I’ve been meaning to write a posting about the 1970 BBC production of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which was the first TV costume drama I remember watching. I’ve managed to get hold of that series on VHS and do still intend to write about it soon – but have been distracted from that aim by getting the chance to watch the 1978 mini-series starring Susan Dey as Jo, Meredith Baxter-Birney as Meg and William Shatner as Friedrich Bhaer, which someone has kindly posted on a very popular video streaming website. I hope to be just in time to include this in the William Shatner blogathon, Shatnerthon, over at Stacia’s blog She Blogged by Night, though you will have to read to the end of this piece for the stuff about Shatner’s performance!
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and at the start, looking at the vivid colours and the 1970s feeling to it all, feared it might be too sugary – especially after seeing the picture on the DVD cover! That wasn’t the case, however. I loved it and now hope to buy the import region 1 DVD so I can watch it all over again – and compare it with other versions. Little Women was one of my favourite books as a child and I read it countless times, so I know the story well. This version mainly stays fairly close to the book, but makes some interesting shifts in emphasis and sometimes dramatises conflicts between characters which are kept under the surface in the book. Screenwriter Suzanne Clauser and director David Lowell Rich aren’t afraid of powerful emotions and at times there are heart-wrenching scenes, but I thought it only rarely tipped over into sentimentality.
This is clearly a big-budget production - there is a lot of outdoor filming and a feeling of space and light, while the costumes are also beautifully done. It is often stated in this version that the family lives in Concord, where Alcott’s own family lived – I would like to know if any of the filming was really done there, but, in any case, the street scenes look wonderful, and I especially enjoyed the glimpses of the local shops (one advertising that it buys and sells ladies’ hair) and the newspaper office where Jo takes her early offerings.
At more than 200 minutes, the series has space to include a lot of the book and move at a fairly leisurely pace. It concentrates on Jo’s development as a writer and I especially liked the fact that there is a voiceover narration by Susan Dey as Jo to link the different sections of the story. At the very start, she is seen writing in her garret and acting out her stories to herself in melodramatic style – there are also many other shots of her working in the garret, and shinning down the tree from the window in the best tomboy style. Dey is perhaps a strange choice to play a character who insists on her plainness and tells Laurie “You need a pretty girl”, but, despite her beauty, she manages to give Jo a slight feeling of clumsiness. At 26, she is a bit old for the early teenage scenes – and Meredith Baxter, who was 30, even more so for Meg – but this didn’t worry me and I thought they just about got away with it.
This is an adaptation which slightly plays down the theme of self-sacrifice – for instance, the famous episode near the start where the girls give up their Christmas dinner for a poor family is missed out. However, it does focus on the girls supporting and loving one other as sisters, and the episode where Amy (Ann Dusenberry) falls through the ice as a result of Jo’s anger is vividly portrayed. Beth’s illness is also treated fully – Eve Plumb portrays the character as shy and retiring rather than impossibly saintly. I was pleased and interested to see a scene where the girls go to hear a talk by suffragette Susan B Anthony and start to discuss campaigning for the vote on the way home (Jo is for the vote, Meg inclined to leave voting to her husband) – I don’t remember this in the book and wondered if it was something Clauser had added in as screenwriter, since I think there is quite a feminist flavour to this whole adaptation.
In some earlier Hollywood versions the character of Laurie is turned into more of a romantic hero. Here he isn’t – as portrayed by Richard Gilliland, he is very much the Laurie of the book, the lonely boy next door playing the piano who needs Jo to speak up for him in his arguments with his grandfather. Mr Laurence is played by Robert Young – this piece of casting was an added bonus for me, after seeing him in a number of 1930s and 40s films, and there are also two other classic film stars in the cast, Dorothy McGuire as Marmee and Greer Garson – still strikingly beautiful in her 70s – as Aunt March. All three give fine performances, with Marmee as quite a fiery character at times – although I did think that later in this adaptation the character of Aunt March starts to be rather sentimentalised, as the golden heart beneath the gruff exterior becomes slightly too obvious.
Rather than being tagged on towards the end, in this version the romances between Jo and Friedrich Bhaer and Amy and Laurie are fully developed and given quite a lot of screen time. I was surprised at first to discover that William Shatner was cast as Bhaer – it means that, unusually, in this version Bhaer is played by a more conventionally handsome and glamorous actor than Laurie, though there is a big age gap between him and Jo. I’m also used to Shatner playing somewhat more flamboyant roles. Here he is relatively quiet and understated as Bhaer, and I must say I thought his German accent was pretty near perfect. I liked all the New York scenes where Jo works as a governess, starts to write her sensation fiction and makes friends with Bhaer – there is one great scene where she marches into a newspaper office to sell her stories, which is very close to Alcott’s account in the book. I rather liked the twist put on Bhaer’s disapproval of Jo’s sensation fiction – here she sticks up for herself and he explains that he likes her writing style but thinks she could do more serious work. They read Shakespeare together and later on, after she has gone home, he is seen wistfully reading her more serious stories when they are published in magazines. There is a poignant scene at the end where Jo and Bhaer meet in the rain and declare their love – again this is quite close to the book, although it telescopes several scenes together.
Of course, this production isn’t perfect – it is all rather sweet, the music can get rather cloying at times, and the heavy snow in many scenes does seem rather too Christmas card perfect. It does also all have a strong 1970s feeling to it, so if you don’t like older TV adaptations it might not be to your taste. But I really liked it.