In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published “Little Women,” her seminal novel about four sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts. Approximately 150 years later, two Washington Post journalists — namely, us — lost our minds.
Hollywood got involved. “Little Women” adaptations plopped onto screens nearly once a decade; watching them became a rite of passage. Mothers and daughters, sisters and friends wept into their popcorn in crowds full of other women weeping into their popcorn. A new entry into the canon lands this Christmas: a Greta Gerwig production already hyped as the best “Little Women” ever.
In preparation, we decided to stress-test the classic bonding ritual. We locked ourselves in a suburban living room for 15 hours to assess every adaptation we could find. Working our way through this archive in close quarters would require perseverance, determination and grace, but we would stop at nothing.
In accordance with the book’s sardonic instructions: “Dear me, let us be elegant or die.”
Hour 0: Rules of Play
I. In the interest of time management, only feature films would be considered, no miniseries.
II. Films would be assessed on their quality as well as their adherence to the spirit of “Little Women,” with a top score of five Marmees.
III. The only permitted witness to this effort would be Monica’s dog, Sheba.
IV. Thematically relevant provisions, provided by Caitlin, would include:
A. Currant jam, which Meg disastrously makes as a new bride.
B. Bread, which Beth toasts in the fireplace for dinner.
C. A Duraflame log for our own fireplace.
D. Pickled lemons, standing in for the pickled limes that were the rage at Amy’s school, and which we purchased from a mysterious seller online, and which arrived with the seal broken, and which might therefore be poisonous. If consuming the pickled lemons ever became a real option, it would mean this Little Womarathon had taken us to a truly weird place.
E. A bonnet.
Hour 2: Buon giorno, Professor Bhaer
Bad news, fellow Womarathoners. The first version — George Cukor’s standard-bearing 1933 adaptation — is not good. It fools you into thinking it’s good. It stars Katharine Hepburn, after all. Her Jo is perfection, with jaunty physicality and devil-may-care delivery. Beth is sufficiently melancholy, Amy is sufficiently petulant, and Laurie is charming enough, although he sports an entirely indefensible helmet of gelled hair, which we shall spend the entire movie referring to as “the gelmet.”
But even while the script hits the key plot points, it’s lacking deeper emotional resonance. Was acting just stilted in the 1930s?
Further distraction: the actor playing the ostensibly German Professor Bhaer appears to have . . . an Italian accent? French?
(IMDB tells us the actor is actually Hungarian, go figure.)
Regardless, we are pleased to have established a baseline.
Marmeemeter: “Little Women,” 1933.
Caitlin: 3 Marmees. But only for Hepburn.
Monica: 3.25 Marmees. Bonjour. Estoy muy Professor Bhaer!
Hour 3.5: The Laurie paradox
Literary analysis interlude! Midway through Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 version, as Laurie issues his ill-fated proposal to June Allyson’s Jo, let’s pause to ask the question that “Little Women” fans have gnawed on for 150 years: Should Jo have said yes to Laurie, or was she right to choose Professor Bhaer?
On the one hand: A consistent aspect of Jo’s character is wanting things to stay as they are. So perhaps the rejection isn’t entirely about Laurie — it’s also about Jo’s fear of change. On the other hand: Maybe Jo appreciates that while Laurie views her as a lover, the professor sees her as an intellectual. Laurie is the guy who says, “Your plays are great!” Jo wants someone to say, “I know you can do better.”
Then there’s the matter of sibling loyalty. There’s a scene in the book where Jo sees Beth admiring Laurie. Beth is actually just envying Laurie’s vitality because she’s sick, but Jo thinks Beth is in love. Does Jo refuse Laurie to protect her favorite sister’s feelings?
In another scene in the novel, Jo insists that Meg can’t really be in love with John (her eventual husband) because she’s not acting nervous and silly enough. Which might mean that Jo has a rather flawed, fantastical idea of what romantic love is — she doesn’t realize it can just be hanging out with your best friend.
So, maybe Jo could have been happy with Laurie. But she didn’t realize that she could have been happy, and so she couldn’t have been happy. The Laurie paradox.
Marmeemeter: “Little Women,” 1949.
Caitlin: 3.75 Marmees. This Professor Bhaer’s hotness makes Jo’s choosing him easier to live with. Although — he also seems to have an Italian accent? Do any of the Professors Bhaer have appropriate accents?
