Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel is a perfect balm for the holidays.
When you remember Christmases of your youth, what images spring to mind? A real Christmas tree, lit with candles? A fresh, fragrant orange in the toe of your stocking? Carols played and sung around the family piano?
Those are the images that spring to mind for me. Of course, I never had any of those things. The March Sisters had them for me, and every year, after an autumn reread of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I’d snuggle up with my mom for another watch of Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation. While Armstrong’s take may not be the most complete or faithful rendition of the book, it successfully conveys the emotions that the story is meant to stir in us. It’s also the most “Christmassy” Little Women ever put to screen or stage.
The first notes of Thomas Newman’s iconic score still bring tears to my eyes after all these years, but it’s Armstrong who does an impeccable job filling every frame with gorgeous period details. Invitingly worn books, ragged dolls, and homemade theatre costumes spill into the sisters’ living spaces, giving the March home an authentically warm and lived-in feel. Some details are so delightful as to push the film into the range of fantasy for young viewers; as my four-year-old nannying charge watched Beth (Claire Danes) and Meg (Trini Alvarado) cuddle with a seemingly infinite pile of adorable barn kittens, he wailed “It’s not fair!” in desperate envy.
Luckily, the artistic team behind this version of Little Women made some wise choices that remind us that the Marches’ endless struggle to maintain their modest life has actual stakes. Dresses and accessories are recycled by all four sisters throughout the movie to reflect the family’s meager income. A gown that Meg thinks fine enough to wear to a formal ball in the first act of the movie serves as an everyday outfit for grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis) to practice painting in by the third act. Even as Meg’s suitor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz) tries to strike up a genteel conversation with the ladies, they’re busy lugging firewood from a woodpile into the house.
This isn’t to say the 1994 March Sisters aren’t fun and glamorous in their own way, though. As a girl growing up without sisters, I could have watched them play dress-up, curl each others’ hair, and giggle behind one another’s backs forever. The actors’ familial bond is entirely believable, so watching the movie feels practically like being invited into their cozy attic clubhouse.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the girls gather up their splendid Christmas breakfast and walk it over to a hungry family of German immigrants, singing all the while. As the lane leading to their home crosses with that of the neighbors, a carriage passes, revealing the dashing Laurie (Christian Bale) inside. Jo (Winona Ryder), still elbow-in-elbow with her siblings, raises the tin teakettle she’s holding aloft in a sort of half-sarcastic salute to Laurie, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
While Armstrong’s take may not be the most complete or faithful rendition of the book, it successfully conveys the emotions that the story is meant to stir in us.
Comedian Jacqueline Novak once wrote on Instagram that, as a girl growing up in the 1990s, she “based her entire way of being around boys on this one gesture with a tea kettle,” and I speak from experience when I say she’s not the only one.
The utter charm and charisma of stars like Ryder, Bale, and wee little Kirsten Dunst (as young Amy March) works both for and against Little Women. Ryder and Bale have so much onscreen chemistry—and share a passionate kiss—that Jo’s decision to jilt Laurie’s romantic advances no longer seem to make narrative sense. When he whispers “I’ll let you win every argument,” Ryder visibly shivers with pleasure. Their ardor is so intense that it launched another generation of disappointed Jo/Laurie shippers, more than 120 years after readers of the original novel first wrote to Louisa May Alcott begging her to marry Jo to her best friend.
It’s no wonder that after their relationship falls apart, the film drags a bit. It’s unpleasant to watch a mustachioed Laurie seethe and rage at Amy in Europe, undoing everything that made his relationship with the March Family admirable with nasty remarks like “If Beth had a lover, I’d hate him too.” Mathis, as the grown-up version of the youngest sister, is given precious little to do or say in response. You can’t help yearning for Dunst back as the quippy child Amy, dishing out classic lines like “I’m so degradetated!” and “Isn’t butter divinity?” with impeccable comedic timing.
In general, the 1994 movie does focus a little too much on Jo’s romantic relationships, to the detriment of additional character development for characters like Meg and Amy. It’s totally fine to center the story on Jo, the inarguable main protagonist of Little Women, but we lose some of her most incisive observations on womanhood and the writing process in order to spend more time watching her and Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) make out backstage at the opera. It’s a slightly odd choice to make when trying to tell a story about how women are strong and creative in their own right.
This version of Little Women’s stabs at updating the story for 1994 are at times a little obvious, but good-natured. Some moments feel anachronistic in their embrace of “Girl Power”; it doesn’t entirely fit to have Marmee (Susan Sarandon) lecture John Brook about the evils of corsets, and I felt mortified right along with poor Meg when she did.
However, the choice to weave more details of the real Alcott family’s life into the Marches’ story is such a fantastic one that other adaptations of the story have since repeated the trick. Captain March (Matthew Walker) never admits a black child to his all-white school in the book, as in this film—but that’s something Louisa May Alcott’s real father, Bronson, actually did do. Fitting more of the Alcotts’ progressive politics into the world of Little Women fleshes out the characters by giving us a better sense of their beliefs, and adds needed historical texture.
By the time Beth, the timid middle sister, slips into the illness that will eventually end her life, all of the film’s gears are working together beautifully to deliver maximum emotional impact. The simple, warmly-lit room where the family gathers around her is very familiar to us. The musical score begins calling us back to happier times when Beth got sick but miraculously recovered. Danes and Ryder turn in some of their best scenes in the film (and some of my favorite moments of their respective careers) during this sequence.
While other versions of Little Women portray Beth as a supernaturally good being, almost more on par with the divine than the human, Danes reminds us that she is a young woman who is understandably scared to die. “I think I would be homesick for you even in heaven,” Beth sobs weakly, and the audience weeps along with her. After her death, moments that could be maudlin or cheesy in under other circumstances, such as housekeeper Hannah (Florence Patterson) scattering rose petals over Beth’s well-loved dolls, are effective because they’re grounded in the reality of a home and a family we feel we know intimately.
But what’s Christmas without a soupçon of melancholy? Would we cherish those scenes of the girls rehearsing plays and snuggling in bed together so much if we didn’t know their time together was coming to an end? It’s hard to say. Most siblings are parted, eventually, if only by geography. Even if Beth had lived, she would have grown up like the other girls, and it wouldn’t have stopped the Marches from choosing four separate paths.
Maybe that’s part of what makes Little Women such a perfectly Christmassy movie for me. More than the sumptuous holiday imagery and festive music that makes it a fun film to watch, it’s a bittersweet reminder to cherish our time together.
I hope the 1994 Little Women’s devoted fanbase will make some space in their hearts for the new Greta Gerwig film. I’m certainly rooting for any version of this kind-hearted story to succeed. While Armstrong’s take on the book may not have been absolutely perfect, I know I’ll always remember it fondly for introducing many new fans to Little Women. Though it focuses slightly too much on its protagonist’s love interests, it’s still a compassionate tale of young women finding ways to be happy and help others in a world dominated by men. We need more movies like it—at Christmas, and all the time.