Little Women Adaptations Through the Years

Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott in 1868, continues to draw audiences for its complex depictions of girlhood. This topic was unfamiliar territory when Alcott was asked to write the story. Since then, the tale has been adapted for the theatre, the movie, and the written word.

The hardships of Alcott and her sisters, who served as inspiration for the development of the March siblings Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, did, as it turned out, arouse audiences’ interest. The novella, first released in two parts, quickly sold out of its 2,000 print run after hitting the market.

Little Women is about women from the viewpoint of a woman. It is one of those rare novels that provide women the agency to express their thoughts and viewpoints in a world dominated by men while also discussing the struggles and victories of women without trying to denigrate or victimize them. Due to its impact in pop culture being regarded as a timeless feminist piece, various adaptations have been made throughout the years. Here are some of the most popular adaptations of Little Women throughout the years:

2022 Korean Drama Series

Oh Sisters from Little Women K-Drama
Photo from NME.com

The new South Korean drama series with an international license called Little Women is a contemporary retelling of the same-named classic book by Louisa May Alcott. This program is essentially a modernization of the renowned book of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. It also places the entire scenario in Korea while introducing a sense of mystery.

Unlike the previous adaptations, which strived to stay true to the Victorian aesthetics of America during the 1860s, the setting of this adaptation takes place in modern Korea. However, there are still hints of the original setting via subtle designs. Some of these subtle hints are the Victorian wallpaper at the Oh sisters’ apartment, Hwa Young’s fashion, and the use of the rare Victorian orchid.

Even the Korean interior design of the Oh sisters’ apartment seems to get inspiration from the Victorian era through the color scheme. The Oh sisters’ apartment also has dark and saturated color palettes such as brown, olive, maroon, dark red, and greens, known as base colors of Victorian-style interiors. Home accessories like the old clock, curtains, rugs, and hanging paintings of known Victorian flowers hint at the story’s original setting. These elements are also similar to the 1987 Japanese animated series, which has a Victorian setting with hints of Japanese culture. 

2019 Feature Film

The March sisters on the beach
Photo from IMDB

With a cast that will captivate everyone from the Greatest Generation to Gen Z, this reboot by Greta Gerwig brings the star power to Concord, Massachusetts—and straight to your hearts: none other than Meryl Streep plays Aunt March; Saoirse Ronan as Jo; Emma Watson as Meg; Florence Pugh as Amy; and Eliza Scanlon as Beth. The movie also has Timothée Chalamet play Laurie. 

This feature film garnered a positive response as it has the setting closest to the book. To make it as close to the original as possible, Gergwig had it filmed in Concord, the place where Alcott grew up and where the story took place in the book. Other filming sites include towns close to Concord such as Harvard, Ipswich, and Lawrence. The film successfully captured the little details in the neighborhood that Alcott talked about in her book. 

2017 MASTERPIECE’s Little Women on PBS

The March sisters for PBS Little Women
Photo from PBS

The 2018 MASTERPIECE adaptation of Little Women, which gave the well-known story three complete episodes, immediately sucked viewers into Jo’s journey and the March family’s embrace with a youthful, energetic spirit. The adaptation made excellent use of both its established and up-and-coming actors, casting Maya Hawke as Jo, Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie, and Katherine Newton as Amy. 

The series was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland to capture the Victorian architectural design that was popular in America during the 1860s. Bray, a coastal town, and the Ardmore Studios were both used as locations for the filming of this adaptation. 

2005 Broadway Play

Cast of the 2005 Little Women play on Broadway
Photo from Broadway

In 2005, a brand-new Broadway musical made its debut, starring Broadway performers Maureen McGovern as Marmee and Sutton Foster as Jo (Younger, Bunheads). Foster was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her work.

1998 Little Women Opera

Cast of the 1998 Little Women Opera
Photo from The Guardian

Little Women, the debut opera by composer Mark Adamo, was workshopped and presented by the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. It received favorable reviews and has since been produced in more than 20 performances, one of which was broadcast in 2001 on PBS’ Great Performances.

1994 Feature Film

Poster for the 1994 Little Women feature film
Photo from Sony Pictures

Three-time Academy Award nominee Little Women from 1994 stars Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Samantha Mathis, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, and Susan Sarandon. This film was also directed by a woman, which made it more remarkable. It’s hailed for its timeless appeal and is regarded as a rival to the 1933 version as the best movie adaptation. 

