Marmee ascendant

Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994) is faced with the problem of translating a proto-feminist but by contemporary standards scarily conservative nineteenth-century sentimental novel into a late-twentieth-century feminist film.  The solution?  Turn the March family’s stern, no-nonsense matriarch into a mouthpiece for women’s rights.  As written by Robin Swicord and played by Susan Sarandon, Mrs. March (better known to her daughters, and to devoted readers, as “Marmee”) arrives on the screen by way of Betty Freidan and Catherine MacKinnon.  The problem is not that this feels to be a more staunchly feminist Little Women than the one penned by Louisa May Alcott over one hundred years before; the art of adaptation always involves a bit of tailoring.  The problem is rather that the seams show.  Marmee’s primary function in the film is to go around dropping clunky feminist one-liners at opportune moments.  As her moniker suggests, she’s a schoolmarm perpetually stuck in lecture mode.  When a neighbor raises his eyebrows at the girls having a snowball fight, Marmee retorts, “Young girls are no different from boys in their need for exertion.  Feminine weakness and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework and restrictive corsets!”  When Meg confesses to what we might call an “I feel pretty” moment, Marmee cautions, “If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are.  Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful work inside your mind, your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.”  Having not read Alcott’s original novel, I can’t say whether these speeches have been invented for the film.  I can only say that they feel conspicuously planted.  Talented actor that she is, Sarandon does her best to naturalize these lines, but we’re left with a film that’s painfully anxious about proving its feminist relevance.  Handsome but exhaustingly didactic (even with all that rhetoric of Christian piety taken out), Armstrong’s Little Women is not so much an adaptation as a retrofitting, tricked out with the slogans and tiresome political platitudes of our own era.  As with so many literary adaptations, it’s been tastefully updated, made inoffensive and “relevant” in accordance with “modern views.”  Little Women is fun for the whole family—if you can stomach it.             

1 comment:

  1. As with any film adaptation of a novel, many of the significant components of Alcott's Little Women get caught up in and/or lost completely in film-maker's need for popular appeal. As a huge Alcott fan, rest assured the novel devotes significant page-space to developing Mrs. March's character, which is only faintly glimpsed on film by her here-and-there socio-political commentary. The scene in Professor Bhaer's parlor where he discusses German transcendentalist philosophy with Jo gives the viewer a very brief explication of a primary theme in Alcott's novel. Presenting Marmee as a "mouthpiece for women's rights" was, for those familiar with the novel, a refreshing return to the day-to-day values of the original March family. If Marmee's character had not been presented in such a way, one of the key characteristics which makes this novel an American classic would have been lost entirely. As it is, this big screen version of Alcott's novel is hands down my personal favorite; it combines the exciting, theatrical life of the March sisters with their family values, both of which are deeply rooted in transcendental philosophy. The reference to Walden Pond where Jo and Laurie save little Amy always takes me back to Henry David Thoreau, one of Mr. Alcott's personal friend whom Louisa likely met as a little girl. Hats off to Susan Sarandon for her performance as the Marmee Alcott fans all know and love!