We break down why Louisa May Alcott's children's book seems to be everywhere these days, even though it's just turned 150 years old

By David Canfield
September 30, 2018 at 12:52 PM EDT

It’s not often that, more than a century after publication, a book reenters the culture with real relevance and force. Yet Little Women is doing just that.

Or perhaps — rarer still — it never really went away. As Louisa May Alcott’s classic celebrates its 150th anniversary, the flurry of new adaptations that are surfacing serves as a reminder of its influence. A BBC miniseries aired last year; a graphic novel, reimagining the characters as diverse, debuted online in March. (It’ll be published in hardcover in February 2019.) A modern retelling of Little Women premiered at the end of September; another, directed by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) — and starring Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep — will be released in 2019. “It’s very adult and interesting and thoughtful … and, of course, given the material, it’s always going to be romantic,” Robin Swicord, who’s producing the Gerwig film, recently said. “Greta has a wonderfully associative, well-furnished mind. Her take on the novel more than convinced us that we could bring something new to the screen.”

Little Women, which traces the lives of the March sisters against the backdrop of the American Civil War, has never gone out of print. It’s remained prominent on publisher Little, Brown and Co.’s backlist for more than a century. “Even ‘classics’ fall out of favor with some regularity,” Little, Brown’s publisher, Reagan Arthur, says. Not Little Women.

Joseph Lederer/Di Novi/Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The book’s lasting appeal stems from, for many, its feminist statement: that “there are different models for how to be a woman in the world,” as Carina Guiterman, editor of a new anniversary edition, puts it. Novelist J. Courtney Sullivan (The Engagements) wrote the 150th edition’s foreword and says she grew up reading Little Women, first drawn to its watercolor illustrations before she could read and eventually to a story that took place close to her Massachusetts hometown. “The most enduring novels are the ones that you can read again and again, and each time take something different away,” she says. “My mom gave me the book when I was in fifth grade. And it belonged to her aunt when she was little.”

“My personal theory is that there’s been a long line of matrilineal pass-alongs — from mother to daughter, and then again, generation after generation. My own 19-year-old daughter has read it multiple times and I expect her daughter, should such a person arrive, to do the same,” Arthur adds. “More broadly, there is a unique and enduring appeal in reading about these strong, vibrant characters and the era they lived in.”

And that appeal extends to situating it in a more modern context — perhaps why re-imaginings are suddenly sparking. (By 2019, three Little Women adaptations will have aired over three years; before that, the last adaptation premiered in 1994.) While Little Women has meant so much to generations of so families, the story also speaks sharply to this moment. “Women today are hungry for reminders of our own strength and potential,“ Arthur argues. Sullivan also sees its vitality as reflective of what makes the book so readable, so enjoyable and comforting. “It’s about putting goodness into a very troubled world,” she says. We could all use some of that.

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