Every generation gets the cinematic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, and I was lucky enough to grow up with one of the really terrific ones: the 1994 rendition that cast Susan Sarandon as a version of Marmee who was particularly outspoken on women’s roles; gave us Winona Ryder as a particularly lively Jo March; let Christian Bale play wealthy neighbor Laurie Lawrence with the sort of sensitivity John Green has only now begun to bring back to young male characters; and transformed Jo’s German professor beau into a sexy, sophisticated opera-lover played by Gabriel Byrne.
The CW’s rendition of “Little Women” is taking rather more considerable liberties with Alcott’s text. The early description of the project suggests that in the show, “half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined.” (And yes, you better believe I’ll be asking the CW’s president about this at the Television Critics Association press tour, which I’ll be reporting from for the next two weeks.)
Maybe if the CW’s “Little Women” bore any relation to Alcott’s actual story, I’d worry that a new generation of viewers were going to grow up deceived as to what makes “Little Women” so terrific. One of the wonderful things about the novel is the way it rejects what has become conventional wisdom in mass culture today (and the prevailing theory that guided the newspaper editors to whom Jo March sold pulpy stories): the idea that stakes needed to be extraordinarily high to keep audiences interested. You don’t need to add grit to Jo’s drive to be a writer, Meg’s hope to make a marriage rooted in love rather than fortune, Amy’s artistic and stylistic aspirations, or Beth’s illness to make those stories resonant. The basic dilemmas of life are enough to keep these four “Little Women” alive for generations.
Transplanting Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy into a post-apocalyptic future doesn’t threaten the appeal of “Little Women” any more than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” makes it less delightful to follow Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as they fall in love, or “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” denigrates the legacy of one of America’s greatest presidents. Instead, these projects are an inevitable product of remix culture. And they’re testaments to the extent to which these stories actually can’t be reduced. They’re iconic enough to be parodied and mashed up without harm to their reputation.
If anything, I’m a little bit proud on Louisa May Alcott’s behalf. “Little Women” has been such a significant text for so many readers that it has become a little bit sacrosanct. That sanctity poses more risk to “Little Women” than irreverence does. By playing with the basics of the story, the CW’s “Little Women” project ushers Alcott’s story into a new stage: Like Shakespeare plays or Greek myth, it’s transitioning from a static, beloved story to an essential form that other artists can build on.
Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” which follows four male college students with striking parallels to Alcott’s characters, may be a higher-culture response to “Little Women” than the CW’s latest project, but it makes the same point. Those of us who love “Little Women” should be ready, by now, to let Louisa May Alcott’s greatest creation go. Maybe the CW’s version will be some viewers’ introduction to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. But as so many of us know, “Little Women” isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a life-long relationship, no matter how you come to the story in the first place.