Gerwig’s is a regift of sorts, considering that this will technically be the eighth version of Alcott’s 1868 novel to appear on the big screen. Across all mediums, including everything from television to stage adaptations, it’s something like the 20th adaptation — proving just how timeless sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March’s experiences of growing up and finding love, sometimes reluctantly, truly are.
In anticipation of Ronan’s vivacity and Chalamet’s flippy hair and Streep’s sassiness, here’s a look back at 14 other times the coming-of-age drama has played out on screen. “Little Women” hive, assemble!
The 1917 and 1918 silent films
British director Alexander Butler’s “Little Women,” the first-ever adaptation of Alcott’s Civil War-era story, is said to be a lost film, meaning it is no longer known to exist in public or private archives. It starred actress Ruby Miller, a Gaiety Girl, or a well-regarded chorus girl in Edwardian musical comedies.
Paramount Pictures released another “Little Women” the following year, which was somewhat similar to its predecessor as a now-lost silent film directed by a British man, Harley Knoles.
George Cukor’s 1933 film
The acclaimed director’s Depression-era film ranks among the better-known “Little Women” adaptations, perhaps bested by the Gillian Armstrong version that arrived 61 years later. Katharine Hepburn — whose feature debut, “A Bill of Divorcement,” was also directed by Cukor — channeled her famous tomboy spirit in playing Jo. Joan Bennett, Frances Dee and Jean Parker played her on-screen sisters, while Edna May Oliver, a character actress known for portraying spinsters, played the family’s wealthy Aunt March.
Cukor’s film — the first “Little Women” with sound! — was received well by critics, including the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall, who described Hepburn’s performance as “vital, sympathetic and full of the joie de vivre one could hope for,” and added that the film “begins in a gentle fashion and slips away smoothly without any forced attempt to help the finish to linger in the minds of the audience.”
Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 film
In hindsight, LeRoy’s was just as star-studded a film as Gerwig or Armstrong’s, thanks to the studio system. The MGM feature’s cast included June Allyson, who had already acted in several of the studio’s projects; Janet Leigh, who later became a household name for appearing in “Psycho”; and a very young Elizabeth Taylor, who had become a celebrity in her teenage years for starring in “National Velvet.”
The Technicolor film, while still praised, was not received as well as Cukor’s version. This time around, the Times — Bosley Crowther, specifically — wrote that “comparisons, of course, are odious, but if memory serves us well, [Allyson] can’t hold a bayberry candle to the Jo of Katharine Hepburn of fifteen years ago.”
“There is perceptible deflation in the spirit of ‘Little Women’ toward the close,” Crowther added later on, “which even a Technicolor rainbow over the home at the end does not dispel.”
CBS’s 1958 television musical
CBS wasn’t the first to attempt a “Little Women” musical — another titled “A Girl Called Jo,” based on Alcott’s book and its sequel, opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in 1955 — but it was unique in being televised. “Brady Bunch” actress Florence Henderson played Meg, while Margaret O’Brien, who had played Beth in the 1949 film, reprised her role. Jeannie Carson played Jo.
David Lowell Rich’s 1978 miniseries
Rich, a prolific director, helmed the three-hour miniseries that originally aired on NBC. Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth were played by Susan Dey, Meredith Baxter Birney, Ann Dusenberry and Eve Plumb, respectively. William Shatner played Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older man who falls in love with Jo.
Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film
Armstrong’s “Little Women” opened in theaters Dec. 25, 1994, exactly 25 years before Gerwig’s is set to do so. Its memorable cast includes Winona Ryder as Jo; Kirsten Dunst as the younger Amy; Claire Danes as Beth; Christian Bale as Laurie, the March family’s neighbor and Jo’s good friend; and Susan Sarandon as Marmee, the March girls’s mother.
The film earned award recognition — including an Oscar nomination for Ryder — as well as praise from critics. Both the Times and Variety asserted that it even surpassed Cukor’s 1933 film, which, while extremely dated in hindsight, had been the best adaptation of the rest.
Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3.5 stars, described it as a “surprisingly sharp and intelligent telling” of the frequently revisited story. It was not “smarmy, not do-gooding and only a little treacly; before long I was beginning to remember, from many years ago, that Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ was a really good novel — one that I read with great attention,” he wrote.
Lifetime’s 2012 contemporary take
Lifetime tried to bring modernity to Alcott’s already timeless story by turning it into a holiday movie about four sisters who, per the IMDb description, “tackle home improvement on their own.” The TV Guide website states that they do this while “also searching for love during the Christmas season.”
The BBC’s 1950, 1958, 1970 and 2017 serials
A “Little Women” miniseries for each generation? Sure, why not, the BBC seems to have repeatedly said. The first of the channel’s four adaptations was shown live in 1950, but the most recent, which aired last year in the United States, seems to be the most notable. It stars Maya Hawke, a breakout actress from the latest season of “Stranger Things” and the perfect mixture of parents Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, as Jo; Kathryn Newton, who plays Reese Witherspoon’s older daughter in “Big Little Lies,” as Amy; Emily Watson as their mother; and Angela Lansbury as Aunt March.
Clare Niederpruem’s 2018 contemporary take
Another modern take on Alcott’s story, this independent film quite unfortunately seems to have gone unnoticed. The most recognizable faces belong to Lea Thompson, who plays Marmee, and “High School Musical” actor Lucas Grabeel, who plays Laurie.
Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film
And finally, we have Gerwig’s upcoming film, which has already earned comparisons to the beloved 1994 film based on its trailer alone. The writer-director proved her keen understanding of coming-of-age stories with 2017′s “Lady Bird,” which earned several Oscar nominations in major categories.
Ronan showcased her ability to empathetically play a fiery teenager in “Lady Bird,” which also featured Chalamet as her love interest. This has been a breakout year for Pugh, who recently appeared in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” and will play a major role in the Marvel film “Black Widow.” Watson, given her experience playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” films, seems a natural fit for the dutiful Meg. And then there’s Streep and Dern, of course, whose many talents we need not list.
An earlier version of this article reported that Angela Lansbury played the grandmother of the March girls in BBC’s 2017 “Little Women” serial. Lansbury played their Aunt March. The story has been updated.