Coming around for a periodic update every few decades, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women” has relied on film and TV adaptations to keep aloft its endearing story of the ambitious, fretful, remarkably progressive (for their time) and unfailingly loyal March sisters, whose ups and downs provided a template for the all-American girls and women who followed. The novel has been adapted for the film and TV screen at least 10 times — as far back as a silent film in 1917 and, more recently, in a 1994 theatrical version starring Winona Ryder.
A new two-part series, premiering Sunday on PBS’s “Masterpiece,” feels a little weak at the outset, with the story streamlined by “Call the Midwife” creator Heidi Thomas’s screenplay and arranged by director Vanessa Caswill in such a prettified way that it looks more like a “Little Women” Instagram feed than a timely interpretation. It’s gorgeous in high-def — the camera lingers over fuzzy kittens, frozen ponds, blooming flowers and billowing linens in the sunshine — but also empty and perfunctory.
The performances, however, rise to the novel’s reputation. Maya Hawke (Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s 19-year-old daughter) is delightfully on point as Jo March, the boldest and most outgoing of the four March siblings, while Emily Watson brings a stouthearted resolve to the role of Marmee, the girls’ mother. Angela Lansbury, in Dame Maggie Smith mode, steals several scenes as the family’s judgmental matriarch, Aunt March.
Part 1 opens at Christmastime as Marmee and her girls make the most of a cash-strapped holiday in their little Massachusetts town, performing acts of charity while husband and father Robin March (Dylan Baker), a minister, is off on the front lines of the Civil War.
Goodness and blessings abound nevertheless, even when times are tight, and one realizes how much “Little Women” informs the cozy default settings of today’s Hallmark movies. Bad things happen, but never too bad; events occur, but even the worst of them — such as the death of introverted sister Beth March (Annes Elwy), which surely doesn’t qualify as a spoiler after 150 years — bring a sense of optimism for better days.
Part 2 is a more fully realized attempt to underline some of “Little Women’s” enduring relevance, as Jo and her sisters subtly put their own spin on the domestic roles that are expected of them. Starry-eyed and mischievous Amy (Kathryn Newton) travels the world only to wind up marrying the (rich) boy next door (Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie Laurence); Jo, who finds some success as a novelist, comes to terms with love, marriage and motherhood — concepts she once shunned. It could all seem dully regressive, but the result is still sound.
In a tidy final scene of utter extended-family bliss, it’s almost as if the characters have switched places with the viewer, who looks for reassurance and comfort in their 19th-century trappings. Instead, the March sisters seem to be peering out at the future and its almighty work-life balance, and liking what they see.
Little Women (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on “Masterpiece” on PBS. A two-hour second part airs May 20.