Sony Pictures is developing a new adaptation of Little Women! This would be the first major film version in over 20 years, with newcomer Olivia Milch writing the screenplay and Sarah Polley (Away From Her) directing. It’s about time that audiences are reintroduced to the March sisters, their struggles, and their loves.
But with Little Women having already been adapted for film, TV, and the on- and Off-Broadway stages, how do you retell Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel without seeming too out-of-touch, too eager to appeal to modern audiences, or simply copying what’s come before?
Don’t try to just remake the 1994 version.
I think we can all agree that the film starring Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Winona Ryder as Jo, and Christian Bale as Laurie is a classic. There’s very little the filmmakers could do to improve upon the way that movie captured the period setting, as well as classic moments like Jo and Mr. Bhaer’s admission of love.
Resist the urge to update it to present-day.
Similarly, I would like to immediately nip in the bud any attempts at setting Little Women in 2015. Lifetime tried to modernize the March girls a few years ago, but all it resulted in was an awful TV movie in which Jo ghost-tweets for a teen pop star (and instead of burning her manuscript, Amy tweets naked photos from Jo’s phone), and calls her sisters “slutcicles.” This is now, unfortunately, part of the canon of Little Women adaptations. Let’s not make that mistake twice.
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Make it a modernized period piece.
One of my favorite pieces of theater that I saw in 2014 was Chiara Atik’s WOMEN, a brilliant mashup of Little Women and HBO’s Girls. Atik has a penchant for making historical figures seamlessly talk in modern jargon, which she demonstrated here by imbuing Jo March with Hannah Horvath’s self-centeredness and need to share her life story (yet she stayed likeable!); Meg/Marnie’s major case of FOMO when she gets married and pregnant before her sisters; spoiled Amy as unapologetic Jessa; and poor Beth existing on the fringes of the group like Shoshanna, including her very inconvenient scarlet fever and death. This compromise updates the story without necessarily dating itself.
Experiment with structure and “spoilers.”
Look, we all know that Beth dies–either from reading the book ourselves, or from the time Rachel broke Joey’s heart on Friends with that revelation. With Little Women the kind of classic whose fans have reread it multiple times, the filmmakers should not be beholden to a linear narrative. The movie could add an entire frame story around Jo–much like the 2005 Broadway musical did, beginning with Jo agonizing over not having written her great novel and drawing on memories of her sisters and Marmee for inspiration. We already know it’s going to focus on Jo (how could it not), but this is an inventive way to do it.