Culture

Here’s Why Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women Is Forever Relevant

Kathryn Newton, Maya Hawke, Willa Fitzgerald, and Annes Elwy in Little Women (2017) © BBC

“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room,” author Louisa May Alcott writes of her most famous heroine, Josephine March, “put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.” Indeed, Little Women, the first novel Jo appears in, traces her life as a poor but spitfire New England teen — one of four sisters — who moves to New York to pursue her literary dreams, marries well, and turns her aunt’s estate into a school for boys.

Though Alcott wrote Little Women at Orchard House, her family home and where she also placed the March sisters, the autobiography stopped short of Jo’s reverie in the “vortex” expressing “all her heart and soul.” Rather, Alcott was pressured by both her father and her publisher to write Little Women, and did so for money in record time. “I plod away,” is how Alcott herself summarized the process in her journal, “although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” The book debuted in 1868 and each further installment churned a buying frenzy not seen until more than a century later with the advent of Harry Potter.

That beloved character’s salty creator, J. K. Rowling, stands as a sort of proto-Alcott, as Alcott’s 40-year career spanned more than 200 works under an equally sexed nom de plume, and dashed off at high speeds, never for love, but always for money. Where the Rowling comparison really breaks down is under the pure American-ness of Alcott. PBS’s American Masters purports that with lovers like Emerson and Thoreau, and time spent as both a Civil War nurse and European Grand Tour companion, Alcott “was her own best character.”

“The real Louisa Alcott,” American Masters goes on to say, “was infinitely more interested in the darker side of human nature and experience than in telling polite stories to nice children. She was a protean personality, a turbulent force, a passionate fighter attracted to danger and violence.” Though Little Women is her best-known work, none of her eight works of juvenilia has ever gone out of print, and the same year she launched her March sisters saga, she also dashed off a short story featuring picnicking socialites getting blotto on hashish.

“I loved the book so much that I didn’t think twice about saying yes,” BBC show-runner Heidi Thomas tells an audience who’ve just watched the first part of her “Little Women” trilogy at the Tribeca Film Festival, “but then I sat down with the book and boy, did I think twice then! The thing is, the great books come up for adaptation perhaps once every generation, so I thought if I don’t do it now, the chance will never come again.”

“I think a novel about young women finding their voices and learning to sing is totally relevant,” Thomas continues, “and, as an older woman, I just wanted to pick that baton up and run with it. I read that book when I was eight and I just couldn’t not do it, but I was scared and overwhelmed. Still, I find that’s when I do my best work, when I’m scared and overwhelmed; that’s when I find something new.”

What she found was Colin Callender, executive producer for the BBC, and Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for PBS, putting her on a short, almost Alcott-esque turnaround for the miniseries. “This was January of last year,” Callender remembers, “so this was one of the fastest turn-arounds on a commission for the BBC.” But rather than the truncated production schedule, Thomas chooses to focus on the expanded breadth that the mini-series three-parter afforded her.

“The real gift was having three hours to tell the story,” Thomas adds, “because at the end of the day, it’s two novels: Little Women and Good Wives (the two appeared as volumes in 1868 and 1869, respectively, but were published together as Little Women from 1880 onward) and when I was working on each of the three-part structures, I gave them each a theme. The first is childhood. You see the girls at the most joyful they will ever be again — that kind of running wild — so this was about lightness more than hope and optimism because at this point in life, the girls don’t even realize that hope and optimism are necessary to get them through life.”

“The second part is about challenge and the approach of adulthood,” Thomas continues. “Their sister dies and they’re having to deal with the idea of time. The tone darkens. And then part three was change. In that section, I found myself in Marmee’s shoes just watching these young women finding their place in their lives.” Thomas takes a pause, and then perfunctorily sums, “So: childhood, challenge, and change.” But she’s not quite done, not quite ready to move off Marmee, played here by Emily Watson.

“She was very much in my mind when I was writing,” Thomas explains of the Academy Award nominee. “It was a very interesting pair of shoes to walk through this in. I think of Marmee as being very liminal: saintly, but also very much present as a mother. You never know what you’ll find in a book and this time around for me, it was Marmee. She’s very complicated. She’s angry, but she doesn’t seem angry. There’s a prism with which you can look through that character that gives brilliant actors material they can thrive on and that’s a very, very important part of an adaptor’s craft.”

Thomas clearly has more to say, but Callender preempts with a congratulatory, “That was quite a piece of casting!” Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre since 1985, but rebranded as simply “Masterpiece” since 2008, has a slew of recent hits under her belt with both “Downton Abbey” and “Wolf Hall” and is by no means a shrinking violet, but does see an opportunity to talk about the complicated two-network deal. “I can tell you about the deal we made at Masterpiece with Colin?” she posits, almost as a question.

When no one speaks over her, she continues, “Well, this is a BBC production. It’s an American book and it’s a BBC production. Masterpiece hasn’t done much American drama, usually we do mid-Atlantics, the Edith Wartons or the Henry James, but this is an all-American book. But it was going to be British. Colin, the writer, and the director are British. So Colin and I made a deal: the girls would be American. They just had to be American. And he kept his word three out of the four times because lovely Beth is Welsh. But Colin also said all of the adults would be British-acting royalty and he was able to get that because the BBC has a lot of money — people like Sir Michael Gambon and Angela Lansbury, although I think a  lot of people think Angela is American.”

“She’s the best!” offers Kathryn Newton, who plays the blond, book-burning Amy March. “When she walked in, it’s just Angela. I loved talking to her about being our age and being a contract actress. She told me to never give up. That was her advice to me.” Newcomer Maya Hawke, who plays headstrong Jo March, adds, “She’s also so amazingly porous. There’s this false idea that people, as they get older, get more stuck, but she was more flexible — changeable — than anyone I ever met. She’d do each take so differently. She had a thought and you’d watch it going across her face. She was so hungry and passionate and curious and generous, it’s a real inspiration to meet someone who’s been doing something for this long and still finds such wonder in it.”

“You start with the book,” Hawke continues when asked how to tackle an iconic role she could probably still be researching, “everybody does. Preparing for this role, you love acting, but you will love this book from the moment you pick it up. Then you start to prepare the ways in which you let the book affect you. In the ways you let Jo and her independence and her bravery and her courage perforate your being as a young woman, and hopefully impact the ways in which you go about the world. And then you get sent a script and all of a sudden you are presented not with a character in a book, but an opportunity to perform and take yourself and this person and mold them together into one.”

“Then you get really inured,” Hawke expands, “and really historical about it; you read as much as you can and you go and visit the Orchard House, which is a really beautiful, historically preserved home in Concord, Massachusetts. And you visit Walden Pond and you read Emerson and Thoreau. You read The Bible and you think about all the things these women, both the real Alcotts and the March family, try to figure out. Where their minds were going and what they were thinking and feeling while they were growing up, and then you try to give yourself ownership to be yourself and not be too weighted down by all that information. And then you try to act on instinct and be brave.”

“It’s really lovely to hear you describe your process,” Thomas responds, “because it’s so similar to mine, and sometimes the script bridges the gap between our two disciplines. You go back and read the King James Bible, in particular, and it gives a certain cadence to the language because that was the most permeated piece of literature in that home. I would read Civil War magazines because you could see what women’s preoccupations were. There would be three advertisements for hair products and one advertisement for artificial limbs because your husband was likely to come home from the war with a missing arm. It was this textual peg for what was going on. It’s also what prevents the novel from feeling like it’s been preserved in aspic jelly; these women just leap off the page as being actual, and they were, they were just put there by Alcott in the 1860s.”