The setting of this story took place in northern Canada, which is known for housing Montreal, one of the landmark architectures of Canada. Montreal is a popular tourist attraction known as the North American version of Paris. It features an abundant historical facade of ash-gray limestones with 1600s French architectural design that contrasts Paris luminosity.

1987 Japanese Animated Series

DVD cover for the 1987 animation adaptation of Little Women
Photo from My Anime List

Love’s Tale of Young Grass (Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari) is a Japanese animated series loosely based on Alcott’s book. It aired on HBO as Tales of Little Women in 1988 after being later dubbed into English. As it is loosely based, it had a Victorian setting with bits of Japanese details. 

1981 Japanese Animated Series

Poster for the 1981 Little Women Japanese miniseries
Photo from My Anime List

Four Sisters of Young Grass (Wakakusa no Yon Shimai) is a Japanese animated TV special that ran for 26 episodes in 1980. This animated series stayed true to the original setting of the story, featuring 1860s American architectural design

1978 Miniseries

Cast of the 1978 Little Women miniseries
Photo from TV Time

The Partridge Family’s Susan Dey played Jo, Meredith Baxter Birney played Meg, Eve Plumb played Beth, and Ann Dusenberry played Amy in this NBC two-parter with a star-studded ensemble. Additionally, Professor Bhaer is played by William Shatner (Star Trek’s James T. Kirk).

1949 Feature Film

Cast of the 1949 Little Women feature film
Photo from MoMA

This wildly successful feature film adaptation was shot in gorgeous Technicolor, and it was packed with stars. While Janet Leigh, played Meg March in Little Women, June Allyson, who had already established herself as a rising star by the time she took the role of Jo March, and rose to fame with a girl-next-door persona in a number of MGM movies. Between her breakthrough performance in National Velvet and her first mature role in A Place in the Sun, Elizabeth Taylor donned a blonde wig as Amy March in her final adolescent role. Margaret O’Brien, who started her career as a child actor and was known as the best crier on the MGM lot, played Beth March.

1933 Feature Film

Poster for the 1933 Little Women feature film
Photo from IMDB

The first Little Women “talkie,” which starred Katherine Hepburn and was helmed by George Cukor, was wildly successful both critically and commercially. Its theme of simplicity, thrift, and the human spirit’s ability to persevere connected with viewers because it was a movie that was genuine of its time—the Great Depression.

1918 Feature Film

Promotional poster for the 1918 Little Women feature film
Photo from IMDB

This silent American film, starring Dorothy Bernard as Jo, was filmed in and around Louisa May Alcott’s Concord, Massachusetts, home (it also featured Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house).

1917 Feature Film 

Scene from the 1917 Little Women feature film
Photo from IMDB

This British silent movie is the first adaptation of Little Women on the big screen, starring former Gaiety Girl Ruby Miller as Jo. It is presumed to be lost.

1912 Broadway Play

Scene from the 1912 Little Women Broadway play
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

When American theatrical director and actress Jessie Bonstelle started petitioning Alcott’s heirs, nephews Fred Pratt (the book’s “Daisy”) and John Alcott (the book’s “Demi”), for the right to adapt the novel for the stage, Little Women was still under copyright. After eight years and Pratt’s passing, Alcott’s approval—given in honor of his aunt’s love of the stage—made Marian de Forest and Bonstelle’s 1912 Broadway production of Little Women possible.

Significance of Little Women in Pop Culture

Women languish in the background, relegated to objects of desire, generosity, and pity in a world where males are the storytellers and protagonists. Alcott, however, deviates from this pattern by portraying Jo’s trip as a hero’s journey, which men typically present. She begins as a woman attempting to fit into a patriarchal culture, encounters obstacles as she pursues her goals, must make difficult decisions in both her personal and professional lives, and is rewarded with success and love in the end.

Jo is a reflection of Louisa May Alcott; she follows in her footsteps and thinks the same things the author does when she says, “women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.” 

This fresh change that became a source of empowerment for many women is what made Little Women a timeless classic that continues to inspire adaptations that are more fitting to the current society.

It is also interesting to note how each adaptation, especially the modern ones like the Little Women K-drama, was able to preserve the overall tone and mood of the original setting by giving focus on certain details that are a huge part of the original story. 

Main photo from What’s on Netflix

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