Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Ideal Film Adaptation of "Little Women"

In 2013, Sony Pictures announced plans for a new adaptation of Little Women; the project is still in development, but there was a small flurry of internet excitement about possible casting, in which Jennifer Lawrence's name was repeatedly mentioned. There have been, to date, three feature length film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel (two silent film adaptations, made in 1917 and 1918, are both considered lost). The three films, made in 1933, 1949, and 1994, offer radically different interpretations of the story and the characters, but all are excellent films and well worth viewing. Inevitably, some of the actors are better cast than others, but if I could magically integrate the three films into one perfect adaptation, actors from every adaptation would be well represented.

Casting Jo March is a formidable process. She's still, even today, a radical character, completely uncaring of convention and rigorously moral - a true feminist, of all human specimens perhaps the least liked by the squeamish Hollywood set. Interestingly, the weakest of the three actresses who have portrayed Jo is Winona Ryder (1994), though the performance is still very good; her interpretation of Jo softens the rough edges of her character, so much so that by the second act her rebellious embrace of masculine characteristics gives way to a fairly conventional romantic female role. Ryder's Jo is even shy, hyper-conscious of being female, and delicately, ethereally beautiful. Although the 1994 version is the most overtly engaged with feminism and Reconstruction era politics, its heroine loses many, if not most, of her transgressive qualities. Katharine Hepburn (1933) and June Allyson (1949) both give stronger, more feminist performances and in the end determining the better casting is a matter of preferred acting style. Although Hepburn is more transgressively boyish and athletic, I like Allyson best. She not only physically resembles Alcott's description of Jo, but she captures both the adolescent awkwardness and liberated joy Jo takes in her writing and the more mature reflectiveness of her young adulthood, which nevertheless doesn't put a stop to her heedless reactivity and passionate engagement with the world.

Best moment: My favorite moment of June Allyson's performance is a scene, not included in either of the other adaptations, in which Jo is reading aloud a story she hopes to publish and sobbing over it. When Beth asks her if it isn't any good, Jo replies, "It's wonderful!" Allyson's delivery is brilliant, carefully treading the line between absurd adolescent over-confidence and Jo's complete lack of vanity.

Meg is probably the most easily relatable of the sisters; unlike the other three, her personality is fairly soft and most defined by the expectations of her time. Her storyline in all three films is mostly compressed into her romance with John Brook. Significantly, the tribulations of her early married life are absent from all adaptations, thus allowing the films to retain a far rosier and more positive picture of marriage than in Alcott's book. Janet Leigh (1949) is the most nondescript of the three actresses who portray Meg, effortlessly beautiful, but without much substance. Frances Dee (1933) and Trini Alvarado (1994) are both much more interesting. Alvarado in particular is given many more scenes, including a number of significant scenes at Sally Moffat's coming out party. Those scenes grant the character greater depth and the chance to explore more traditionally feminine quandaries and frustrations. My favorite, however, is Frances Dee, an actress that few remember today. Dee is able to deliver even the most sentimental lines without mawkishness and her performance hews most closely to the character in the novel.

Best moment: One of the most difficult lines for the actress playing Meg to deliver, not included in the 1994 version, is said at Beth's bedside as she lies ill with scarlet fever: "If God spares Beth, I'll love him, serve him, all the days of my life." It's altered in the 1949 version to be less fervidly sentimental and indeed even altered it's a particularly weak moment for Janet Leigh. But Dee delivers it with an exhausted ardor that avoids hammy exultance.

The casting of Amy is complicated by how young she is initially. Few actresses can convincingly play both a twelve year old girl and a married woman in her twenties in the same film. The first two adaptations followed the theatrical convention of simply dolling up a fully grown woman and trusting the performer to carry it off, but in the 1994 version, one actress plays Amy as a child and another as a woman. It's a wise choice and one I would definitely retain in any cinematic adaptation. Kirsten Dunst (1994) is exceptional as the child Amy, bringing a freshness to the selfish, at times prissy, but nevertheless likable character. Both Joan Bennett (1933) and Elizabeth Taylor (1949) overemphasize their child performances and at times Amy's ridiculousness can feel condescending and even a bit cruel. Taylor gives the boldest performance, playing Amy as consummately selfish and retaining a babyish self-absorption even as an adult. I rather like the unapologetic nerve of her performance, but it certainly isn't subtle. Between Bennett and Samantha Mathis (1994), I prefer Bennett. Mathis is good, but perhaps too elegant, too perfected, while Bennett allows Amy subtler traces of her childhood faults, while convincingly playing the sort of lovely woman that would attract an aesthete like Laurie.

