Robin Swicord's "Little Women"
is a delightful film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel about the
joys and struggles of a family of four sisters set in Victorian New
England. The film celebrates the cherished bonds of family
relationships, as well as explores the confining social mores for women
in the post-Civil War America. Winona Ryder delivers a charming
performance as Jo March, the high-spirited and imaginative protagonist
who dreams of becoming a writer. Supporting performances by Claire Danes
as the sweet Beth March, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as the young, romantic Amy March,
and Christian Bale as Theodore "Laurie" Lawrence are also
excellent. This is the perfect family film for the Christmas holidays!
This film is rated PG.
From Novel to Screenplay
Actress Winona Ryder was instrumental
in turning the Louisa May Alcott novel into its film version. The actress,
who read the book when was twelve years old, first discussed the possibility
of remaking the film with producer Denise Di Novi, with whom she'd worked
on "Edward Scissorhands." Di Novi has since remarked: "I don't know if
we could have made 'Little Women' if not for her interest."
Di Novi then shopped around for scripts
and was immediately drawn to Robin Swicord's screenplay. Ryder recalls:
"One day [Di Novi] called me up and said, 'You're not going to believe
this, but I got an adaptation of [Little Women], and it's really
good. It's really not like what we thought it would be.,' " 2 For one thing,
Swicord's script, in contrast to the earlier film versions, focused no
longer on the marriage prospects of the March girls, but rather on how
how Jo wants to be a writer.
Lastly, Ryder and Di Novi chose Australian
born Gillian Armstrong, who had just finished "My Brilliant Career," an
acclaimed period film about a young woman's choice to become a writer rather
than marry a rich suitor (sound familiar?), to direct.
However, Armstrong initially declined
the offer to direct, thinking that she didn't want to do a movie so similar
to her last piece and that an American should transform the classic story.
When she changed her mind, she set to familiarizing herself with American
history: "The first thing I did after agreeing to do it was read the entire
history of the Civil War--I needed to know what was going on in America
at the time!"
Ryder, who believes that young women
need upstanding female role models, wanted the film to be "a gift for girls":
"I really wanted to give something to girls who are sick of the stupid
movies that are coming out now. I know a lot of younger girls who tell
me, 'Why do people think we want to see movies about hookers?' I talked
to these girls who were around twelve years old, and they thought 'Pretty
Woman' was a silly movie. They said, 'Come on, we're smarter than that.
We want to see movies where the girls aren't so stupid.' "
Ryder also remarks that more positive
portrayals of teenagers like the March sisters are much needed today: "I
think we could use a movie like this, especially in this time where it's
so hip to be violent, and everyone is trying so hard to be cool. Look at
those new Calvin Klein ads. The models look so skinny and upset, as opposed
to the poster for 'Little Women' where everyone looks fat and happy. I'd
much rather spend time with those fat, happy people... I know this is a
well-made movie and a classic story. It's so nice to see a movie where
the people talk to each other, and where people fall in love and triumph
over life's problems."
Armstrong sought to make a film which
would be a welcome alternative in a movie industry largely dominated by
blockbusters: "I think we have dramatic conflict, but it's more in the
characters and the things they experience growing up -- the questions like,
'Who should I love?' or 'What should I do with my life?' I think it's terrible
that everyone believes movies are about good guys and bad guys. Life isn't
about that. Life is about the things we deal with in this film."
Armstrong had to find her childhood
copy after the screenplay for the film was sent to her: "I had a feeling
I'd kept the book from my childhood [so] I went and had a look and there
it was on the bottom of a shelf... I opened it up and it said, 'To Gillian,
Happy 11th Birthday!' Of course, I loved it when I read it and like most
people, I identified with Jo."
However, Armstrong admits that her favorite
novel was actually Anne of Green Gables.
