The classic book Little Women is Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical account of her life with her three sisters in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1860s.

The story tells of how the sisters grow up and find their place in the world. 

Loved by generations of women worldwide, Little Women is a truly universal
 coming of age story, as relevant and engaging today as it was on its original publication.

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, the story follows sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March on their journey from childhood to adulthood. With the help of their mother, Marmee, and while their father is away at war, the girls navigate what it means to be a young woman: from sibling rivalry and first love, to loss and marriage.

Though Alcott was initially hesitant to write a story for girls, she was urged to do so by editor Thomas Niles. When she read the proof, she responded that “it reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it, and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it. Mr. N likes it better now, and says some girls who have read the manuscripts say it is ‘splendid!’ As it is for them, they are the best critics, so I should be satisfied.”

The novel, published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, received immediate acclaim and became an instant bestseller, appealing to boys and girls, as well as to men and women. It simultaneously offered readers a window into a family drama, a love story, and a new expression of female identity while gently (in comparison to earlier 19th century literature) extolling a life of virtue. Little Women remains one of the most widely read novels of all time; a recent Harris poll listing it as one of America’s ten favorite books confirms its enduring place in the cultural landscape.

We all have our favorite moments from the book – like when the girls first meet Laurie, the giving up of the precious orange, or when Jo accidentally burns Meg’s curls. Alcott’s writing comes alive in the mind, and the girls’ enthusiasm for life – despite very real challenges and hardships – is palpable.

Editions vary in text and illustration, but the interpretation of that text (empowerment, sisterliness, identity, romance, gender roles, desire) ultimately falls to the reader, and in the case of re-contextualizing the story, to the adaptor. The classic has been made into countless plays, at least fifteen musicals, an opera, anime and a ballet, and from the beginning of the film era it was clear that with all its vivid period detail, Little Women was perfectly suited for the screen. 

There have been multiple movies and films based on the book, and some new adaptations – including one from PBS Masterpiece and BBC – are in the works. (The cast and more details about the upcoming period series is toward the end of the post.)

Let’s have a quick Little Women-in-film primer to look at what has come before, and what we can look forward to. 

Little Women (1919)

In the late 1910s, there were two silent adaptations of Little Women: one British, the other American. The 1917 version, though lost, is assumed to have been a short film.

The other, a one-hour movie starring Dorothy Bernard as Jo, and Isabel Lamon as sister Meg, was shot on location in Concord in 1918 at the author’s home and had a general release the following year. The home of Ralph Waldo Emerson was also shown in the film.


The William A. Brady Picture, (Brady had produced a 1912 stage version of the novel), was praised for its “gentle atmosphere” by Frederick James in the Motion Picture Classic (February 1919). He added “Dorothy Bernard is delightful as Jo, and Conrad Nagel is a very likable Laurie.” This version, which was directed by Harley Knoles and distributed by Paramount, is presumed lost. 


The next time Little Women was adapted for the silver screen it had sound. The leading role of Josephine ‘Jo’ March went to Katharine Hepburn, who was 26 years old at the time of the film’s release in 1933.

Little Women (1933), Courtesy RKO Pictures

Critics and audiences alike celebrated Hepburn’s portrayal of Jo and her New England pluck, which Hepburn drew from a well of stories about her own Civil War era maternal grandmother. In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote “It’s a lovely, graceful film, and surprisingly faithful to the atmosphere, the Victorian sentiments, and the Victorian strengths of the Louisa May Alcott novel.” 

Stream Little Women (1933) now.

The March house was modeled on Louisa May Alcott’s own home in Massachusetts, and the script closely followed the novel. Its success allowed for headway for other literary adaptations to follow suit.

Little Women (1933) was one of the first classic adaptations to become a hit while also staying true to its source material. Hollywood thinking at the time held that even the best-known literary sources had to be completely re-written to make them more commercial. RKO production chief David O. Selznick, however, had always contended that audiences went to film adaptations to see a faithful treatment of a favorite novel. After the picture’s proven success, he was able to convince MGM brass to finance and distribute screen adaptations of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities (both 1935). He would also take the same approach as an independent producer and score his greatest success with Gone with the Wind (1939). – TCM

 

Directed by Ed Sobol, Little Women was adapted for television in 1939 with Flora Campbell as Jo. This version was based on Brady’s 1912 Broadway play. In 1946, the book was again adapted for television with Margaret Hayes as Jo, directed by Ernest Colling. The adaptor for both these versions is unknown. In 1949 a third television adaptation for CBS starred Meg Mundy as Jo. A young June Lockhart (Lost in Space’s Maureen Robinson) played Amy. All three versions are considered lost. 


