With Christmas and a new adaptation of Little Women a day away, the nostalgia is starting to set in. I can’t help but remember long winters when I was a little kid, curling with my blanket and watching this movie with my grandma (it was her favorite). My mom always had a classic audiobook playing in the car, alternating between Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Basically, I lived and breathed that book, and as a young adult, it’s always a delight to dive back in. Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women turns 25 this Christmas, and on my latest rewatch, I find this movie more timeless and charming than ever.
Classics like Little Women always spawn dozens of adaptations, and it can be hard to choose a favorite. Fans debate to this day which Pride and Prejudice is best — the 2005 film or the 1995 miniseries? Maybe with this new Greta Gerwig version, Little Women fans will have the same problem, but as of now, the 1994 version seems to be the favorite, which is clear when you watch it.
The story centers around the March family, living in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. There are four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their best friend Laurie, who lives next door, and the movie follows the story of their lives. There’s no big, overarching plot, but instead a bunch of little stories along the way that are entertaining enough to keep you engaged the entire time. The film is set over 100 years ago, with period sets and costumes, but the movie exudes timeless sentiments. The girls struggle with problems modern women will never have to face, like finding rich husbands, but they also struggle with timeless issues of identity and how to be a good person in such a hard world. The March sisters learn many important lessons through the scrapes they get into, often helped along by their mother Marmee’s (Susan Sarandon) gentle guidance, and it would be easy for these scenes to be preachy and moralistic, but instead, the way the actors play them make them come off as wholesome and heartwarming. Watching makes me want to genuinely be a better person, instead of just rolling my eyes and moving on.
What really shines in this film is how well each actor fits their role. The most frequent complaint I see about other adaptations is that one or more of the sisters don’t fit the role quite right, particularly in the case of Jo. For many little girls, me included, Jo March was their hero growing up. She’s a writer with big dreams — she’s often overdramatic, speaking in over exaggerations and exclamations. Winona Ryder, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for this role, plays Jo this way, complete with swooping hand gestures and great facial expressions, practically pulsing with energy. However, she also pulls off the more tender side of Jo beautifully. Her love and caring for Beth and their father is clear, and later with Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), we see just how much she loves to write and how eager she is to grow as a writer. I’m a sucker for the Jo-Bhaer romance, and this film version makes their love story believable. Their chemistry had me rooting for them from the get-go and cheering at that ending scene where they dramatically kiss in the rain.
The other sisters also fit their roles well. Meg (Trini Alvarado) plays a more understated role, like she does in the book, but on screen, she is a sweet, demure girl who longs for lovely things, but happily settles into a more simple life when she marries a poor tutor whom she loves. Beth (Claire Danes) also plays a quieter role, as she prefers to sit and watch the action, rather than participate. Her sweet presence is the light in the house, however, which you can see in her every interaction with her sisters. Amy (Kirsten Dunst) is the other big personality in the house — and Dunst plays the role with perfection. Like Jo, she’s exceedingly dramatic, and also vain, and quite a bit of a brat, yet in the film, she still comes across as lovable, despite her many flaws. And Christian Bale is the ideal Laurie. He’s handsome, polite, and charming, but when he’s with Jo, you see that impish smile start to glow in his eyes and creep up his lips. I know that I would accept his marriage proposal. I have high hopes for the newest adaptation, but I doubt that this stellar cast can be duplicated.
This heartwarming classic is the perfect movie to curl up with during the holidays. Christmas is a time when we can choose to focus on human goodness, and Little Women is a film where this human goodness shines through.