“I didn’t even know people live like that” remarks Jo March on her neighbours living conditions before using her hat to seal a broken window. This initial scene reflects the underlying theme of hardship that is present in the BBC’s new adaption of Louisa M Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women.
Set to the backdrop of the American Civil war, four sisters are left alone with their mother and not a lot of money after their father leaves to fight in the army. The novel has been adapted into many films but the one most remembered is the 1994 classic starring a young Christian Bale and Winona Ryder. Ryder is generally memorable for two things: playing the intellectually defiant Jo March as if she had just stepped off the pages of the book and secondly, for shoplifting expensive clothes. Five minutes into the new and at times dull adaption, you can’t help but overlook any criminal convictions Winona has and wish she would breeze onto the screen and inject some life into it.
The scriptwriter Heidi Thomas correctly steers the story around Jo. As someone who doubts herself and struggles to be comfortable with who she is – the uncompromising, ballsy writer – in a time period where those traits didn’t conform to society’s version of femininity. Tempestuous, moody and self-doubting, through her we are aware of the high stakes involved in being a writer from a poor background; the money from each short story she gets published provides for the whole family.
The appeal of the story is timeless because it captures the trivial, relatable problems of growing up which the scriptwriter includes early on, such as Jo having to put up with a cranky, irritable, older relative to Meg not having enough money to buy a new dress for a party full of women from wealthier families who will all notice that her dress isn’t the newest or the most intact.
This adaption is not without charm. The show was produced on a low budget and remarkably – it doesn’t matter. The folk song soundtrack works beautifully with each scene and lifts a script that is not without merit but at times has awkward pacing. Sisterly support is always equally matched by sisterly squabbling which is shown through Amy’s cruel decision to burn Jo’s book. What follows is meant to be a dramatic scene where Amy falls through the ice and narrowly escapes death. In the novel, Jo tells Amy to go away and later hears a far off scream, whereas in the show, she promptly falls through the ice in front of her at the beginning of the scene. It’s the precision of these little details that can elevate suspense to its highest but fails to here.
More awkwardly, Laurie choses to make a pass at Jo when her sister Beth is dying upstairs – maybe the fear of losing her sister through illness was meant to be used to bring them closer together, but the candlelight and the wine and the extremely ill sister do not mix to the desired effect. It just means any tension between the two deflates quicker than a punctured tyre.
The BBC adaption will be enjoyable to those who have not watched previous adaptions but does not live up to its predecessor.