Little Women Review: If You Love The Novel, You’ll Love The Miniseries

Photo: Courtesy of PBS.
If you look at any movie listing or television schedule there is one undeniable truth: few things are trendier than dark, gritty reboots of previously sunny touchstones. Superman, once a beacon for primary colors and otherworldly goodness, now lives in the landscape of grays that is the the D.C. universe and once straight-up murdered a guy. And, while Riverdale still has the milkshakes and letterman jackets of its Archie Comics source material, those icons of a bygone era are now blood-spattered, sexed-up, or both.
One would expect PBS’ upcoming Little Women remake, premiering in the U.S. on Sunday, May 13, to follow in those same grim footsteps. Maybe it could be set in some dystopian future, or heroine Jo March (celebrity daughter Maya Hawke), could be caught up in a serial killer mystery for an unknown reason. But, in the Masterpiece Theater miniseries, no such dramatics are necessary or even considered. Rather, the 3-hour showing is a pure, loving recreation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name.
As with the original Little Women, the latest television version opens with lead character and resident tomboy Jo bemoaning the idea of a Christmas without presents. Yes, the Civil War is raging somewhere in the American South, but Jo would really love a nicely wrapped gift right about now. The resulting conversation allows us to meet all of the March sisters: Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), ever the picture of mid-1800s grace, beauty, and domesticity, Amy (Big Little Lies and Blockers star Kathryn Newton), the willful and image-obsessed baby of the family, and Beth (Annes Elwy), the shy one. While Jo complains about presents, everyone else talks about the important of hand gloves at a ball.
After this introductory conversation, the miniseries hits all the necessary points of its source material, giving us the airy tale of how four girls become women in the changing 19th century. As one would guess, it’s a story filled with societal pressures, religion, striving, and, thankfully, lots of warmth too. Jo and Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Jonah Hauer-King) meet and create a semi-platonic relationship for the ages. The one-sided love affair has all the heart expected, and all the inevitable failings as well. The Marches suffer their many anxieties and tragedies, as the realities of both the Civil War and the general shortcomings of 1800s medicine hang over the series. And, of course, there are the triumphs and lovely little familial moments fans of the novel have come to expect from Little Women in all its many forms.
Those tiny moments are what gives the miniseries its greatest spark. While watching the Masterpiece Theater showing, it’s likely you’ll feel compelled to inform your friends of every single moment Dame Angela Lansbury graces the screen with her presence. One stand-out scene includes Lansbury’s Aunt March disdainfully chattering at Jo while a gigantic red parrot chews on the young woman’s sleeve. Aunt March and her many exotic birds might be the most enjoyable running gag throughout all of Little Women. The runners up, for the record, involve pickled limes and a grand irritation over a single stolen glove.
Those latter two plot points belong to Amy and Jo, who are an absolute delight to watch. Amy’s portrayer, Kathryn Newton, has become the queen of teen eye rolls and sass over the last half a decade thanks to roles on Supernatural, where she lovingly vexes the Winchester brothers (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) and her adoptive mother Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes), and Big Little Lies, where she lovingly vexes Reese Witherspoon — I mean, Madeline Martha Mackenzie. Here, Newton’s ultra-cool vibes are inverted and turned into an obsession with living up to society’s expectations for her. It is shockingly fun to see the actress best known for cutting vampires’ heads off or planning to auction off her virginity wax poetic over the importance of fancy parties, plays, and art.
It’s equally exciting to watch the offspring of Beatrix Kiddo herself — Jo’s portrayer Maya Hawke calls Uma Thurman “mom” — tear up a screen with her own defiant rage. At the same time, like Kill Bill’s Beatrix before her, Jo isn’t all unruly anger and venom. Instead, Hawke is able to show off her thoughtful and emotional side as well, as Jo struggles with the complicated advances of a very adorable Laurie, or the disaster that is her little sister Beth’s eventual health crisis.
Despite the very good performances in Little Women, the miniseries does have one massive issue going against it: the competition. The series will air on Sunday nights, which is the evening bolstered by television's greatest murderers' row of talent. Not only does Women have to contend with HBO juggernaut Westworld — there are also the feminist, women-led standouts spread across cable like Sweetbitter, Vida, and the fantastic Killing Eve. All of those primetime options feel much more urgent than a well-made period piece that still lacks a wave-making, fresh point of view. After all, Alcott's story is just about a century-and-a-half years old.
While Little Women likely won't be at the top of your Sunday night must-watch list, nor does it have to be, if you do love lush miniseries filled with beautiful dresses and subtle questions about a woman's place in the world, maybe catch up with the March sisters when there's a lull in your TV schedule. That is why streaming exists, right?
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