December 16th, 2009
Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Behind Little Women

Premiered Monday, December 28, 2009 on PBS

Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, is an almost universally recognized name.  Her reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of mid-19th century Concord, is firmly established.  Raised among reformers, iconoclasts and Transcendentalists, the intellectual protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker, with democratic ideals and progressive values about women – a worldly careerist of sorts.  Most surprising is that Alcott led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life not discovered until the 1940s.  As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts – a far cry from her better-known works featuring fatherly mentors, courageous mothers and impish children.

Visit the filmmakers’ Web site for more out the American Masters film The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ .

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ is the recipient of numerous awards and film festival selections, including:


Booklist’s Editors’ Choice: Best Video of 2009
Grand Award: Providence Film Festival
Audience Choice Award: Cape Cod Filmmaker Takeover
Best Feature Documentary: L.A. Reel Women Int’l Film Festival
Best Family Feature: Garden State Film Festival


Rhode Island International Film Festival
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Guangzhou Documentary Film Festival
Santa Fe Film Festival
Through Women’s Eyes Film Festival

Read reviews of the film

What came out of all this is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and far more complex than the portrait of the dainty lady that others have previously presented. Elizabeth Marvel gives a remarkably insightful performance as Louisa May, full of humor, passion, emotion and progressive thinking that makes her come alive.

The Providence Journal

As much as I’ve enjoyed the American Masters series and its biographies of actors, artists, writers, and musicians, the talking heads and archival material can feel like a straitjacket for filmmakers . . . and audiences. Even the Ken Burns effect — slowly panning or zooming in or out of a photograph — can get old during the course of a feature-length film. Most recreations have failed because they’re sparingly done, poorly cast and directed, or so clumsy that they just seem cheesy. But Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ gives us liberal, well-conceived dramatizations throughout, making them as dominant as those talking heads that are also featured. What’s more, there’s none of the usual take-yourself-too-seriously austere narration that so often accompanies literary biographies. Louisa May Alcott and her family are brought to life with dignity, but also humor. All of the dialogue that’s used comes from journals and letters, and that lends an authenticity and unabashed forthrightness that’s uncommon in films like this.

  • M Bohanan

    This is great and jolted my interest.

  • Scott Stoermer

    Splendid subject and looks like a clever, entertaining production. Looking forward to the premiere.

  • Leslie

    i love louisa may alcott can’t wait to see this tomorrow.

  • S Greenfield

    Will this be available to watch online?

  • Ana-Maria Hurtado

    I am looking forward to learning more about this remarkable woman. I will be watching tonight

  • Mag

    Alcott (and Jo March) were my heroines when I was a little girl who liked to write and didn’t like when the world told me what was proper for a little girl to be interested in. I am really looking forward to tonight’s film.

  • zoltan de burgh

    What’s lesser known about Alcott is that she was the daughter of mid/late 19th Century American Transcendentalist, Bronson Alcott. Bronson was a close friend of Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science founder).

  • R A Gongaware Barrett

    Louisa May Alcott was an amazing woman with an amazing story. I was deeply inspired by her “Little Women” when my mother sensed my love for reading and put it into my hands 50 years ago. I remain fascinated by Louisa’s independence of mind, spirit and motivation during a time when none of these qualities were admired in a woman. I am inspired once again in a strangely new way now that I am re-reading “Little Women” at 60 years old. Thank you, Louisa for withstanding tough times and giving us the great gift of yourself, your courage, and your unique view of the world.

  • Kate P

    I just watched this on PBS, and was fairly disappointed. The use of quotations directly from the Alcott family papers, while an extremely commendable idea, came off as rather gimmicky, especially in scenes that were supposed to be dialogs. The animations (the example that springs to mind is the falling flowers around Anna Alcott’s and John Pratt’s photographs) also felt gimmicky and unnecessary. The interviews with noted Alcott scholars were great, but were rather sparsely used.
    Despite these aspects, the film looked wonderful. I was excited to see the original locations where the Alcotts lived, having spent a lot of time at Fruitlands and Orchard House.
    On a factual note, I was distressed by the fact that Flower Fables was not mentioned. It was Louisa’s first book, published in 1854, and was an important milestone.

