Anna Todd talks the enduring appeal of Little Women and updating it in The Spring Girls
While many might readily categorize themselves as a Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha, there is another fierce foursome that captured the imagination of women long before Sex and the City hit our screens — pondering whether you are a Jo, a Beth, an Amy, or a Meg is the age-old question for many ladies of bookish ilk (though let’s be honest, we all think we’re Jo).
Since its first publication in 1868, Little Women has enchanted generations of readers and spun well beyond the reach of its pages — it has prompted six film adaptations (most recently in 1994 starring Winona Ryder), six television series (including a 2017 BBC take), and a 2005 Broadway musical.
Now the siren call of the March sisters has inspired a contemporary fictional take on the story. In Anna Todd’s The Spring Girls, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Meg are transported to a modern-day Army base in Louisiana as they face the same perils of sisterhood, growing up, virtue/reputation, and romance with the added challenges of the 21st century.
Todd transforms the March clan into the Spring family, a gathering of women instantly familiar to any fan of the original novel imbued with her own unique, contemporary spin. EW called her up to talk about the daunting task of updating a classic, why she thinks Little Women is still so relevant, and how she used the book to resolve her lifelong heartache over Jo and Laurie’s relationship.
Warning: The following interview includes spoilers about The Spring Girls. Read at your own risk!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to do a modern-day re-telling of Little Women and why did you feel it was ripe for a contemporary setting?
ANNA TODD: I had no idea what I was actually taking on when I had this little idea in my head. There’s no way to ever, ever, ever recreate the original story. In fan-fiction, sometimes it’s possible to skirt the edge, but this story is impossible to even touch. But I didn’t think about that in the beginning. I loved the story. I’ve loved it since I was a teenager. I love classic novels, so I kind of was already thinking of rewriting another anyway because I wrote fan-fiction before, and I love fan-fiction, so I thought what should I do next? Everyone knows Little Women. Most women love it, if they’ve read it. If they haven’t they might love the movie or they’ve heard of it. It just felt like now, especially with everything politically, and my audience is young girls, so the time was right to connect this older story with these young, new girls.
How old were you when you first read Little Women and why did it speak to you?
I was a freshman in high school, so I was 14. We read it in class first, and I used to steal books from my school. It wasn’t the first one that I stole, but it was one of the ones that I stole more than once because I thought I lost one and then stole another. I was just obsessed with reading it. The first thing that struck me was the sister relationship because I have a sister, and at that time she would’ve been like eight. She was much younger than me, so I just remember finding it fascinating to read about these four girls who are more close in age and this relationship with the mom. There was something about the mother that struck me — there was just something so different about it. I loved all classic novels when I was a teenager, and I just felt this powerful relationship with this book. Other classics that I loved, all of them were romance, or they were Hemingway, which you can say is pretty much written for men, and this story felt like this useful story about girls. There is romance, and at the end, it ends up being very romantic, but essentially the story is about their journey as girls instead of who gets the guy at the end.
Why do you think Little Women still endures so much in the popular imagination?
It’s just a timeless concept. As women, we’re luckily not dealing with the same struggles, but unfortunately are still dealing with them at the same time. When I read the book, I remember feeling it was really, really feminist, especially for that time. Now, looking back it still has gender roles and women were basically just groomed to get husbands, but that’s still kind of what’s happening now, just in different ways. Women have, in some places, more freedom, but it’s a universal story. Even for me, I went to Spain recently for this book launch and a lot of the young girls that were buying The Spring Girls had never read Little Women before because it’s an American classic, and they haven’t had a chance to read it or haven’t heard of it. Of course, mine is not anything close to the magic of the original, but if they could still relate to these girls in the same way, that’s fascinating to me.
The original novel was hailed for being one of the first fictional depictions of the “American girl” and it largely champions domesticity, family, and virtue over wealth – do you think the morality it espouses is still relevant and holds value for readers today?
I really do. To me, basically the whole meaning of Little Women and what it conveys to me is the choice of being any kind of woman. Jo wanted a career and she wasn’t focused on getting married, and we all want to be her. We all love Jo, but Meg, there was no shame in her wanting a husband. For me, that is the biggest thing about this book that I tried to convey in mine is that it’s all about choice and that can stand any testament of time and be relatable to any girl, then, now, 100 years from now.
The core character traits of the four sisters remain the same, but you’ve shifted a lot of plot points. First off, you’ve traded the March sisters for the Spring sisters – where did that name change idea come from?
I wanted to just change it enough to where it wasn’t exactly the same. It was just a fun thing for me to do to change their last name from March. And then I thought “Spring” because these young women are blossoming, and then “Spring” is like the spring; March starts in the beginning of spring, so it was for a couple of reasons. But it was mostly just to change it to where it was enough that it wasn’t exactly the same, but it still had the same essence of the word and you would immediately know by keeping the first names that it was a re-telling. Sometimes writing fan-fiction, I have to change just enough so it’s not super weird because otherwise I can’t get in the right headspace.
