There are just four of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic little women—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—but in the scores of adaptations that have piled up over the years, they are legion! Now, with an all-new Little Women premiering on MASTERPIECE, walk back through time and find out about the droves of adaptations that have come before. After all, you’re just skimming the surface with Katherine Hepburn and Winona Ryder. And don’t miss the May 13 premiere of Little Women at a special time—8/7c—on MASTERPIECE! #LittleWomenPBS
Feature Film: 1917
This British silent film, with former Gaiety Girl Ruby Miller as Jo, is the first-ever adaptation of Little Women to the big screen. It is considered lost.
Feature Film: 1918
Shot in and around Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts (it also showed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home), this silent American film starred Dorothy Bernard as Jo.
Feature Film: 1933
The first Little Women “talkie”, starring Katherine Hepburn and directed by George Cukor, was enormously popular with critics and at the box office. A film truly of its moment—the Great Depression—it resonated with audiences in its portrayal of simplicity, frugality, and the resilience of the spirit.
Did You Know?
• To create one of Jo’s dresses, Katherine Hepburn had the costume designer copy a dress worn by her grandmother in a tintype photo.
• Actress Joan Bennet, playing a 12-year-old Amy at age 23, was pregnant when she took the role! She hid it from most of the producers.
Feature Film: 1949
In glorious Technicolor, this immensely popular feature film adaptation was packed with glittering stars. (Thank you, studio system!) June Allyson, already a legitimate star by the time she took the role of Jo March, rose to fame as a “girl next door” type in a series of MGM films, while Janet Leigh, perhaps most famous today for her role as the doomed shower-taker in Psycho, was Little Women‘s Meg March. Margaret O’Brien, who began her career as a child actor and was known as the best crier on the MGM lot—a skill she put to work starring alongside Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis—was Beth March; and Elizabeth Taylor, between her breakout performance in National Velvet and her first mature role in A Place in the Sun, sported a blonde wig as Amy March in her final adolescent role.
Did You Know?
• In the film, Beth carries around a basket that is actually the same one carried by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz!
• June Allyson, playing 15-year-old Jo at age 31, was pregnant during filming, and was only 11 years younger than Mary Astor, who played Marmee.
Feature Film: 1994
Nominated for three Academy Awards, directed by a woman, and featuring an ensemble of powerhouse actresses, the 1994 Little Women starred Winona Ryder as Jo March, Kirsten Dunst as young Amy and Samantha Mathis as older Amy, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Claire Danes as Beth, and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. And that’s just the women: Christian Bale was Laurie and Gabriel Byrne was Professor Bhaer! Acclaimed for its timelessness, warmth, and performances, it’s considered a challenger to the 1933 version as the best film adaptation.
Did You Know?
• Like a Who’s Who of ’90s young actresses, the role of (young) Amy was auditioned for by Natalie Portman, Christina Ricci, and Thora Birch. Alicia Silverstone auditioned for Beth.
1939 This early television version of Little Women for NBC-TV was based on the 1912 Broadway play written by Marian de Forest. It is considered lost.
1946 The book was again adapted for American television with Margaret Hayes as Jo, and was directed by Ernest Colling. It too is considered lost.
1949 This now-lost CBS “Ford Theatre Hour” production starred Meg Mundy as Jo. A young June Lockhart (Lost in Space) played Amy.
1950 This two-part adaptation from Westinghouse’s “Studio One Hollywood” in 1950 stars Nancy Marchand (Tony Soprano’s mom Livia!) as Jo March. Part one was called “Little Women: Meg’s Story” and part two, titled “Little Women: Jo’s Story”, is available on Amazon under the wrong title, which mistakenly represents it as a restored version of the 1918 film.
1950 The BBC’s first Little Women was a television adaptation of a play based on Alcott’s book by Winifred Oughton and Brenda R. Thompson, airing in six titled episodes from December, 1950-January 1951.
1958 A televised musical version of Little Women for CBS-TV came to the screen via a slew of mid-century Broadway luminaries, including Richard Adler (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees) doing music and lyrics. Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch) played Meg March, and Margaret O’Brien reprised her role of Beth from the 1949 feature film. Yet the production was considered a dud, compressing the story to one hour, and—strangely—omitting Beth’s death. Fan reactions ranged from puzzled to angry, and one viewer told the ad agency producing the film, “We’re going to let Beth live and kill Dick Adler!” Still, the score won critical praise and the cast recording is still available.
1958 A six-episode presentation of Little Women by the BBC.
1970 The BBC’s 1970 nine-part Little Women TV series received low marks for being low-budget, bland, and cast with actresses too old for their roles, clad in bad wigs, and struggling with their American accents. Heidi Thomas, writer of the upcoming Little Women on MASTERPIECE, remembers watching the series as an eight-year-old and being appalled by Amy’s stumble into a small ornamental pond rather than crashing through a frozen lake.
In a feat of casting that rivals Charlie’s Angels in its ’70s-ness, this NBC two-parter starred Susan Dey (The Partridge Family) as Jo; Meredith Baxter Birney (Family Ties) as Meg; Eve Plumb (The Brady Bunch) as Beth; and Ann Dusenberry as Amy. Plus William Shatner (Star Trek‘s James T. Kirk!!!!) is Professor Bhaer.
Television: Japanese Animated Series
1981 This Japanese anime series, Wakakusa no Yon Shimai or Four Sisters of Young Grass, was based on a 1980 animated Japanese TV special, and ran for 26 episodes.
1987 Another Japanese Little Women anime, Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari or Love’s Tale of Young Grass, was very loosely derived from Alcott’s book and includes many original characters. Later dubbed in English, it ran on HBO as Tales of Little Women in 1988. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
On Stage: 1912 Broadway Play
Little Women was still in copyright when American theatre director and actress Jessie Bonstelle began campaigning Alcott’s heirs, nephews Fred Pratt (the book’s “Daisy”) and John Alcott (the book’s “Demi”) for rights to adapt the novel for the stage. After eight years and Pratt’s death, Alcott’s consent (granted in memory of his aunt’s fondness for the stage) made possible Bonstelle’s 1912 Broadway production of Little Women, adapted by Marian de Forest.
On Stage: 1969 Ballet
An hour-long Little Women ballet, starring 63 children and featuring dramatic monologues delivered by mid-century award winning stage and screen actress Geraldine Page, aired live on NBC’s “NBC Children’s Theatre.” The performance can be found on YouTube.
On Stage: 1998 Opera
Workshopped and premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1998, composer Mark Adamo’s first opera, Little Women, won critical praise, and has been staged in over 20 productions, one of which aired in 2001 on PBS’ Great Performances.
On Stage: 2005 Broadway Play
A new Broadway musical premiered in 2005, starring Sutton Foster (Younger, Bunheads) as Jo and Broadway actress Maureen McGovern as Marmee. Foster received a Tony Award Best Actress in a Musical nomination for her performance.
In what’s certain to be your favorite adaptation of all, Little Women, starring Maya Hawke, Emily Watson, Angela Landsbury, and Michael Gambon, among others, premieres Sunday, May 13 at a special time—8/7c—on MASTERPIECE on PBS.