal with her kids. You see she’s not a saint.”
“We’re working against the image this book has developed over time,” Armstrong says. “People assume it’s sweet and old-fashioned, but this is not a cute little movie for little girls. Yes, it is a film about Louisa May Alcott’s thoughts on very intimate parts of a woman’s life--adolescence and finding first love--and I’m pleased at the prospect of young girls being exposed to those thoughts. But there’s much, much more to the book, and I’ll be even more pleased if men discover there’s something there for them too.”