Meg receives a lot more voice and agency here, as well as a traumatic backstory. She’s, in my opinion, a bit dull in the original – what made you want to make her a more central personality and also shift her romantic narrative, moving her away from John Brooke to this new character, Shia?
Some of it honestly just kind of happened. I was a little bit surprised by it too in the beginning. I assumed the whole book would be really Jo centered. I didn’t even realize I was going to do all the girls’ point of view. It was going to be Jo’s story and then the other girls kind of took over. With Meg, I really fell in love with her. I didn’t not like her — I love all the girls in the original, but I think I loved Jo so much more that everyone else seemed like side characters. My original plan was also to have when they’re younger for the first half and then when they’re older for the second, so I started writing it that way and then I stayed in when they were younger. With Meg, I didn’t want her to end up just marrying John Brooke and being an Army wife. I’m an Army wife, so nothing against it, but I don’t want that to be her identity. I wanted to change her romantic narrative. My version of John Brooke; I never really loved him. I felt like she was kind of settling for him in the original anyway, so I was like, I don’t want her to end up with him. So, he just kind of became obnoxious in mine. She needed something more exciting. I don’t want her to end up chasing to be someone’s wife, especially when it’s not even about loving the person, it’s just about being married. So I wanted to change that up and then the King family is kind of a play on the original. I wanted to have some characters that were all not just white characters with no diversity whatsoever, and I feel like Meg would love this rebel of a rich family. In the story, she was just kind of there and it happened. I didn’t actually plan that to happen. I thought he was going to be somewhat of a temptation for her, but I didn’t realize they would end up together – at least when she’s in the Spring Girls.
Passionate Jo lovers have a lot of thoughts about Jo choosing the Professor over Laurie – here, she chooses Laurie (though you have him nod to the possibility of professors), and he’s a bit more mature – why did you want to rehabilitate him?
I loved Laurie, but he is a little bit of a dick. I wanted to have the good parts about Laurie, but not have him be a dick. I never got over him and Amy. I will just not be happy about that for the rest of my life. I still can’t believe that happened. So I knew for sure that was the first thing — this is not happening in mine. That will never ever happen. So I’m not even sure if Laurie and Jo end up together forever, but I didn’t like the Professor in the original either. I feel like he talks down to her; he doesn’t take her seriously. So I’m like, who says she has to be with her high school boyfriend or the Professor? This is not that story. I wanted her to just have her chance with Laurie because I wanted it so bad before.
Beth survives to the end of the book. Her frailty is transmuted into social anxiety, and she is also gay. What drove those choices?
I feel like Beth in the original has social anxiety as well, it’s just never called that, so that was a really obvious thing for me. In mine it was a little more heightened, which wasn’t necessarily a choice, it was just the way the character took over. Since I don’t outline my books very much, I feel like sometimes I don’t have a choice in what the characters do, they just kind of take over sometimes. And that was one of them, and Beth being gay was part of that as well, whereas I was like, wait a second, is she gay? So then it kind of went from there. It’s a sensitive subject to write about when I’ve never experienced any hardship over my sexuality or anything. I wanted to be really careful with the way I did it. I didn’t want it to be this huge thing — that’s not the center of her character. She just happens to be gay, but that’s not the message that I was necessarily focusing on. But it just felt like it’s who she is. I wish I had a better answer, but it just kind of happened. She’s definitely not dying. I always loved her, so I was like, she’s not going anywhere. I kept thinking I have to kill one of them, and then they all survived the first cut.
Maybe kill Amy.
Right? I felt like that would’ve been too easy, but I so wanted to.
You also keep a lot of plot points, such as Beth’s piano, Amy nearly destroying Jo’s writing, etc. – how did you decide what would stay and what would go?
I wanted to keep as many little nods to the original as I could. So I went through and just marked what things I loved. But it’s impossible. Every chapter in the original is its own episode basically. So I was like ‘Oh this is going to be the longest book in the world,’ and I already write really long books, so I had to cut some of the things. But as the story started taking its own direction, I tried to keep the points I wanted to keep in that made sense. I almost had Beth start to get sick and then I couldn’t do it, so I axed that part. But I wanted to keep little things like Jo and Laurie calling to each other from the window, and I had the book basically open the exact same way, just so you felt like you were in that universe, but a different take on it.
Do you plan to watch the new BBC adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation?
My favorite is the Winona Ryder version with Susan Sarandon as the mom. That was my favorite as of now, but I am excited to see the BBC one. I’m also excited because I read somewhere that Greta Gerwig is making a true-to-time version as well and I’m obsessed with her. That one will probably be my favorite, and I almost want to say it’s my favorite already, but it doesn’t exist yet, so we’ll see. I feel like it’s a thing right now where I keep reading articles where they’re making it, and most of them are true to time, so I’m excited.
Do you have plans for a sequel?
I can’t really answer yet, but I will say that I’m not very good at writing just one book, so you’ll see.