Armstrong was pleasantly surprised
at the relevance of Alcott's novel: "People have told me I'm a '90s feminist
putting words in the mouths of these fictional characters, but the things
brought to the foreground in our film are there in the book.... [Alcott]
wrote so honestly about growing up as a young woman, and at that time nobody
had ever written about women like that. Most Victorian literature was very
sentimentalizing. Even though she wrote about her sisters, Louisa captured
everything about being a young girl and a sibling. They're not necessarily
nice, they fight, they're vain. I think that honesty has stood the test
of time. We're all still the same."
Armstrong wanted to remain as true
to the period that the novel was set: "[The screenplay] was written with
a wonderful feel for period, but there's still a sort of complicity to
the language that makes it feel period but still sound real and contemporary.
I wouldn't like [the] readers to think it's a lifeless, boring period [film
version] because Louisa wrote very honestly about growing up and about
all those painful things about childhood and going out into the world...
She also wrote with great fun and life. That is the thing that to me is
Armstrong hoped to make a film version
which would be different from its forerunners: "We're working against the
image this book has developed over time. "People assume it's sweet and
old-fashioned, but this is not a cute little movie for little girls. Yes,
it is a film about Louisa May Alcott's thoughts on very intimate parts
of a woman's life--adolescence and finding first love--and I'm pleased
at the prospect of young girls being exposed to those thoughts. But there's
much, much more of the book, and I'll be even more pleased if men discover
there's something there for them too."
Armstrong's version is the sixth film
adaptation. The first, a silent film, was released in 1918. The second
version starred a young Katherine Hepburn as Jo in 1933. MGM's version
in 1949 starred screen legends June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor,
Janet Leigh and Margaret O'Brien as her sisters.
Auditions and Casting
Because Winona Ryder was the first
March sister to be cast, director Gillian Armstrong sought to find actresses
who would be compatible: "We started with Winona, so we then had to surround
her with people who looked like sisters. Also, each one has a very individual
character, so we had to find someone we felt who was the true Meg, the
more conservative and more romantic of the family. Then to find a mischievous,
slightly wise Amy, and a very gentle Beth with inner spirit. So it was
a long time, but I'm very proud of our cast. They worked very well together."
Christina Ricci auditioned for the
role of the young Amy, but Armstrong opted for Kirsten Dunst, who at the
age of twelve, had already been nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
Dunst and Trini Alvarado (Meg March)
were cast in part because of their heart-shaped faces, emblematic of traditional
beauty in the Victorian age.
As a long-time fan of the novel and
previous film versions, Alvarado was hoped for a chance to be cast as one
of the March sisters: "Every time that 'Little Women' was announced in
television, I was there watching. I had seen the film versions with Katherine
Hepburn and June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh. And both versions
enchanted me, because I like this story. I read the book when I was ten
years old. And when I heard that they were auditioning for this film, I
prayed to God, asking for one audition, so that I could say that I had
To prepare herself for her audition,
Alvarado looked to an earlier film version: "I had taped the Katherine
Hepburn version a long time ago, and I went to my mother's house to pick
the tape to watch and inspire me. It is very beautiful. The style of acting
then was different, but I like the film."
Alvarado remarks that her Latin heritage
did not keep her from getting the part of Meg: "I am Hispanic and Meg...
is not a Hispanic, but even so they gave me the part. But I understand
the situation. I understand it because sometimes I see a film about Hispanics,
where none of actors is Hispanic, and I feel bad about that. I'd feel particularly
bad if they hadn't allowed me to audition, when they said that they'd already
seen all the Hispanics in Hollywood, which isn't true."
Claire Danes was virtually unknown
(she had finished taping the award-winning television series, "My So-Called
Life," but it had not yet premiered) when she was cast for her first feature
film role as Beth March. She was touted by Scott Winant (Producer of "My
So-Called Life") who had hoped to direct the "Little Women." Although he
lost out to Armstrong, Ryder caught Danes on the television show and began
lobbying for Danes.