In 1949 came another big screen adaptation; the feature film took the script and music directly from the 1933 version. Starring June Allyson as Jo, with Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Margaret O’Brien as her sisters and Mary Astor as Marmee, the remake was awarded an Oscar® for Best Art Direction.

Little Women (1949)

Stream Little Women (1949) now. 


Between 1950 and 1979, there were four adaptations for television in the US, including a two-part version from Westinghouse Studio One (1950). The first part appears to be missing, but the second part survives. Called Little Women – Jo’s Story, it is set beginning in 1868. Jo’s Story stars Mary Sinclair as the teenaged Jo, and Nancy Marchand as the adult Jo, both of whom do a respectable job in the TV show. Jo’s Story is currently included with Amazon Prime. (It’s mislabeled on Amazon, but I’ve just watched and indeed it is the 1950 television series.) 

Little Women - Jo's Story (1950), Courtesy Studio One

Additionally, there was also a one-hour musical 1958 adaptation for CBS. 


In 1977, during the third season of the television serial Little House on the Prairie, episode 14 was dedicated to Little Women. As a special school activity, Miss Beadle allows the children to create group skits that they will later perform for their parents. Mrs. Oleson rewrites Alcott’s story to ensure Nellie is the star in Walnut Grove’s school. 

Little House on the Prairie, Courtesy NBC

Shy Ginny Clark steals the show when she takes a lesson from her character, Jo, and surprises everyone by playing her part to perfection, both on and off the stage. You can stream it here


One of the four US television adaptations mentioned above is a 1978 mini-series starring Susan Dey as Jo, Meredith Baxter Birney as Meg, Eve Plumb as Beth, Ann Dusenberry as Amy, Dorothy McGuire as Marmee, Greer Garson as Aunt March, Richard Gilliland as Laurie and William Shatner as the Professor. The three-hour miniseries won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Art Direction for a Series, and Outstanding Cinematography for a Series.

Little Women (1978), Courtesy Universal Television

Perhaps a bit too sweet an adaptation for some with a plot that takes a few liberties, it is nonetheless wholesome and has some strong emotional moments. The period mini-series is available on DVD.  


In 1950 the BBC broadcast a 6-part adaptation of the classic live – it was never recorded but was considered to be the most complete of adaptations to date.

In 1958, the BBC broadcast – and recorded – a new 6-part, also thorough, adaptation starring Andrée Melly as Jo, Kate Cameron as Meg, Diana Day as Beth, Sylvia Davies as Amy, Phyllis Calvert (The House of Eliott, Mrs Dalloway) as the mother, and David Cole as Laurie. 


The BBC adapted Little Women for television a third time in 1970, starring Angela Down as Jo.

The 9-episode mini-series shown on the Sunday tea-time slot on BBC1 was filmed in studio and faithfully covered just about everything in the book, albeit in a low-budget British context kind of way. The series received criticism for the actresses playing the sisters being too old, for the bad wigs they wore, and for the accents being a strange amalgam of British and Southern drawl. A highlight was Stephen Turner, who was praised for his portrayal of Laurie. You can find it here on VHS

Little Women (1970), Courtesy BBC


It was a full forty-five years after the last made-for-cinema version was released before viewers would have another silver screen adaptation of Little Women. Starring Winona Ryder as Jo, the movie took home Oscar® nominations for Ryder as Best Actress, the screenplay and the score. 

Little Women (1994), Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Also starring in the 1994 film were Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Gabriel Byrne as the Professor, Claire Danes as Beth, Kirsten Dunst as the young Amy, Christian Bale as Laurie, John Neville as Mr. Laurence, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke and Mary Wickes as Aunt March.

PemberleyPond Poster

In his review of the 1994 period drama, Roger Ebert wrote that “The film is true to Alcott’s story about how all of life seems to stretch ahead of us when we’re young, and how, through a series of choices, we choose and narrow our destiny. The buried issues in the story are quite modern: How must a woman negotiate the right path between society’s notions of marriage and household, and her own dreams of doing something really special, all on her own?”

