Which Little Women adaptation is the best? Review

I just did a Little Women book vs movie where I compared the 2019 movie with the book. I decided I wanted to watch the previous three well-known adaptations too, and make video sharing which follows the book most faithfully, and which one is my personal favorite of the bunch!

1933 dir. George Cukor

This was not the first adaptation of Little Women, but this is the oldest version which still is talked about today. It doesn’t have great pacing because while they take their time with part one of the book, the second half is skimmed over and some things feel rushed.

For example, Meg disappears once she is married, and we don’t see the relationship grow between Laurie and Amy. They do make a point to show the bond grow between Jo and Bhaer, but I still think a lot was left to be desired.

Despite the many cuts and changes, the outcome for all of our characters is the same in movie as in book.

The only cast member that stands out is Kathrine Hepburn and she is the biggest reason to watch this one. Hepburn is of course an icon, but this isn’t her best role in my opinion. While she is the only reason to watch the 33 version, evenso, if you want to see a standout performance from her this isn’t the movie I would recommend.

1949 dir. Mervyn LeRoy

This version was based on the ’33 script more so than being adapted from the book and it was even the same screen writers from the 33 movie. So many scenes are shot for shot like the 33 movie to the point that it had me wondering, “what was the point in making this movie??” There are some changes between the two, but no change to the script that is so significant it makes sense to remake it less than 20 years after the first. The 33 movie was a huge success though, so I am inclined to believe they remade it in hopes it would be another financial win. Selznick worked on the 33 movie, and he was the one that spearheaded the remake even though he ultimaltey passed it off to a different studio.

Given that this script is so similar to the 33 version, I have the same complaints with the pacing. Watching all four of these back to back makes me impressed with how much Gerwig was able to fit into her movie. It is 15 minutes longer than the other ones, and she does a lot with that extra time! The 94 movie is an almost perfectly even split where at the halfway point we jump ahead a few years. Whereas this and 33 movie has us over halfway before we get to the events of the second half of the book.

Having said that, this is a stellar cast-Janet Leigh as Meg who I think was a great choice I just wish we saw more of her, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Laurie, June Allyson, and Margaret O’Brian (who I only know from this and Meet Me in Saint Louis, but she is so memorable in both movies). But when she is talking to Jo about how she is dying, she looked totally healthy! So she didn’t pull off the deathly sick parts.

This was the first version of Little Women I ever watched back when I was young though, and there were scenes that I still remembered all these years later. Liz Taylor as Amy was especially memorable because she brings humor to the role and has quite the screen presence (aside from that hair color looking very strange on her). But she really embodies the selfish and vain side of Amy, but also is so elegant and refined in what little scenes we get of her as she is older.

June Allyson I thought brought something different to the role and fit the character. Having said that, even though her acting is good when Jo is younger, she and Peter Laurie just looked too old (she was 31 at the time playing a 15 year old at the start). So while they have good chemistry, I just wasn’t buying that they were teenagers which made some of their shenanigans come across kind of off. There are some funny additions though in this version that isn’t in the book or 33 movie, when Jo is telling Meg that Meg can’t be in love, because as a writer, Jo knows all about love and Meg doesn’t display the proper symptoms of it according to her. Then the part when she is waving to Laurie before talking to him, and Meg says something about how it is romantic way to get to know someone and Jo is like, who said anything about romance? There are times when Allyson’s Jo comes across kind of cringey (again maybe it is because she is 31) but I still found her entertaining.

One thing about Laurie in this version, they hear that Laurie had lied about his age and ran off to fight in the war but he is caught and brought back to live with his grandfather. This was not in the book or any of the other movies.

1994 dir. Gillian Armstrong

This time we get a female director, and this movie leans more into the female empowerment themes moreso than the previous two. I had watched this one before (when I was going through a Christian Bale phase), but it has been over ten years and I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around!

They do make some significant changes from the book, for example the romantic relationship between Jo and Bhaer begins while she is still in New York (they kiss!). Amy and Laurie’s relationship feels rushed but unlike the previous two, we at least see them a number of times together in Europe. All in all, this one is closer to the book then the first two films.

Winona Ryder is great as Jo. She portrays the youthful side really well, and shows how she then matures through the years. She has a great scene unique to this movie when Jo is in New York and men are debating on whether women should vote and one guy says women should vote because they are more moral than men. Jo then says, “I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.”

I like Christian Bale well enough as Laurie, he always gives a strong performance and we see his silly side, as well as his emotional side. But Bale does bring an intensity to the role I wasn’t always a fan of.

I loved Claire Danes as Beth though. This was her first movie role and I thought she was fantastic. I also absolutely adored Kirsten Dunst as young Amy! She had such magnetism even at that young age. She brings Amy to life in such a cute, sweet, funny way and I loved whenever she was on screen. She is the only Amy that is the correct age according to the book!