Casting for the male characters proved
to be a serious challenge, because few American actors were interested
in the sentimental, woman-centered film. However, one actor, Irish born
Gabriel Byrne, kept calling Armstrong to be considered. Although Armstrong
could not picture him as either the young Laurie or the German professor
Friedrich Bhaer, she agreed to see him because he was so persistent. Armstrong
recalls: "Gabriel said, 'My mother read Little Women to me and my
siblings. It was like the Beatles - we all fought over who was our favorite
March girl.' "
His enthusiasm won him the part of Professor Bhaer.
Eric Stoltz, also a Golden Globe nominee
for his poignant portrayal in the 1985 film, "Mask," signed on to do "Little
Women" for personal reasons: " ‘Little Women' was for my nieces, who [were]
8 and 5. Sometimes I like to do a picture just for a family member."
Susan Sarandon also agreed to play
Marmee March for family reasons: "I did it for my daughter. This is a dirty-hemmed,
hand-down-the-dress, authentic clothing, politically accurate, historically
accurate rendering of that time and those problems, which strangely enough
are very contemporary in some ways."
To prepare for their roles as the Victorian
sisters, the cast members were required to take classes in sewing, knitting,
dialect and etiquette. It was during these group lessons that the actresses
became friends. Kirsten Dunst recalls: "We had two weeks of rehearsals
that were [actually] all of these classes [on] sewing and knitting and
dialect, etiquette class and dancing... We learned how [people during the
Civil War] held their hands at that time, speech patterns and words they
used. We got whole history packets too, about political things that were
happening and everything. So we learned a lot about each other and the
period at the same time."
Of the etiquette classes, Samantha
Mathis (Amy March) remarks: "It's very restricting not being able to gesticulate
with your hands. I had to be very refined, especially playing Amy, who's
so into being proper and doing everything the right way."
The set for the Marchs' home was patterned
after Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott's real-life house that still stands
in Concord, Massachussetts today.
Director Gillian Armstrong wanted the
costume design to be as faithful to the real clothing of the period and
insisted that all the dresses were made from authentic fabrics available
during the Civil War era: "The last thing I wanted was a period piece that
was nothing but a display of pretty dresses... It was very important that
the audience feel these people lived in the house, that they wore their
clothes and that they didn't have many. They were poor, so there should
be a feeling that things were handed down and hemmed or let down. I think
[the costume designers] did an extraordinary job of creating a real world
where the clothes did feel like things people actually wore and not museum
On the costumes, Trini Alvarado remarks:
"It's so obvious why women were thought of as the weaker sex. I don't know
if it was a subconscious desire of designers to hold women back, but you
can't even take a full breath [in these Victorian dresses]."
During her downtime on the set, 12-year
old Kirsten Dunst sold lemonade to the cast members for a quarter a glass:
"It was a great way to make lots of money. Susan Sarandon bought a lot
of it. She sent her kids to keep buying lemonade. I'm not sure if they were even that thirsty."
Dunst earned about $30 and spent it on a backpack!
While filming a scene in which Beth
carries a candle up a flight of stairs, Claire Danes accidentally set her
hair (a Victorian wig) on fire! Mathis recalls: "Whoosh! Her entire hair
went up in flames. Winona ran up and put out the flames with her bare hands."
Ryder adds nonchalantly: "I'm a hero. I guess it would have been a cool
episode of 'Rescue 911.' "
Ryder was known as the clown on the
set, always able to make jokes while straight-laced in a corset.
Then unknown Claire Danes recalls meeting
Ryder on the set for the first time and feeling a little awkward: "Fame
is so bizarre. You meet people like Winona and they're just people. But
then she's worked with the most amazing people, and I don't know how much
to talk to her about it. I mean, I don't want to ask her, 'Was Daniel Day-Lewis
really cool?' Or say something like, 'I heard about Johnny [Depp] -- sorry.'"
