The March sisters on screen
As the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women approaches, we find ourselves gripped by March family fever. This Mother’s Day brought a new miniseries based on the 1868 novel, September marked the release of a modern-day big-screen take, and Greta Gerwig has assembled an all-star cast for an upcoming adaptation, her sophomore directorial effort after last year’s Oscar-nominated Lady Bird. We may be in the midst of March sister madness right now, but this isn’t the first time the proto-feminist bildungsroman has hit the big or small screen. See our countdown to the greatest adaptation of the novel ahead.
This gallery was originally published May 13, 2018, and most recently updated Sept. 27, 2018.
N/A: Little Women (upcoming Greta Gerwig film)
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation hasn’t been released yet, but judging by the trailer it’s set to be a major contender. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, and Florence Pugh star as Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy; Timothée Chalamet is Laurie; and most exciting of all (!), Meryl Streep is the imperious Aunt March.
DISQUALIFIED: Little Women (2018)
We have admittedly only seen clips of Clare Niederpruem’s 2018 adaptation, but we find the decision to take the tale out of its Civil War setting and place it in the present day utterly baffling. So, for undermining the integrity of the novel, denying us the pleasure of period costumes, and forcing in really awkward soldier-Skype scenes where there ought to have been lovely letter-readings, we hereby disqualify this recent entry into the Little Women cinematic tradition from being ranked.
5. Little Women (1978 miniseries)
We cannot even begin to describe why the 1978 miniseries ranks last, because there is not one thing about it that is not as wrong as can possibly be. There is nothing good to say about this adaptation. The costumes are ridiculous, the ’70s hair is outrageous, every single character is miscast (Professor Bhaer is played by, of all people, William Shatner), and the script is nightmarishly bad. Please, let’s just move on to the next one and try our best to forget about this.
4. Little Women (1949 movie)
Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 version of the story lacks any of the specificity that makes Alcott’s novel compelling, particularly in its presentation of Jo (June Allyson) as an irritating cliché of a spitfire screwball heroine rather than a genuine original. The film’s saving grace, however, is Elizabeth Taylor as a perfect Amy.
3. Little Women (1933 movie)
Nobody would ever accuse Louisa May Alcott of producing a cold, hard book in Little Women, but George Cukor really laid on the schmaltz in this pre-Code take on the story (without any pre-Code sexiness), which stars four women clearly in their mid-20s as the teenaged March sisters (including a miscast Katharine Hepburn as Jo). However! The legendary director managed to inject a little more fun into it than Mervyn LeRoy did in his remake of this version 16 years later, and what’s Little Women without a little schmaltz?
2. Little Women (2018 miniseries)
The new miniseries, starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke (making her screen debut), as Jo, dutifully checks off the lengthy novel’s greatest hits: the burned manuscript, the ice, the limes, Meg’s solo trip to a fancy party and consequent unnecessary guilt — and looks beautiful. The heavy-handed script and overly theatrical performances, especially from the younger cast, prevent it from being a truly great adaptation, but it’s got charm and sweetness to spare.
1. Little Women (1994 movie)
Could there ever be a Jo pluckier than Winona Ryder? Or a Beth sweeter than Claire Danes, or a Laurie more charming than Christian Bale? Even if there possibly could be, there certainly never has. In addition to pulling off the great feat of convincing its audience that Jo really made the right romantic choices, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation captures the spirit and emotional complexity of Alcott’s novel better than any other, from the authentic intimacy shared by these March sisters to the warmth of this incarnation of their beloved home. Amid a collection of big old drafty New England houses, this Little Women is a true castle in the sky.