Why Gillian Armstrong’s ‘Little Women’ Adaptation Reigns Supreme

As a child of the 90’s, there are certain biases I have. When I was in elementary school, I became obsessed with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. As such, I watched every adaptation of the book, of which there have been many, seven to be exact. The earliest was made in 1933 and the latest was made in 1994.

Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women was always my favorite. Why, you may well ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Winona Ryder (nuff said). Christian Bale before he was Christian Bale. Claire Danes. Kirsten Dunst. It’s just the greatest, nostalgia and feminism all wrapped up in one big 90’s package.

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The eternal question: Are you a Marmee or an Amy?

If you’re not familiar, Little Women follows the March family: Jo March, the headstrong writer (Winona Ryder), Meg March, the quiet beauty (Trini Alvarado), Beth March, the awkward, sweet one (Claire Danes) and Amy March, the precocious, slightly vapid one (Kirsten Dunst). It’s the story of their coming of age in the time after the Civil War. Be aware: coming of age drama ensues.

Here are a few reasons you need to watch Little Women ASAP:

The Cast

As I’ve discussed before, Winona Ryder is my 90’s spirit animal. She really is such a powerhouse actress and she’s never given a bad performance. As Jo, Ryder really shines. She so easily fits into this world and this character. This was Ryder in her early 20’s prime. She made Reality Bites this same year.

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This was her giving eyes to a young Christian Bale…

Trini Alvarado is also great as Meg. The role of Meg is semi-similar to Jane in Pride and Prejudice. She’s sweet and a bit bland. But, she’s a contrast to the colorful main character. Trini hasn’t done much as of late, but I really enjoyed her in this.

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How gorgeous is she??

Like Ryder, I’m a MAJOR fan of Claire Danes. This film was made the same year she made the one, seminal season of the best teen show ever made (yes, I know. BIG STATEMENT), My So-Called Life. At the time, Claire was just fourteen years old. Funnily enough, she actually beat out Alicia Silverstone for the part of Beth. She also competed against Silverstone for the role of Angela in My So-Called Life.

Lovely and heartbreaking, she plays Beth with poise and vulnerability. I can’t not cry watching her in this.

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I’M NOT CRYING. YOU’RE CRYING. #RealTalk

Ah, and then there’s little Kirsten Dunst. Watching her in this really makes you remember how old you are. She was twelve years old during the filming of this and she’s absolutely wonderful. She’s precocious and sweet and has SO much personality.

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Look at those little ringlets!!

The Christian Bale of the Batman series is not my favorite. But, THIS Christian Bale I can get on board with. He was just twenty when he was in this and there was something very unpolished about him. He had a pronounced lisp in this film that’s just plain adorable.

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Just the HAIR. That is all.

In my research, I found that Olivia Hussey (aka Juliet) expressed interest in playing Marmee. Producers believed she looked too much like Trini Alvarado and so, Susan Sarandon ended up getting the part. And I have to say, all do respect to Olivia Hussey, but Sarandon was meant to play this part. She was everything the character needed to be. Feminist, sweet, tough…Sarandon!

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Aw, the March family…

Gabriel Byrne is also great as the Friedrich, the man who eventually steals Jo’s heart.

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SO CUTE, even though he’s like twenty years older than her…

Oh, and yes, that is Eric Stoltz from Some Kind of Wonderful playing Meg’s love interest, John Brooke.

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I think the beard is what gets me the most. It’s just….eh.

The Script

Robin Swicord penned the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel and somehow, did so while giving the film a modern feel. It’s in the past and we feel that, but it’s also accessible, timeless. Swicord also wrote Matilda and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

What’s so wonderful about Alcott’s story is that she paints complex women. They are not one thing, they are many. And that’s specifically true with Jo who feels like a modern woman. The women are not there just for the “male” story. This is their story!

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#GirlPower

The Direction

Gillian Armstrong has mostly directed documentaries and I feel that some of her directorial choices mirror that. The film has a “fly on the wall” perspective at times. We feel like we’re apart of the March girl’s lives.

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Beth!!! 😦

Its themes are ON POINT. 

I learned so much from Little Women as a young girl. It deals with loss and love and friendship and independence. But, what I mostly took away was a line that Marmee says to Jo and Meg:

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Time erodes all such beauty. You tell ’em Marmee!

It’s the only adaptation helmed by an all-female creative team!

This film is from the female perspective. It’s adapted from a book by a woman by a woman. It’s directed by a woman. It’s produced by a woman. This doesn’t negate the value in previous adaptations, but there is something to be said about women telling stories about women. During the studio era, many “women’s films” were directed and written by men. Again, not saying that makes them bad, but it does make them different.