The plot line echoes that of the book, and the costumes by Colleen Atwood are historically accurate, but it’s depth can be attributed to it’s reverence to Alcott’s intentions, the cast, and to Gillian Armstrong, who directed the powerful period drama My Brilliant Career prior to Little Women. After, she brought us another Willow and Thatch favorite Oscar and Lucinda, and Charlotte Gray. Armstrong was the first female to direct an adaptation of Little Women

Little Women (1994), Courtesy Columbia Pictures

As in the 1933 version, the home in the movie was based on Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott’s wrote and set Little Women

Stream Little Women (1994) now. 


Mark Adamo’s 1998 opera adaptation of Little Women, which balanced “sentiment and irony” aired on PBS in 2001 and received high praise (brilliant, a masterpiece) from critics. Beverly Lyon Clark wrote that “Its great popular appeal is due in part to its relationship to a well-known text but also to its incorporation of lyricism in addition to atonality and of features of musical theater indebted to Sondheim and Bernstein.”  Adamo removes references to the Civil War, instead using the music and Jo’s personal path as the emotional backbone of his narrative.

Mark Adamo's Little Women, Courtesy PBS

Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women has been performed in more than 70 national and international engagements since its première by Houston Grand Opera and has achieved the status of an American classic. The opera is available to stream


There’s a 2012 Little Women-inspired Lifetime television movie set in the present day, called The March Sisters at Christmas. Reactions to the fluffy movie were firmly split, from Alcott fans calling it a disgrace to others who enjoyed Jo’s updated character and the twists in the plot. To keep the family home from being sold, four very modern March sisters tackle home improvement on their own. But their romantic entanglements involving the boy next door, an old flame and a new acquaintance become a distraction. Starring Julie Berman as Jo. The March Sisters at Christmas is available to stream


In 2013 Sony Pictures set the ball in motion for a new adaptation of Little Women. At the time, Olivia Milch was to write the script, but then Sarah Polley was brought on, followed by Greta Gerwig. After the slow start, The Tracking Board reported last year that Sony was moving forward with the film. It is unclear whether the film is still in development. 


The Sony version was to be the next adaptation of the Alcott’s novel for the cinema, but that’s just changed as an independent version of Little Women has been co-written by Clare Niederpruem and Kristi Shimek. Lea Thompson has been cast as Marmee, and Lucas Grabeel will play Laurie. The movie, however, is to be a modern adaptation.

2018 will be the 150th anniversary of the Little Women, and the film’s producers plan to begin filming in Utah in June 2017, with an eye on a release timed to coincide with the milestone.


There’s reason for fans of historical costume dramas to celebrate, because PBS Masterpiece and BBC are joining forces to bring us a new three-part adaptation of Little Women.

Here’s what we know:

Who: Heidi Thomas (Madame Bovary, I Capture the Castle, Lilies, Ballet Shoes, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs, Call the Midwife) will write the mini-series.

Little Women is one of the most loved novels in the English language, and with good reason. Its humanity, humour and tenderness never date, and as a study of love, grief and growing up it has no equal. There could be no better time to revisit the story of a family striving for happiness in an uncertain world, and I am thrilled to be bringing the March girls to a new generation of viewers. – Heidi Thomas

Vanessa Caswill will direct, and Playground (Wolf Hall, The White Princes) will produce the project for BBC and Masterpiece. Playground has produced over 50 hours of prime time television drama garnering 15 Emmy nominations, 20 BAFTA nominations, and 12 Golden Globe nominations, including a Golden Globe win for Best Miniseries. They are currently in production on Academy Award winner Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s classic novel Howards End starring Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen and Tracey Ullman, and directed by Hettie Macdonald for the BBC and Starz.

Bringing alive this beloved American novel for a new generation of PBS viewers is a dream come true. In the hands of Rebecca Eaton and Colin Callender’s Playground, and with the superb talents of writer Heidi Thomas, we are confident this story of strong women will resonate with both new and longtime fans of MASTERPIECE. – Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming, PBS 


The cast: BAFTA Award-winner Emily Watson (Genius, The Book Thief, Anna Karenina, War Horse, Angela’s Ashes) is set to play Marmee, the iconic matriarch of the March family.

