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'Little Women': A Burned Manuscript And A Great Love That Never Arrives

Maya Hawke as Jo March.
Patrick Redmond
Maya Hawke as Jo March.

[This piece discusses the plot of the novelLittle Women, which was published in 1868 and 1869. You have, we hope, had a chance to read it.]

Is it only writers who can never forgive Amy March for burning her sister Jo's handwritten novel manuscript? Or is it only me?

In the pantheon of fictional villains, Amy, the youngest March sister in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, might seem to pale in comparison to those who destroy planets or aspire to world domination. But Amy burned the book. The only copy. And she did it in a fit of jealous, childish pique over not getting to go out on one single night. Somehow, it is this act of breathtaking cruelty that lies at the center of Little Women's legacy for many readers, who lament Amy's awfulness still. (Or ... at least the writers.)

A new adaptation written by Heidi Thomas (Call The Midwife), originally made for the BBC and now available on PBS, doesn't shy away from Amy's wretched act. And wisely so, because the anger and ambivalence that exists among the characters in Thomas' adaptation is more interesting than the saintly self-sacrifice that can overwhelm Little Women when too much of it is about perfect Marmee, perfect and innocent (and doomed) Beth, and perfect and well-behaved Meg.

Jo is played by Maya Hawke, who inhabits her as a devoted sister and daughter who nonetheless feels the weight of responsibility for the family, particularly since Marmee spends a solid chunk of time seeing to Mr. March in Washington, D.C., where he's fallen ill during his service in the Civil War. The easiest thing for Jo to do would be to embrace the affections of Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King), the well-off boy next door who falls quickly in love with her. She would not have to compromise her writing for money, as her father fears she will. She would not have to worry about her future at all.

But in this version, Jo is allowed to clearly, unambiguously not want to marry Laurie. There is less attention to her fears of what it would mean to be a wife and more to the fact that she is not in love with him than there is in, for instance, Winona Ryder's rejection of Christian Bale in the 1994 film. Hauer-King is also allowed space to play Laurie's hurt feelings, and not just his bruised ego. Not for this Jo March the grateful acceptance of the first proposal that accepts her independent spirit as inevitable. She also wants to be in love, and despite structural hints that she will be Laurie's perfect match, she just isn't.

Not all the parts of Little Womenare equally compelling, and that goes back to the source material. It is — and this may be sacrilege to some — almost a credit to Thomas that she seems unsure what to do with Beth (Annes Elwy), who exists in the story largely to suffer and die, to represent the agonizing fragility of beauty and sweetness. Even Meg (Willa Fitzgerald) has most of her fun before she marries and then is around quite a bit less. Thomas is mostly interested in Jo's desire to write for both love and money, and in Amy's (Kathryn Newton) uncertain steps toward leaving villainy behind.

There is not a lot here that's particularly unexpected; the biggest names are Emily Watson as Marmee and nonagenarian Angela Lansbury as crusty old Aunt March, and they do not disappoint. Watson finds a lovely balance between the sense that Marmee is part of the tight group that her daughters have formed during their father's absence and the sense that she must exist outside of it, planning to send them off one by one to their own futures. And while Lansbury doesn't have a lot of screen time, what she has is impeccable, controlled and wry.

But this version, one part of which aired on the night of May 13 and the double-length conclusion of which will air on May 20 (check listings), gets the job done. The performances are solid, the modest surroundings are well designed, and director Vanessa Caswill's fondness for intimate scenes of the sisters together, shot close enough to sense the breath of one on the cheek of another, works very well.

The romances in the story (which leave a lot of readers cold) are rightly back-seated in favor of the complicated bonds between these sisters who are almost reluctant to leave their well-functioning family for the more uncertain terrain of marriage and adulthood. (Jo says at one point that she'd marry Meg if she could, and in context, it makes perfect sense.) In a world of reboots and reinventions, it's not too soon for a fresh look at these women, chafing against the implications of the changes they know are coming.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.