  • Carol

    Simply, …Thank you for this excellently well-done masterpiece.

  • Barbara Ehrentreu

    My daughter and I found this to be a delightful portrayal of a female author, especially Louisa May Alcott. I loved the dramatizations and how they brought us as close as possible to the real life of an author at that time. Today with our keyboards we forget that authors did all that by hand until recently. Kudos to the filmmakers and PBS for such an excellent biography and for giving us the real story of such a beloved American figure.

  • June D. Smith

    This was very well done and surely held our interest. This production has stirred our desire to read more of her works. Thank you for having it.

  • David

    Louisa Mae is my distant cousin. I have sought information on her for many years. Many people are under the mistake that Madeline Stern was Louisa’s Pseudonym. No wonder people I’ve asked can’t find anything on her. They are looking for the wrong person.

  • Janet Lints

    I enjoyed watching American Masters. I love Louisa May Alcott’s, Little Women ever since I was a little girl.

  • W. Colpitts

    Just saw the premier. The juxtapositing of the Alcott lives’ dramatics with reviewers’ dramatics with reviewers’ interviews was not well controled. The audience lost many words in the jumping diologues.

  • Beverly Holmes

    Why is it so difficult to find out the names of the actors that are portrayed on films, most notably this wonderful show about Louisa May Alcott. WHO is the actress portraying Louisa for the majority of the time? Watching the credits is a joke…as they go speeding by at “light speed!” And now I’ve come to this website, and still I don’t find anything about the actors. ???

  • Marie

    You know I missed this program’s airing tonight and was attempting to find out when it repeats. However, I’ve been here almost 10 minutes trying to get that information and all that happens is I end up back here. When I put the name in a schedule search all I got was a blank page. Not sure how that’s supposed to help anyone. So thanks, PBS, for making it so difficult if not impossible to see your programs. Thanks a bunch.

  • Terry Gartman

    Watched this last night. Very well done.

  • Dawn Funck

    I missed it. I can’t believe it! Will it show again soon?

  • Anna Louise Gaspar

    As a child, I went to a public school in Chicago for 8 years called Louisa May Alcott School. I really enjoyed the biography of her as it was presented on P.B.S.

  • J Kroenke

    I watched this program last night and was delighted to discover the subject to be about Ms. Alcott!! As a great fan of her writing, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of her life. What a remarkable woman and a remarkable life that she lead!! I find that her writings are even more dear to me now, knowing of the person that penned such classics!! Well done, I enjoyed each and every minute of this program!!

  • Benita Porter

    Sometime during my preteens, my mother and sister presented me with a beautifully illustrated Little Women. I read and reread the book more times than I can recall. Now, thanks to the PBS production, I, as an elderly adult, have come to appreciate the author as well. She is someone I wish I had been privileged to know in person.
    Thank you, again, PBS!

  • Michelle F

    A highly engaging and spirited presentation, both from the actors and the writer, which was also unexpectedly informative. Thank you director Nancy Porter.


    I love LOUISA MAY ALCOTT’S BOOKS, Especially LITTLE WOMEN and JO’S BOYS. I even enjoyed the movies they made from her books, and the television show LITTLE MEN a few years ago. They made you LAUGH and CRY.

  • tlb

    Why doesn’t the video on this page have a closed captioning option available for those of us with a hearing loss?

  • Olive Lohrengel

    I awakened in the wee hours of the last day of 2009, turned on the local PBS station and what to my wondering eyes should appear but this incredibly well conceived and presented production of the literary life of the creator of Jo and much more that most of us have not read. (my age is 80 years) I do not recall ever seeing a biography of anyone so well presented. Thank you to everyone involved.