Ryder took the younger Danes under
her wing. One afternoon on the set, Ryder found Danes sobbing in her trailer,
ready to quit the film. She shared with Danes about her own experiences
as a child actress and counseled Danes to stick with acting.
On the atmosphere of the shoot, Alvarado
remarks: "There was a lot of estrogen energy on the set."
Armstrong recalls that the most fulfilling
part of finishing the film was having it screened by male audiences: "There's
this terrible preconception among males that their sisters were reading
this terrible gooey girl book. Actually, we were reading about this troubled
misfit Jo, who got everything wrong and had all these conflicting feelings
about her sisters. We've had fantastic reaction from men. The response
has been... ‘This story is not that bad at all; We were wondering what
they were reading all these years!' The highlight of my life was when the
studio took it to some males and they all cried. All the men in my sound
team cried. I hope that bodes well."
Relationships On and Off the Set
Director Gillian Armstrong was especially
delighted that her male actors held their own with the strong female cast.
Of Christian Bale, she remarks: "He is not only a wonderful actor with
great screen presence, but he has a good soul -- and that comes through
[in the film]."
A year after "Little Women" was released,
three of the March sisters teamed up in another woman-centered film, "How
to Make an American Quilt." However, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Samantha Mathis had no scenes together in the latter film. Trini Alvarado and Eric
Stoltz also teamed up in another period film, "Sensibility and Sense" (not
an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel).
Mathis and Ryder also share something
in common in real life: Both have dated actor Christian Slater.
Danes and Ryder became close friends
on the set. Long after ‘Little Women' was released, they keep up a sisterly friendship, as Danes remarks: "We hang out and talk about boys. Now I'm
growing up, so we can be on more of a similar level."
Kirsten Dunst found Ryder to be "loving"
and was grateful for Susan Sarandon's nurturing presence on the set. Dunst
bonded with all the actresses in the movie, including Mathis, who obviously
had no scenes with the young actress.
Of Dunst, Mathis remarks: "Kirsten
is just so together. And cute! When I was her age, I had braces and greasy
hair, and wasn't as pretty!"
Trini Alvarado remarks of her co-stars:
"I have no sisters [in real life]. That's why when I read the book I liked
it so much, because I wanted to have a sister. And now, working in this
movie, I got three."
Of Alvarado, Armstrong remarks: "Trini
has such warmth and love about her and was the perfect counterpart to the
self-obsessed and self-absorbed younger sister, Amy, played by Kirsten
The Actors on Their Roles
Although the film's producers wanted
Jo to be a self-assured character, Winona Ryder hoped to bring more complexity
to the protagonist: "I saw Jo as a really confused girl who constantly
contradicted her self, but [the producers] saw her as just this totally
strong girl. So I had to fight to play her like that. [Director] Gillian
[Armstrong] kept saying, 'Play her strong,' but I really saw her as vulnerable."
"Little Women" was one of Ryder's many
period films: "Apart from 'Reality Bites,' it's true all my recent films...
have been period pieces. But I don't care what year the movie is set. If
I connect to the story and the character, I'll do it... Nowadays, the period
films have more substance and... dialogue. The contemporary ones have to
be so cool and hip and violent. They're pretty to look at but nothing's
going on. The period pieces tend to be about people and what they say to each other, and that appeals to me more."
Ryder also admits that she loves
wearing historic costumes!
Director Gillian Armstrong remarks
that Ryder's own personality shines through as Jo: "There's a part of Winona
[as Jo] that she has never played before [in previous films]... She's very
alive and vivacious [like Jo]. Winona also writes poetry."
Trini Alvarado (Meg March) received
an illustrated edition of Little Women when she was twelve years
old. The actress read the book again when she was fourteen, and has seen
all of the film versions. So she jumped at the chance to be in the film:
"This movie is something I completely wanted to be a part of. I was so
drawn to these sisters. I think the characters really jump out at you,
because their experiences are really described so well. Basically, it's
teenage angst. They had to deal with peer pressure, and their mother, and
these questions about getting married so soon."
