Little Women (1994) The Winona Ryder
                    A review by Corinne H. Smith
     One of the major film interpretations of the semi-autobiographical American novel written by Louisa May Alcott. Known to fans as “the Winona Ryder,” because she is the actress who portrays Jo(sephine) March, the main character. Quite a number of Alcott fans point to this version as being their favorite. I can admit that it has its good points.




     This is the story of the four March sisters – Meg (Trini Alvarado), Jo (Winona Ryder), Beth (Claire Danes), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis). We see what draws them together and what pushes them apart. We witness their special devotion to their mother, whom they call Marmee (Susan Sarandon). The story is set mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, in the early 1860s; and the main action centers around the most independent girl, second daughter Jo. Their father, Mr. March (Matthew Walker), is at first away from home and is involved in the war effort. The Marches were once well off but now have to make do with what they have. Every once in a while, they get a visit from their stodgy but rich relative, Aunt March (Mary Wickes), who dishes out a lot of judgment; but who also, reluctantly, doles out a few dollars to keep the household running. And then there’s the boy next door, known as Laurie (Christian Bale), who lives with his wealthy grandfather, Mr. Laurence (John Neville). They both become good friends of the March family. Jo and Laurie hit it off right away. Will their friendship become something stronger? Watch and find out. As the film rolls along, we see four young girls (who in theory start out at 16, 15, 13, and 12 years old) indeed turn into little women.

     Although this production was filmed in British Columbia, its set designer, Jan Rolfs, created a good replica of the real-life Alcott home, Orchard House, for the Marches to live in. Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts, was a town stand-in for Concord. The rest of the landscape is not quite New England-like, and the trees are wrong, but they’re not terribly out of place. I quite like the original music score by Thomas Newman. The main theme can be majestic at times and can then soften to mellowness when it has to. It fits the story perfectly.

     The casting is pretty darned good. Winona Ryder makes a wonderful Jo, and a merrier one than most. She probably has higher highs than any of the actresses who have worked in this role. Trini Alvarado and Claire Danes portray Meg and Beth very well. Kirsten Dunst is a suitably bratty young Amy. Christian Bale is a nice choice for Laurie. He shows emotion when he should, and he also grows up noticeably over the course of the film. Mary Wickes has always been one of my favorite actresses, ever since I first saw her in White Christmas; and I can think of no better person to take on the role of a rich, quirky, and demanding great aunt. Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays a decent Professor Bhaer, complete with the requisite German accent. Susan Sarandon is an interesting Marmee. She plays the girls’ mother as an outspoken feminist of her time. It’s almost as if Susan is told to play the part this way because of who she is in person. Her character goes beyond how Marmee appears in the book. And yet, this portrayal works, especially for a 20th or 21st-century audience.

     Screen writer Robin Swicord did a good job overall at narrowing down the scope of the book to fit into a 118-minute film. This happens to be the only version of Little Women that mentions the 19th-century Transcendentalist movement in Concord. And yet: telling this history is a deliberate interjection, because Miss Alcott doesn’t mention them and doesn’t use the term at all in her book. My sole objection with this film (you knew one was coming!) is that Swicord put Jo and Professor Bhaer together far too soon. What happens between the two of them in the theater, diminishes what happens between them in the last minutes of the film. This is all I can say without revealing details. I think that the theater scene should have been handled differently. And if it had, then this film interpretation would have been close to perfect. Nevertheless: if this one turns out to be your favorite one, then you have made a credible choice.

The Little Women of 1994 has been followed by the Maya Hawke (2017), the Sarah Davenport (2018) and the Saoirse Ronan (2019). It was preceded by the Katharine Hepburn (1933), the June Allyson (1949), the Angela Down (1970), and the Susan Dey (1978). If you’re curious, you could watch some of the others and make your own decisions about them. Better yet: go back to Miss Alcott’s original novel. None of the movies can cover the detail discovered in the book.

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