  • Lynne Devin-Smith

    I was so disappointed in this program. The use of actors to tell the story of Alcott was terribly distracting for me. I would have preferred narration accompanied by photos and commentary with the actors’ voices providing quotes off screen. The actors interpreted the personalities of the people they portrayed and I would prefer to do the interpreting myself as I watch and listen. I felt having the actors on screen cheapened the process. I was so sorry as I love Alcott, and the American Masters series. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

  • melinda webb

    Loved this biography. Intrigued and I would like to view the biography, again and read the book, as well.

  • Marcia Davis

    Wonderful! This program introduced me to a Louisa May Alcott I did not know. Now I want to know more about her, her work, Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalism and more. Thank you so much. I don’t think I could’ve enjoyed it more!

  • mary mcguire

    we often talk about how history is created both through inclusion and exclusion and always as a mirror of the culture of the time. But here we see a true portrait, unafraid but affectionate. I read Little Women as a young girl: it is so true. I’m glad to see Ms Alcott portrayed as a real dimensional woman. I will be glad to introduce her to my grand daughter, now only 17 months old. Her Mother has placed her own copy of Little Woman on Anabee’s book shelf to be ready.

  • Susan Loeper

    How wonderful to finally see the real woman, my interest is definately sparked.

  • Catherine

    I missed the broadcast due to the Christmas holidays. Please run it again, as I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to view it. As a young girl, I was completely captivated by Little Women.

  • Jean Wilson

    Having attended high school in Concord and read much about all the Concord authors, I found this a fascinating and refreshingly new look at Louisa May Alcott.

  • Carolyn

    Let me echo the requests to please air this film again, and not in the middle of the night. I am currently reading the companion book by Harriet Reisen and would love to see the film.

  • Delores Krigbaum

    I missed Louisa May Alcott. When may I expect to see it again?

  • Kris

    When will the documentary be shown again?

  • JTeague

    I, too, am wondering when this program will show again. Thank you.

  • Laura S.

    I second the comment by Beverly above–I came on this site looking for the list of actors from this amazing show–but I can not find it anywhere! Would you please show me where to find it if it indeed exists?
    Thank you very much–it was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen!

  • Mignon Ariel King

    Splendid acting, minus those goofy Stoppard-like moments of the actor talking to the audience (someone appropriately called them “gimmicky”). They disrupted the tone of the film, which mirrored well-filmed versions of one her books.
    Also, those moments felt too biased, as if the entire purpose of the film was to make Alcott as unlikeable as possible, show her snide attention-loving side, almost daring the audience to connect with the “real” Alcott or to feel duped for loving her books. The expert who said one cannot really appreciate her work without knowing how it does and does not mirror her life is a pompous ass. The biography is interesting, the actress riveting, but Little Women stands alone, much-appreciated.

  • joelle adlerblum

    I too missed the Louisa May Alcott program, and there is no date given when it will be shown again. I live in Amherst, MA. Please when will it be shown here again. Joelle Adlerblum

  • linda laurin

    I have always loved “Little Women” and PBS’ documentary on one of my favorite female writers is greatly appreciated. I took an intrest in Ms. Alcott when I first attended kindergarten and, would you believe it, the first elementary school was named LOUISA MAE ALCOTT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IN TULSA, OKLAHOMA.

    Wish you would show the film Little Women starring Susan Sarandon on TV — that would be even better!


  • Steve C

    This was very well done, and even though I’ve never read her works, I was taken in and found myself looking up her “Love and Self-Love” story online.

    The animations were a useless distraction (especially with the reviews for Little Women), but the acting was superb, the cinematography well done, and the progress of her story well written.

    I hope this film is made available online (if even for a limited time, as with Joan Baez before), so I can send links to friends and writing forums.

  • Teresia F

    Why can’t we see this online? and i agree with Marie, you take one on a circuitoous route that ends nowhere.

  • Tracey H

    I couldn’t sit through it, as much as I wanted to. Could not abide the acting style of the performer ