Critic's Picks: The Best (and Worst) of the Major 'Little Women' Adaptations

8:00 AM 12/20/2019

by Robyn Bahr

Ahead of the Christmas Day release of Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women,' check out how this new film ranks among the novel's many other large- and small-screen adaptations.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women'
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women'
Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures

When Louisa May Alcott published her semiautobiographical novel Little Women in 1868, few could have predicted this domestic story about four Massachusetts sisters surviving genteel poverty, the Civil War and the transition from childhood to adulthood would become a smash hit. Yet, young readers flocked to Alcott's hilarious and devastating coming-of-age vignettes showcasing covetous beauty Meg, tempestuous writer Jo, shy musician Beth and self-involved artist Amy. These fans created what was essentially the world's first YA sensation. Alcott took the internal lives of teenage girls seriously and crafted for them a timeless tale that is a drama, a comedy, a romance and an adventure all at once. It's a quintessential American novel.

Little Women has been adapted to the screen more than a dozen times, including two silent films released in 1917 and 1918, multiple television serials between the 1950s and 1970s, two Japanese anime series, a contemporary Lifetime reimagining and a Hindi language web series. For the purposes of this ranked guide, I have focused on the major film and television adaptations. 

  • 1. 'Little Women' (1994)

    Directed by Gillian Armstrong

    Columbia Pictures/Photofest

    If diving into Little Women is akin to wrapping yourself in a warm, cozy afghan on a cold night, then consider this version a top-of-the-line, velvety microfiber weighted blanket. The first film adaptation to be directed by a woman stars an Oscar-nominated Winona Ryder as Jo, with Claire Danes (Beth), Kirsten Dunst (Amy), Christian Bale (Laurie) and Susan Sarandon (Marmee). It's a tender and traditional imagining, faithfully capturing the homey spirit of the novel and the compartmentalized style of Alcott's tableaux. Armstrong's vision is naturalistic, presenting the March sisters in all their innate sweetness and saltiness. It's the kind of film you can watch over and over again, especially in the days leading up to Christmas. Cast standouts include lively Ryder, nominated for best actress, fragile Danes (who deserved her own nomination for Beth's slow demise), sexy Bale (playing Laurie as the quintessential mischief-maker) and fiery Dunst (truly the best onscreen Amy, even if hiring a 12-year-old came at the cost of having to recast the character as she aged). This version is an all-time treat.

  • 2. 'Little Women' (2019)

    Directed by Greta Gerwig

    Wilson Webb

    If Armstrong's version is the most palatable, then consider Gerwig's the most pungent. This wild adaptation seamlessly winds you through past and present, Gerwig dispensing with chronological storytelling to make a grander statement about flashbulb memory and female ambition. Her script plays with timelines more than any other version, and in doing so, fashions a story that lands at unexpected emotional beats compared with the original novel and its subsequent adaptations. Her hairpin turns take some getting used to, but once you settle into the rhythm, you realize Gerwig structures her story to simulate the roller-coaster experiences of female artists who are drenched in determination but thwarted at every turn. (What other costume drama climaxes at a woman's salary negotiation?) Saoirse Ronan's petulant Jo and Florence Pugh's passionate Amy stand out among a fantastic ensemble, but it's Timothée Chalamet's heartbroken Laurie that becomes the heart of the film, and he practically steals the story from every one of these little women. Years to come, this may very well be deemed Gerwig's masterpiece.

  • 3. 'Little Women' (1933)

    Directed by George Cukor

    RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest

    Without a doubt, Katherine Hepburn is film's greatest Jo March. Hepburn plays her with playful, temperamental boyishness and delivers every New England-accented line like the crack of a whip. Compared to this vigorous and vinegary performance, every other onscreen Jo comes off as delicate and sullen. Yet, as glad I am to take in Hepburn's whole-hearted enthusiasm, her star power sacrifices every other castmember in the film, including this version's flibbertigibbet March sisters and Douglass Montgomery's pretty boy Laurie. (Instead of conjuring relatable anguish when Jo rejects his affections, he lashes out and scapegoats her for his future failings: "Laurie, where are you going?" she cries. "To the devil, and you'll be sorry." Cukor invokes a storybook enchantment even while depicting harsh Civil War pragmatism and his focus on the girls' triumphs through adversity became a beacon for audiences suffering through the Great Depression. He returns to a simpler time with simpler values, just when viewers needed to imbibe American resilience.

  • 4. 'Little Women' (2017 miniseries)

    Directed by Vanessa Caswill

    Tribeca Film Festival

    This criminally underrated three-part BBC serial (later brought to the U.S. via PBS' Masterpiece) stars peppery Maya Hawke as my all-time personal favorite Jo, a growly, rough-and-tumble puppy dog trying desperately not to grow up. Heidi Thomas' script, which takes its time to equally develop each of the girls as individuals, beautifully integrates Alcott's laugh-out-loud humor into the larger story about accepting — even embracing — impending adulthood. This is also the only adaptation I've seen to breathe life into decorous Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), the oft-forgotten March sister who chooses to marry and raise a family instead of seeking her fortunes like Jo and Amy. Additionally, this version elevates Jo's love interest Professor Bhaer (Mark Stanley) from a finger-wagging nerd to a fierce, burly and bearded redhead who completely makes you forget about forlorn Laurie. Watching this, I finally understood what draws Jo to the intellectual German tutor, as Stanley infuses Bhaer with wit, passion and empathy. Emily Watson also shines as warm but firm Marmee whose simmering temper lies right underneath the surface. Consider this among the classics.

  • 5. Little Women (2018)

    Directed by Clare Niederpruem

    Courtesy of Pinnacle Peak

    I'll be honest: This is where the Little Women adaptations start to fall off the rails. Clare Niederpruem's quasi-faith-based modern update isn't "bad," per se — it's as wholesome, pleasant and watchable as any version of the story. But it exposes its seams a bit too openly. The film, starring Lea Thompson as Marmee, was released in theaters, yet would have been much more at home on Lifetime, the Hallmark Channel or even Netflix. Niederpruem does her best with a low budget, able to craft an intimate story where aughts Jo (Sarah Davenport) is a strident, scrambling wannabe fantasy author, Beth (Allie Jennings) gets childhood leukemia instead of scarlet fever and their father (Bart Johnson) is serving in Iraq. (His letters translate here to video call sessions, which loses a certain narrative poignancy.) The drama veers into mawkishness — it makes absolutely no sense that Meg (Melanie Stone) reveals a surprise, bulbous belly to Jo instead of just calling her to tell her she's pregnant — but the scene where Beth tells Jo she's ready to die constricted my body, pushing air right out of my lungs.  

  • 6. 'Little Women' (1949)

    Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

    MGM/Photofest

    There are things Jo March shouldn't be: perky, irritating, draining. June Allyson completely misses Jo's essential brooding core (and reminds me, unpleasantly, of a young, mugging Emma Stone). This full-blown Technicolor version boasts a twinkling studio-system cast, including child stars Margaret O'Brien as Beth (considered one of the best criers on the MGM lot) and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy (so beautiful in this movie she actually hurts your eyes). Janet Leigh plays Meg in an unremarkable turn. In LeRoy's version, the girls lose their authenticity and simply become vessels for bright frocks and syrupy grins. This large-scale adaptation may be a feast for the eyes, but its script strays far from Alcott's pathos, plotting and characterizations, rendering it big but shallow.

  • 7. 'Little Women' (1978 miniseries)

    Directed by David Lowell Rich

    NBC/Photofest

    The less said about this adaptation, the better. A who's who of '70s and '80s sitcom stars, this treacly two-part miniseries features The Partridge Family's Susan Dey as Jo, Family Ties' Meredith Baxter Birney as Meg, The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb as Beth, and…William Shatner as Professor Bhaer (???). Good luck if you can stomach Jo's grinding narration or the Easter-colored set design/costuming, which deflate this misstep even further.