"Stories of sisterly love don't generally appeal," a stuffy male newspaper sniffs to Jo March (Maya Hawke) in a rather infuriating scene from BBC One's Little Women 3-part miniseries, which will premiere on Boxing Day. Well, bollocks to that.
In fact, if there's one thing you should be watching over the festive period, it's this classic story of (shock, horror) "sisterly love." Louisa May Alcott's tale of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts — originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, followed by two sequels — makes for perfect holiday, everyone-gather-round-the-telly viewing. Screenwriter Heidi Thomas (who, as creator of Call the Midwife, could probably pen a heartwarming Christmas special with a broken biro and 30 minutes on the clock) strikes the right balance between lighthearted and winsome; a hopeless American Civil War-era desolation; and achingly sad. You'll laugh, you'll cry, etcetera, etcetera.
Anyone who's read the novels or seen other adaptations — most notably the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon — will know exactly where the tragedy lies, but it's the subtlety of other heart-in-throat moments that really linger. It's Emily Watson, as matriarch Marmie, being so moved by the loveliness of her four daughters that she must steady herself and choke back a sob. It's Christmas miracles and broken hearts and the restlessness that comes with growing up and trying to find your place in a society with so many ridiculous restrictions. It's how change can feel so overwhelming and, at the same time, not nearly enough.
The best coming-of-age stories are the ones that people can still relate to long after they've, well, come of age. Jo has always been the heroine of Little Women — indeed, Alcott based the character on herself, with her own sisters inspiring Meg, Beth, and Amy — but, with three hour-long episodes at her disposal, Thomas takes the time to flesh out the other March women. Meg (Willa Fitzgerald) is made more human as she wrestles with responsibility and class divides. Jo is fearless, but also awkward, unrefined, and prone to mistakes. Beth (Annes Elwy) isn't just supernaturally sweet; she's plagued by severe anxiety. Amy's (Kathryn Newton) haughty veneer masks a number of insecurities. It's all so familiar, not because we know this story back to front, but because so many of us have experienced these same growing pains.
It's easy to identify with Jo's independent nature and resistance to conformity and bullshit gender norms. But this adaptation reminds us that she's not the only sister with mettle; each March girl has incredible strength, whether that's manifested through quiet resolve or bold confrontations. Marmie, Angela Lansbury's fantastically curmudgeonly Aunt March, and even the no-nonsense housekeeper Hannah (Eleanor Methven) round out a household of truly remarkable female powerhouses.
It's inspiring to see a female-driven story dominate the Christmas TV schedule, especially when it's a period piece that shows Jo challenging sexism and making her own money as a writer. It was Alcott's own unconventional upbringing — her parents were transcendentalists and contemporaries of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau — which cultivated this daring (for the time) attitude; she was both an abolitionist and a feminist.
Nearly 150 years later, her outspoken spark is just as welcome — and, unfortunately, just as needed.
Little Women premieres on BBC One on Boxing Day at 8pm, with episodes 2 and 3 scheduled for 27 and 28 December.
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