Women still have a hard time getting green-lit as directors.

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This film celebrates women in all aspects!

It’s inspiring, genuine and all kinds of nostalgic.

This is one of my favorite films to watch during the holiday season. It captures so much about growing up and has some wonderful performances. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be a writer because of Jo March (lol, I know I’m not the only one).

If you’ve never seen it, put it on your list. A true modern classic.

 

Pictures and Gifs property of Columbia Pictures.

Girls Gif property of HBO.

Reality Bites and the Struggle of #Adulting

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Two years ago, just after I had graduated college, I started my first full-time job. To say I had no idea what I was getting into was a ginormous understatement. I was nervous and filled with expectations: from teachers, parents, mentors. The stress of this time caught me off guard. I had always been so sure of my decisions and for the first time, was truly confused. It’s strange. You’re an adult by all the normative standards, but you still feel like a kid and that dichotomy can be extremely overwhelming.

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I’ve had a lot of these moments in my working life.

Much has been done about this time in a young person’s life. Most recently, the best example has been the HBO series Girls. However, it was another film which comforted me. I had seen Reality Bites in passing in Netflix, but never really thought much of it. I didn’t think it was very highly regarded. But, one Saturday night, when I felt too depressed to go anywhere, I decided to give it a shot. That experience of watching a great movie for the first time is an amazing high; but one that touches you, makes you rethink something in you life or comforts you, that’s on another level. Watching this film made me understand that what I was going through was not specific to me and that was immensely reassuring. And it wasn’t just because Ethan Hawke was dreamy…though I’m not debating the issue.

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Reality Bites, made in 1994, follows Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), a recent college graduate trying to get her foot in the door as a PA on a local Houston talk show while also making a documentary about her friends: Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn). She also meets Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) along the way, a young television executive who believes in Lelaina and her talent. Lelaina’s relationship with Grates obviously complicates her relationship with Troy. But, the film is more about a young person accepting that they don’t have it all figured out – which is probably why I connected to it so much.

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Reality Bites was, among other things, Ben Stiller’s directorial debut. Having known him as Derek Zoolander, it was interesting to see another side to him, especially as I watched the special features and heard him talk about how scared he was to take this on. I love the story of the film’s inception, which started with producer Michael Shamberg who wanted to make The Big Chill for Generation X. Shamberg took a general meeting Helen Childress, a young screenwriter fresh out of USC. Liking her writing, Shamberg became intrigued when she talked about what she saw in her friends lives and her own at the time. She spent about a year hashing the idea out with Shamberg, really figuring it out what story they wanted to tell. Then, they brought on producer Stacey Sher and tried to figure out to get the film made.

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Michael Shamberg, Helen Childress, Stacey Sher and Ben Stiller celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary at Sundance

At the time, Winona Ryder was the biggest young actress in Hollywood. She was wanted by everyone and by her own account, Reality Bites just happened to come along at the right time. The script was expressive of her age and her generation. She is the reason the film got made. Without her, their financing would have been gone.

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Ryder liked and pushed for Ethan Hawke as the film’s romantic lead, even though she didn’t know him that well. While much can be said about whether Hawke’s character is the ideal “bad boy” or just an asshole, his chemistry with Winona is a big reason the film works.

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To me, the film is also special because of the way it really captured the early ’90s. Obviously, there were no cell phones and the boys wore baggier jeans, but beyond that, it really is a snapshot of a point in history. Years from now, people can look back at this film and get a feeling for the fashion, the music, how people lived before the world wide web. And at the same time, it’s amazing that I can watch the film and relate to the characters and their feelings so much. We think we’re the first to experience these emotions, but they have been repeating themselves I’m sure in every generation.

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What I love most about the film is that the characters are truly imperfect. They feel real and I think it’s really because Helen was that age. She didn’t have to think about young people sounded. She was one. Having now been out of school a couple years, I think Reality Bites is even more poignant. I’m interested to see how my opinion changes over the years. Helen Childress now says she watches the film, relating to Michael who’s older and more practical than the other characters.

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The film commented on what it was like to work, pay bills and have your ideals torn down. One of my favorite lines in the film is Sammy’s: “My goal is …I’d like a career or something.” The idea of a career still seems funny at 23, unreal.

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Still, for me, it is one of those films that I will carry with me. I think it’s a modern classic, not just for its wonderful (and mostly full of newcomers, at the time) cast, but because it was coming from a real place and you can see the heart in the characters and their feelings. Plus, it’s dialogue is on point and its soundtrack is appropriately and wonderfully 90s.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend giving it a chance. If for no other reason than this scene…

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Vintage trailer below.