Monica: 3 Marmees. IMDB says this actor is from Bologna, but mostly I’m down-ranking this movie because it lacked pickled limes.
Hour 5: Life After Beth
Lest you think we’re messing around here, we are treating this Womarathon as a serious journalistic endeavor. Enter into evidence:
Did you know there was a 1958 made-for-CBS musical version, starring Florence Henderson (a.k.a. Carol Brady from “The Brady Bunch”)? Do you know how hard we tried to get a copy?
We scoured Amazon and eBay. We contacted CBS. We contacted Warner Bros., which owns CBS’s back catalogue. We called the Library of Congress. The original producer is dead, but his son sent us to the estate lawyer, who sent us to a private library, which has what might be the only existing copy — but it was all the way in New York.
Ultimately, we made do with an audio recording of the soundtrack. It pains us to tell you that this is a real lyric that appeared in a real song called “Party Shoes,” which aired on real television: “Sure as my name is Maaarch/ now I’ve got fallen aaarch-es.”
It’s a whole song that Meg sings, in a weird kazoo voice, about bunions. Bunions. Sheba hates this song so much she leaves the room.
Even more egregious: In a plot change worthy of public shaming, BETH DOES NOT SEEM TO DIE. Repeat: We’ve got a Living Beth situation. Not that we’re rooting for a teenage girl to croak, but without this formative event — which catapults the living sisters into adulthood — the version might as well be called “Little Girls.”
We repudiate it.
Marmeemeter: “Little Women,” 1958
Caitlin and Monica: Zero Marmees. This version deserves no Marmees whatsoever.
Hour 6.25: You can have it all, including scarlet fever
Three versions in, carb-loaded on Duraflame-toasted bread, let’s take a break to digest. Why do we think “Little Women” is a classic? What do we get out of remaking it time and again?
The themes at the heart of the story — the bonds of family; the growing pains of youth; the impossible desire to stop time in moments where we believe we are happiest — are quite timeless. It was also mercifully ahead of its time — no flagrantly cringe-inducing moments, flippant racism or heinous misogyny. And Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth offered a rather astonishing range of possibilities for female lives, respectively: You could be an ambitious career woman; you could be an artistic society gal; you could be someone who wants to build a family. Or, like Beth, you could get scarlet fever and die.
And the story finds validity in all those paths (aside from the dying option). Jo is the protagonist — Alcott mirrored the character after herself. But Alcott treats Meg’s desire for domesticity as worthy. She treats Amy’s love of art and beauty as worthy. She treats stereotypically “female” tenderness as a true strength: Marmee is one of the most empathetic characters in literature, and she’s also the unflappable foundation of her entire community. The interests and pursuits of all of the characters deserve society’s respect and the reader’s time. “Little Women” is an urtext of feminism for its varied portrayals of what it means to live a meaningful life as a woman.
Have we unlocked the secret? Do we even need to keep watching? (Yes.) Is it pickled lemon time yet? (No.)
Hour 9.5: Beam me up, professor
Okay, the 1978 version is technically a miniseries, which violates Article I of our rules, but we have decided to watch it because of a little-known part of Womarathon law known as the Shatner Exemption.
Yes, Capt. James T. Kirk has traveled through time and space to marry Jo. He’s playing Professor Bhaer, but actually, Professor Bhaer seems to be playing William Shatner, who is talking in the — same, bizarrely emphatic WAY . . . he always . . . talks. (His bluff at a German accent involves saying “ting” instead of “thing,” and that’s basically it; it’s possible this is actually just a lost “Star Trek” episode where the crew teleports to the Civil War.)
Anyway, Laurie in this version looks like your friend’s weird dad, so we’re not sad about Jo refusing him this time.
Also! Speaking of late-mid-20th-century American TV stars, Jan from “The Brady Bunch” is playing Beth, which means that we have now watched two back-to-back versions of “Little Women,” from different eras, both starring women from “The Brady Bunch.”
The explanation for this strikes us as simple: The arrival of 1970s Shatner to 1860s New England (and, simultaneously, our 2019 Womarathon) has left a hole in timespace. Did we prepare for this?
We don’t have helmets. We don’t even have gelmets.