Best moment (1): Amy constantly misuses and mispronounces words and in the 1933 and 1949 versions, this is played quite broadly; in the 1994 version, Dunst delivers these lines naturally, just as any affected young girl would say them, without emphasizing their silliness. Thus she can tell her mother, "We've been expectorating you for hours!" and it's really rather endearing.

Best moment (2): My favorite moment of Joan Bennett is in one of the last scenes of the film. Amy has just returned from Europe and as she greets Jo, she says, "I'll never forgive myself for going away and leaving you to bear everything." This line is repeated, almost verbatim, by Taylor as well, but Bennett delivers it at once coquettishly and sheepishly; her remorse is genuine, but superficial, and she's above all eager to demonstrate that she has the proper feelings. Amy is still selfish, but she's grown enough to try not to be.

The casting of Beth is the easiest for me: without question, the best of the three is Jean Parker (1933). Her almost ethereal sweetness and transcendent smile really do seem to belong to a girl who belongs in heaven. Beth, of all the characters, is the one that we're least likely to be convinced by today, a morally irreproachable, self-sacrificing, and impossibly dear young girl the likes of which few would consider realistic. Margaret O'Brien (1949) is convincing as a girl on the brink of death, with those impressive dark circles, but she lacks Parker's otherworldliness and sweetness, while Claire Danes (1994) gives a deeply moving performance, nuanced and sympathetic. Parker, however, is perfect.

Best moment: Beth's death scene, in which she says goodbye to Jo and tells her that she'll be "homesick for you, even in heaven," is guaranteed to induce floods of tears in all but the most hardhearted viewer. It's one of the single most devastating death scenes, either in literature or in film, and Jean Parker's performance couldn't be improved upon.

After the four little women, the most significant character is Marmee, their moral anchor and emotional mainstay. Mary Astor (1949) gives a surprisingly understated performance and rather gives the impression that she could be ill, though she does have a noble gravitas. Susan Sarandon (1994) is, unsurprisingly, the most obviously modern of the three, explicitly criticizing restrictive corsets, and she seems to be based more on Alcott's actual mother than the Marmee of the novel. Sarandon also seems a bit too confident about her girls' ability to thrive in an admittedly unjust world in which their ambitions are thwarted and marrying for love an unusual, risky choice. To me, the best casting of Marmee is Spring Byington (1933), an experienced character actress who often played sweet-tempered but befuddled older women. Marmee is a deeply sentimental character and her moralizing effusions, most too sentimental even for the 1930s, are largely excised from the film versions. Byington is the only one of the three that retains Marmee's embrace of Christian sentimentality and above all her ambivalence about her daughters' positions in the world.

Best moment: As Marmee leaves for Washington to attend to her wounded husband, she says goodbye to her daughters and insists they stay at home and continue with their work. Byington kisses the girls farewell, stands back to look at them and give them her blessing, and then turns to go, refusing to let them come to the railroad station with her. When Byington turns to the camera, we see her expression - Marmee's heart is breaking in that moment, but she's determined to keep her strength as long as her girls can see her. It's really an extraordinary moment.

The interpretations of Laurie, Jo's scapegrace childhood chum, vary wildly among the three films. Peter Lawford (1949) is woefully miscast, and his manful struggle to carry off the performance rather makes it worse. Though he was only twenty six, he seems a good ten years older and is completely unconvincing as a teenager. Douglass Montgomery (1933), also twenty six at the time, is totally convincing as teenager, particularly in the scenes of fencing with a coal shovel and chasing Jo down the street, but woefully ridiculous as a grown man, sporting one of the ugliest mustaches I've ever seen. Without question, the best of the three is Christian Bale (1994), boyishly mischievous as an adolescent and rakishly handsome as a young man (and sporting a rather nice mustache). Bale's interpretation is by far the most complex and he conveys a great deal - the loneliness and loss of being an orphan, the hunger for acceptance, his distaste for adult duties, just as a start - that is lacking in the previous adaptations.

