Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Little Women (2004) – Excellent Adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Novel

Written by Louisa May Alcott and Robin Swicord
Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen.  Every adaptation seems to have its own unique perspective, and this one is no different.  Although it seems to follow the storyline of the novel the closest for the majority of the film, it also brings in a bit of the story of the author herself in the person of Jo, instead of adhering to Alcott’s storyline.  At the same time, there’s little to quibble about.  This angle neither makes the story itself better or worse, just different.

The story of Little Women begins during the Civil War, as four young women and their mother attempt to carve out an existence despite the hardship that has descended on them.  The March family of Concord, Massachusetts is proud even as they face life’s battles.  In the opening scene, a letter arrives from the patriarch of the family, who has gone off to war.  The girls are lamenting both the absence of their father and the lack of presents this year at Christmas.  At the same time, they are generous to bestow their hard-found bread and butter on another, less fortunate family.

The daughters are portrayed by Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Claire Danes as Beth, and Kirsten Dunst as Amy.  Samantha Mathis takes over the role of Amy from Dunst as she grows up.

The story is a simple one of family and coming of age.  The girls each have their own distinct personalities and ambitions.  At the same time, they are a family unit and although they might get on each other’s nerves from time to time, the love is there.  Even when something happens between Jo and Amy that could fracture their relationship forever, the love is there and brings them together again.  This is repeated throughout the film, that no matter what else comes between them it is the love and the bond of family that makes them strong.

Nowhere is this shown better than in the character of Marmee (portrayed by Susan Sarandon).  Having to be the sole parent to her daughters while her husband is off fighting the war, then later having to cope with his injury, she displays both strength and warmth that is the model for the way her daughters treat each other.

Little Women is also a coming-of-age story of sorts as the four young ladies must find their place in the world.  At a time when women were expected to do little more than keep house and raise children, there is ambition instilled in all of them to be what they want.  Meg falls for a kind but relatively poor tutor who lives next door at the Laurence home.  His charge, known as Laurie to the girls (portrayed by Christian Bale) forms a sweet bond with Jo that seems to indicate the fact that the two will end up together.  For as poor as the March family seems in contrast to the wealthy Laurences, the sense of family and warmth is something Laurie desires greatly.

Jo has more ambitions than this, though, and needs to find her way in the world which is a different course.  Both Beth and Amy display artistic abilities.  Beth is the more musical sister while Amy likes to paint and draw. This leads her to be taken under the wing of their wealthy Aunt March who brings her to Europe.

The scenery and costuming are perfect for the period.  Watching the extras on the DVD, there were great lengths to recreating the time period as accurately as possible and the look and feel is definitely there, whether in Massachusetts, New York, or Paris.

The acting is terrific.  The role of Jo seems to be tailor-made for Ryder who seems to thrive on the character.  She’s smart and independent while at the same time working within the bounds set by the times.  Alvarado is one of those underrated actresses who I can count on to be good in whatever role she’s thrust into and this performance as Meg is no different, although the character is markedly different than in the novel.  If I thought anyone was underused, it was Danes as Beth.  It’s not her fault as in the book she was written to be quite shy and had many scenes where she works to overcome that, all of which are gone from this version.  Instead she comes across as what we would term “earthy” today.  It’s a shame more of her story from the book wasn’t brought in but I suppose something had to be cut.  The combination of Dunst and Mathis works terrifically as Amy, although I liked the story with Dunst more than Mathis. It’s a shame they couldn’t have waited for her to grow up to finish the film.

Things like this are to be expected, and overall the film is good.  It’s sort of how I feel about the differences with Gone With the Wind between the film and the novel.  The only time I really miss the parts of the story omitted from the film is when I actually read the novel again and the same is true here.  It took me thinking about the review and wondering why certain scenes were omitted as well as different aspects of the story to make me really miss them, as opposed to watching the film itself and noticing they were gone.

The DVD is terrific.  It’s a quality widescreen print with great sound.  I didn’t have to keep adjusting the volume on this like I have to with other discs where the conversations are muddy.

I recommend this version of Little Women as one of the best I’ve seen.  Sure, there are parts of the story that those who know the book quite well will immediately miss, but overall it’s very well done.  I felt that it captured the spirit of the book quite well even if it didn’t necessarily get all of the details correct.  Try to put the book out of your mind while watching it and it’s quite enjoyable.


• Commentary with Director Gillian Armstrong
• Deleted Scenes
• Historical Timelines
• Trivia Games
• Costume & Production Design Gallery
• Talent Files
• “Making-Of” Featurette
• Theatrical Trailer
• Isolated Music Score

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