2019 dir. Greta Gerwig

My official book vs movie post was all about the 2019 movie so you should check that out! But for those who haven’t seen that, I will repeat what I say in part of that post, “I think this movie had a great cast, it looks amazing, and I love what Gerwig did with the script. This isn’t a remake where I was left wondering, “why did they feel to adapt this story yet again??”. Rather, it is clear why Gerwig wanted to adapt it and she made changes that help this adaptation stand apart, rather than just being one of many adaptations of the same work. ”

As far as the cast, I think everyone is fantastic. Timothee brought so much in his portrayal. He was silly and fun with Jo when they are younger and they had such great chemistry. I also loved how you can see in his eyes how much the March family impacts him from the very first time he meets them and how much he wants to be part of this group and that love he has for the family. While the Bale Laurie tells us he wants to be part of the March family, Chalamet’s Laurie shows us without having to say the words.

The 19 movie in general does a fantastic job at showing the three men-Laurie, Mr. Lawrence and John Brook-how they feel almost empty when they aren’t around at least one member of the March family. And then the scene when he professes his love to Jo was so gut wrenching, and later in Europe with Amy, ugh he was just amazing all the way through!

I love Pugh as adult Amy but didn’t find her quite as convincing in the flashbacks when she is supposed to be younger. Florence Pugh had more to work with here compared to past adult Amy’s, since we get to see more of her and Laurie’s relationship. She is great as adult Amy though and I loved her in these parts, just not so much when she is supposed to be a 12 year old.

In the 19 movie, it cuts back and forth in time, showing the life Jo loved so much with her sisters, in stark contrast to her life when she is older-now that the family is separated off and all she has left are the memories. In the other versions, when she has this conversation about valuing being loved more now than before, she doens’t come across as lonely or sad. This version Ronan really captures Jo’s emotions. We also has the line too where she says, “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for…” Then says how she gets so lonely though. So I loved how nuanced Jo is in this version and in that scene. and because we jump back and forth in time, it highlights how she misses the past years when the family was together but she can never get that back.

Comparing all four

Bhaer

All versions have Jo choosing to have Bhaer read her work. But in the book, she was embarrassed and didn’t encourage people to read her stories and she didn’t even have her name published (which the 19 movie keeps). But in the ’49 movie and ’33 movie, Bhaer is such a jerk the way he insults her writing! He also tells her this right after she hears Amy is the one going to Europe, and that Laurie had been in the city and yet didn’t bother to see her (these scenes are not in the book). So she is feeling emotionally fragile when then Bhaer comes in and tears apart her work.

Whereas in the ’94 and ’19 he is honest, but he didn’t come across like a jerk. I really like in the 94 movie when bear says to her that he knows she is capable of writing better and says, “There is more to you than this, if you have the courage to write it.” Which I found to be a really powerful statement!

In the first three movies, Bhear is crucial to Jo’s writing and getting her book published. I assume older movies have him getting her book published in part because of sexism of the 30’s and 40’s -“a woman would need a man’s help to get work published!”, but also to make us like him more and see how supportive and important he is in her writing.

The book and the 2019 movie are the only ones where Jo gets her work published on her own with no assistance from Bhaer aside from his critiques. In the book she had published a work about Beth and Bhaer reads it while in New York. He could feel her sadness in the writing and this is why he later comes to Boston to see her and her family.

In the 33 and 49 movie, the first time we meet Bhaer, he is pretending to be a bear while playing with kids and while he could be playful in the book to some extent, I wasn’t a fan of this introduction especially since his name sounds like “bear” it just came across as too silly.

Meg and John

While in all versions, we see more of Meg and John courting, in the 33 and 49 movie, his proposal follows the book. She tells him no because she is too young, but then Aunt March comes in and insults him because he is poor and says he just wants to marry Meg for Aunt March’s money. Meg gets so upset and she defends John and when Aunt March leaves, John comes back in and thanks her for defending him and this is when they both proclaim their love.

Marmee

Mr. March is hardly in any of the movies, and Marmee doesn’t get much development either in the older movies. But I think the 2019 movie does the best at giving us a look at her including a great scene from the book where she confides in Jo that she too has a terrible temper and she spends the majority of her life angry. But that she is better at controlling it than she used to be. This gives Jo hope, because she too has a horrible temper.

The 1994 makes Marmee more of a focus as well, and we see her as a very liberal women and mother who doesn’t want her daughters simply conforming to society’s idea’s of what is right and wrong for a girl. I like Marmee in this version, but I would say the Laura Dern version is more accurate to the book.

Iconic scenes

Speaking of Jo’s temper, I was a little surprised the 33 and 49 movie doesn’t have the drama of Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, or the burning of the hair before the party. Both of these seem like iconic Little Women moments, and the 94 movie and 19 movie do include them.

Speaking of iconic moments, the older two also don’t have the Pickwick club, but the 94 and 19 movie do have it and I just love these scenes so much! So fun and silly, while also showing how serious the sister’s take it.

I also thought it was interesting that the 33 movie and the 19 movie have Mr. Lawrence sending the March’s a Christmas feast when they give theirs away, and yet the 49 and 94 movie didn’t. In all versions they give away their own breakfast, in the book, 33, and 19 movie Marmee asks it of them, but in the 49 and 94 version, Beth is the one who suggests it.