Best moment: Laurie's tour de force scene is his failed proposal to Jo. While Lawford under-emotes and actually seems a bit sleepy and Montgomery acts like a sixteen year old in a school play (which, granted, is not a crazy interpretation), Bale conveys Laurie's longing, his initial assumption that he'll be accepted, and his bitterness at being refused. When he tells Jo that "I'll be hanged, if I stand by and watch" her fall in love with another man, it's neither a fit of temper nor a rote expression of frustration. It's a complicated expression of failure, bitterness, and loss.

Casting Professor Bhaer is inevitably a battle between Alcott's vision of "a regular German - rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice," who "hadn't a really handsome feature in his face," and Hollywood's insistence on attractive romantic leads, and in two out of the three cases, Hollywood won. In the 1949 version, Professor Bhaer is played by Rossano Brazzi, who does indeed have an accent, but couldn't pass for German if he polkaed about the room in lederhosen with a beer stein in one hand and a wiener schnitzel in the other. Brazzi's thick Italian accent (his recitation of Goethe's "Nul wer die Sehnsucht kennt" is particularly trying) should have excused a simple change to the character - Professor Bhaer should have become Professor Orso. Gabriel Byrne (1994) does manage a convincing German accent and thankfully he escapes singing, unlike the other two, but he is altogether too handsome and seductive to convince as a middle-aged, burly, and supremely awkward professor. The clear and obvious winner is Paul Lukas (1933), a Hungarian born actor, who looks right, talks (mostly) right, and fully captures the Professor's mannerisms, at once ludicrous and endearing.

Best moment: Although Professor Bhaer's biggest scene is undoubtedly his proposal to Jo under the umbrella, my favorite moment of Paul Lukas happens earlier in the film. He has just brought Jo home from the opera and he clumsily tries to tell her he wants to propose, by saying, "May I have the address of your father? I wish to write and ask him something." Jo doesn't get what he's driving at, but his fumbling attempt at a proposal reveals his affection and his ineptness at once, and his eagerness to help her when her letter reveals that Beth is ill again is swiftly followed by despair when she says he can do nothing for her and he realizes that she's leaving and he's lost his chance to propose.

It's almost impossible for me to choose between the three marvelous character actresses who play the redoubtable Aunt March: Edna May Oliver (1933), Lucile Watson (1949), and Mary Wickes (1994). All three are at the top of their game, playing the crotchety, cranky, miserly old bird, who nevertheless retains a decided soft spot for her grand nieces. If I absolutely have to choose, I think my favorite is Edna May Oliver, if only because she gives no quarter. Her softness is revealed only by a retreat into even greater severity.

Best moment: Every moment with Oliver is a moment well spent, but she's particularly good in her first scene, berating Jo to spend her Christmas dollar wisely and working in a barbed comment about Mr. March neglecting his family. One imagines Aunt March rather enjoys getting her "highty tighty" young niece riled up.

Even though the character of Mr. Brook is a sort of romantic lead, he's surprisingly undeveloped in both the 1933 and 1949 versions, in which he is played by John Davis Lodge and Richard Stapley, respectively. Neither of these actors steal any scenes, though I must grant that neither of them appears in many scenes. Neither actor convincingly merits Meg's attention. By far the best casting is Eric Stoltz (1994), who gives Laurie's tutor a seriousness that could convincingly attract a young woman like Meg.

Best moment: A minor, but lovely, little scene in the 1994 version is an opportunity both to explore the extreme divergence between men's and women's roles in the nineteenth century and to see what Stoltz can do. In answer to Laurie's question about what girls do all day, Brook replies, "Over the mysteries of female life, there is drawn a veil, best left undisturbed." It's a marvelous moment, in which Brook, who in all likelihood hasn't the faintest idea what a woman's private life is like, reasserts himself as a moral and disciplinary authority, while revealing to the audience how circumscribed his life has been.

To summarize, the ideal adaptation of Little Women would be cast as follows:

Jo: June Allyson
Meg: Frances Dee
Amy: Kirsten Dunst/Joan Bennett
Beth: Jean Parker
Marmee: Spring Byington
Laurie: Christian Bale
Professor Bhaer: Paul Lukas
Aunt March: Edna May Oliver
Mr. Brook: Eric Stoltz

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