We do have a bonnet, so we put that on.
Marmeemeter: “Little Women,” 1978
Caitlin: 2.745 Marmees. I can’t do it, Captain. I don’t have the power.
Monica: 2.745 Marmees. I’m exactly agreeing with you because I’m buttering you up for what’s next. There comes a time in every woman’s life in which she has to find out what she’s made of. Pucker up. It’s lemon o’clock.
Hour 10: When life gives you pickled lemons . . .
We have encountered a nightmare, and we have eaten it. The pickled lemons — they are fetid rubber bands and Satan himself. They are eyeballs marinated in goat bile. Why did the children of the 1860s eat this? Were they monsters? Suddenly, Beth’s exit seems advisable: When life gives you pickled lemons, die.
Onward! Onward, Womarathoners! We must watch this Japanese anime version of “Little Women” from 1981, which opens with a military-style musical number in which Jo is lifted into the air by a bouquet of pigeons, and oh, God, we think these lemons might be hallucinogenic, are they hallucinogenic?
Shhhh, no, it is fine, we are fine, Marmee’s here. But Marmee’s NOT here, for if she were, she would stop Jo from leaping into this horse-drawn carriage, and the horse is jumping off a cliff, but now it’s flying? In the background, the martial musical number continues, and a shrill woman’s voice is wailing at us: “OoooOOOOOOoooooo Little Womennnnnnn! Little Womennnnnnnn! Little Wom — ”
Marmeemeter: “Little Women,” 1981
Caitlin: 1.8 Marmees. I did not know “Little Women” could be a horror movie. Also why is Sheba wearing the bonnet?
Monica: 2.4 Marmees. Let us never speak of this again.
Hour 12: Redemption!
At last, it is time for our reward: a “Little Women” that (a) doesn’t have William Shatner and (b) isn’t a cartoon that makes us feel high.
The Holy Grail of “Little Women” remakes is the 1994 classic starring Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and Susan Sarandon. This movie arrived at the height of our tweenage era. It is hard to explain what it meant at the time, but if you owned a VHS copy, it was probably worn out from rewinding Laurie’s speech, and you know exactly what speech we’re talking about.
Glad tidings! Christian Bale, Winona Ryder — this entire movie holds up. It absolutely distills the essence of what the story should be about, what it means, how it should make us feel.
What a relief. We’d worried that nostalgia had rose-tinted our memories of this movie or that its impact would now feel diluted. But the opposite is true. Here we are, closer to Marmee’s age than Jo’s, and we have never cried harder for Beth.
We are also feeling more moved than we expected — not only by this remake but by the whole marathon. It’s remarkable to have watched 85 years’ worth of women figuring out what it means to be a woman. To see 1860s feminism filtered through the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s. Not even feminism, but humanity: We’re very moved by our collective and cosmic willingness to wrestle with how to live a good life.
It turns out you can go home again, if home is the March family house in Concord, Mass.
Marmeemeter: “Little Women,” 1994
Caitlin: 5 Marmees. And 27 Kleenex.
Monica: Marmees infinitum.
Hour 15: The Womarathon is never over
There were a few more stops and detours: the 2005 Broadway adaptation, as performed by a Pennsylvania Christian community center and recorded on shaky camcorder (it’s on YouTube). A reality TV series called “Little Women: L.A.” that turned out to have nothing to do with Alcott’s book and was instead about women with dwarfism living their best lives. A 2018 version set in the present day, giving our beloved 19th-century characters a contemporary makeover.
But here’s the thing about “Little Women”: It doesn’t need to be set in the modern era to feel relevant. The characters are timeless. It’s the films that are bound by time. To us, the 1933 adaptation felt archaic, and the 1978 one felt hokey because they weren’t ours. The 1994 version arrived just when we needed it (then as now). Newer remakes will be made for the little women who need this story down the line, until the idea of watching the entire archive in a single Womarathon becomes not just inadvisable but impossible. We embrace the endless succession; Greta Gerwig has a legacy to uphold, but we’ve ordered our tickets.
As for now: We are not elegant, but we are not dead, either. We’ve been in this room for 15 hours. The fire is dying. Our brains are pickled lemons. The dog is wearing a bonnet.
But our hearts are full. We award ourselves maximum Marmees.