Although cast as the Meg, the "pretty
one," Alvarado admits that she is a "slob" when it comes to fashion and
bought her first black suit for the "Little Women" premiere: "I thought
to myself, 'It's so odd how we have to dress up on these press junkets.'...
I don't look in the mirror every morning and expect to see that twinkle...
I'm much more likely to notice that I'm getting a zit."
On her character, Alvarado comments:
"Amy was the artist, Beth the housekeeper, Jo the writer. But Meg was only
described as the oldest sister. She is quite, like they say, conservative.
She gives a lot of importance to the family, to the laws of the society,
to doing things the way expected of her. She is always scolding her sisters.
She dreams of having her own family, and she succeeds in this dream."
Twelve-year old Kirsten Dunst read
Little Women four times before auditioning for the role of Amy March,
and remarks fondly: "I love the book because it's real and about family.
Also Marmee, Susan [Sarandon]'s character, is a very strong feminist. For
that time period, they were a very modern family. All of the other mothers
back then told their daughters, 'You have to marry and have children and
wear corsets,' and all that. Marmee supported each girl, whether they wanted
to become a writer and not marry or if they wanted to go ahead and have
babies." 38 Dunst admits, however, that she is nothing like the fashion-conscious
Amy: "Amy's totally different from me. She likes being in the 'in' crowd
and dressing up. I hate wearing fancy clothes, and I don't really like
going to social events and parties."
Of his supporting role as John Brooke,
Eric Stoltz remarks: "It's a decorative role. I stand around with facial
hair. But it's a terrific cast -- a great deal of estrogen. I adored them,
I never wanted to leave, I wanted to be a part of their family."
Armstrong shares at least one thing
in common with Jo. Afraid that the public will be more receptive to a male
author, Jo at first publishes under the name of Joseph March. Similarly,
when Armstrong directed "My Brilliant Career," the director's credit read
"Gill Armstrong." On her second feature, she restored herself to her rightful
Producer Denise Di Novi was especially
fond of the film's portrayal of marriage: "Marriage was an unavoidable
economic reality in that time. Louisa attempted to create a male character
who didn't compromise Jo and respected her mind, and I hope the film leaves
you with the feeling that Jo will continue to write, and that she and her
husband will share a life together as equals. One of the things I love
about the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer is that it begins
in friendship and develops from there. Those are the marriages that work
and we rarely see them in movies. They prefer to present fantasies because
it's simpler, and the industry knows fantasies make money." 41
Di Novi also was proud of the family-oriented
message of the film in an age where broken families are prevalent: "Most
people today don't have the kind of nurturing family life central to this
story--and that's one of the reasons films like this are necessary. The
film suggests that you can be a flawed human being with troubled relationships,
yet still honor the bond of family."
Winona Ryder persuaded the filmmakers
to dedicate "Little Women" to Polly Klaas, the young girl from Petaluma,
California (where Ryder spent much of her childhood) whose kidnaping and
murder in 1993 sparked a public debate about crime and punishment. Ryder
had personally offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to the
arrest of Klaas' abductor. Ryder remarks: "Little Women was Polly's favorite
book. I was offered the movie the day after she was kidnapped, and later
Polly's family gave me her copy of 'Little Women. For me, [Polly] was very
involved in the project."
However, Ryder had to persuade Columbia
Pictures to carry the dedication in the credits: "[Columbia Pictures] promised
me it would go in and then they told me two weeks ago that they didn't
want it because it was too depressing. I said, 'But you promised me, and
you promised her family who are coming with me [to the premiere] and I
can't tell them now it's not happening.' They said, 'Well, sorry!' And
I said, 'Well, I'm off to do this press junket for the film -- I'd put
the dedication in if I were you.'"
Needless to say, Ryder got her way.