We also have the scene in the book when Meg overhears people gossiping about how the March’s are only friends with the Lawerence’s for their money. The 33 and 19 movie don’t have this at all. The 49 movie have Beth and Amy overhear it while at the party being hosted at the Lawerence house and they are very upset (because in these movies, the party where Laurie and Jo dance without being seen happens later in the story and it is hotsed by Mr. Lawrence). In the 94 movie, Laurie is with Meg and they both overhear but they just find it amusing and laugh.

Beth and Mr. Lawerence

Beth’s friendship with Mr. Lawrence I would say it cut short a bit in the 2019 version. Maybe I am just saying that because when she goes to thank him, she is sick and so the moment isn’t as sweet as it was in the book and the other three movies when she goes to him and is so overcome with gratitude that she hugs him. The 2019 is the only version that includes Jo and Beth going to the seaside while Beth is sick, but in the 33 movie Jo does mention one of her stories covering the cost to send Marmee and Beth to the beach.

Amy and Laurie

As a kid I remember hating that Laurie married Amy, but based on the 49 movie, no wonder! The ’33 version includes a two minute clip of them in Europe after hearing about Beth’s death, but that was hardly enough.

The 2019 devotes a lot of time to their relationship and it pays off.

The 1994 movie has some cute scenes with them when she is young, and we get more of them in Europe as well. There is one scene in particular with them where Laurie says just as Amy knew she would always marry rich, he knows he will marry into the March family. She says she wants to be loved for who she is, not for her family, to which he says just like Fred wants to be loved for who he is and not for his money.

In the book, 33 version, and 49 version, Jo finds out beforehand that Amy and Laurie are engaged, or that they are least falling in love. In the two movies, Meg is the one who talks to Jo about it. In the 94 and 19 movie, Jo is shocked when they return home and Laurie tells her that he has married Amy. As far as the 2019 movie, this again is something I talk about more in my previous video. But in 94, she is surprised but not bothered by this news.

There was more jealousy between Amy and Jo in the 2019 version, but that wasn’t really a thing in the book or the other movies. In the book Jo and Beth were close and then Meg and Amy were close, but aside from when Amy burns Jo’s writing, there wasn’t animosity between the two per se.

Aunt March

With Amy in Europe, the first two movies and the 2019 has Aunt March taking Amy to Europe rather than Jo because she simply prefers Amy. In the 1994 version, it is because Amy is now Aunt March’s companion and so it just makes sense Amy would be the one. None of them match the book where we see Jo directly sabotage her opportunity when she and Amy go visit one afternoon.

In all but the 2019 version, Aunt March isn’t likeable and comes across as this crotchedy, miserly, old woman. In the 2019 movie though, we see how she is someone who knows all too well the lack of power a woman has in this world and since she was rich, she never had an economical reason to marry and therefore has stayed single. We see her talking to the March sisters, trying to get them to see the importance of marrying rich and as Amy says in her monologue, the vast majority of females at the time needed to see marriage as more than just about love due to society’s limitations on them as individuals.

Aunt March doesn’t come across as miserly, but rather an independent woman not too unlike Jo, who values what freedom’s her wealth provides her despite her being a female. She doesn’t want her freedom taken away by marrying a man (because if she were to marry, her and her money would belong to the man).

Amy’s monolauge and what we see of Aunt March in this version really puts Amy’s goals into perspective. In other movies she comes across as shallow but here her desire to marry rich is put into proper context.

Which is the best?

But to sum up. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation is not only my favorite, it is also the most faithful to the book. My second favorite is the 1994 movie and is one I will watch again for sure. The 33 and 49 versions are so similar, and it seems unfair to say I would recommend the 49 movie over the 33, considering it stole so much from the 33 version, and yet, I think the cast make it more worthwhile to watch. I doubt I will ever watch the 33 version again, but I could potentially watching the 49 movie again at some point in the distant future.

My favorites in each role is Chalamet for Laurie, Ryder and Ronan for Jo, Dunst for young Amy and Pugh for adult Amy, Danes for Beth, and Emma Watson for Meg.

The cast of the 2019 movie is superb, but I really need to praise Gerwig because she wrote an incredible script and gives her characters much more to do than the previous movies had, all of which focius so much more on Jo than the others. And the directing was far more dynamic than the previous films. I gave this 4.5 stars on letterboxd, but the more I talk about it, it should get 5 because it really is perfection. Each of the girls have so much depth and their romance angle is just one aspect to who they are.

There is a line in the book when Marmee is telling them a story that has a lesson and Jo says, “Tell another…one with a moral to it, like this. I like to think about them afterward, if they are real and not too preachy.” There is also a line when Jo is surprised at the success of her book and Marmee tells her people resonate with it because the writing is honest and true. The movie captures these things so well. It isn’t preachy in telling girls how to live their life. We see Meg, Jo, and Amy fulfilling their life goals and each of their life ideas of what happiness is is very different, but both all are equally valid. The movie resonates with so many, because it is honest and real, just as the book had been.