The March sisters will be played by an ensemble of four exciting young actresses – newcomer Maya Hawke takes the role of willful and adventurous Jo, Willa Fitzgerald will play the eldest daughter Meg, Annes Elwy (King Arthur: Excalibur Rising) will play Beth, and Kathryn Newton takes the role of the youngest sister Amy. Here’s a first look at the sisters:

Little Women (2017), courtesy BBC / Masterpiece

Academy Award-winner Dame Angela Lansbury (Mary Poppins Returns, Driving Miss Daisy, Murder, She Wrote, The Manchurian Candidate) will play the girls’ wealthy relative – the cantankerous Aunt March.

Michael Gambon to play Mr. Laurence in Little Women, courtesy BBC (Emma)

BAFTA Award-winner Michael Gambon (Victoria and Abdul, Harry Potter, Churchill’s Secret, The King’s Speech, Emma, Cranford, Wives and Daughters) takes the role of their benevolent neighbor Mr. Laurence, and Jonah Hauer-King (Howards End mini-series) will play his grandson Laurie Laurence, the charming boy next door. Dylan Baker will play Mr. March, Julian Morris is John Brooke, and Mark Stanley (Dickensian, Mr. Turner, The Collection) is our Professor Bhaer.


What:three-hour television mini-series based on coming-of-age American Classic to air on PBS Masterpiece.

Louisa May Alcott

The mini-series is a storytelling form unique to television, and the opportunity to adapt Louisa May Alcott’s novel over three hours is a gift from the BBC and MASTERPIECE on PBS. This is a character study of young women rich in texture and detail, and it’s an honour to be able to bring it to life in this extended form with the great Heidi Thomas, one of the finest writers working in television today. In the hands of the exciting directorial style of filmmaker Vanessa Caswill we hope to deliver a new screen version that will speak to contemporary audiences, meet the expectations of the book’s ardent fans and bring a whole new generation to this great classic. – Executive producer Callender 


When: With a production team from the UK and US, principal photography will begin in July in Ireland.

There are only a handful of American books that have resonated with readers for as long as Little Women. To put this deeply moving story in the hands of a writer with the heart and depth of Heidi Thomas seems just right. – Rebecca Eaton, MASTERPIECE executive producer 



At the time of this writing (August 5, 2017) both male and female movie extras over the age of 18 are being sought for the new PBS / BBC three-part series being shot in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. As long as the call is open, you can apply here.


If you’d like to read the classic again and learn more about Louisa May Alcott and how it has been adapted, you may want a copy of The Annotated Little Women: Since its publication in 1868–69, Little Women, perhaps America’s most beloved children’s classic, has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. This lavish, four-color edition features over 220 curated illustrations, including stills from the films, stunning art by Norman Rockwell, and iconic illustrations by children’s-book illustrators Alice Barber Stevens, Frank T. Merrill, and Jessie Wilcox Smith.

Renowned Alcott scholar John Matteson brings his expertise to the book, to the March family it creates, and to the Alcott family who inspired it all. Through numerous photographs taken in the Alcott family home expressly for this edition―elder daughter Anna’s wedding dress, the Alcott sisters’ theater costumes, sister May’s art, and Abba Alcott’s recipe book―readers discover the extraordinary links between the real and the fictional family.

Matteson’s annotations evoke the once-used objects and culture of a distant but still-relevant time, from the horse-drawn carriages to the art Alcott carefully placed in her story to references to persons little known today. His brilliant introductory essays examine Little Women’s pivotal place in children’s literature and tell the story of Alcott herself―a tale every bit as captivating as her fiction. Get it here

The Shop at The Orchard House has a good selection of books about Louisa May Alcott, which you can find on their website here.


The Orchard House is open year-round for guided tours and welcomes donations in any amount to sustain Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in its second century of educating, preserving, and inspiring. All proceeds benefit education and preservation efforts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, “Home of Little Women,” in Concord, Massachusetts, one of the most beloved and authentically maintained historic house museums, open to the public for over 100 years! 

Your support enables Orchard House to keep its doors open so that future generations can continue to discover the incredible legacy of the Alcott family and the life lessons of Little Women. Donate here

If you enjoyed this post you’ll want to wander over to the Period Films List – the best costume and historical period dramas, romantic period movies, all sorted by era and theme. You’ll also like the review of An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving, along with a recipe for  “Apple Slump,” a New England dumpling crust over a baked or steamed apple base that was a favorite dessert for the Alcotts. An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving (2008) is based on Louisa May Alcott’s story of the same title which you can read here

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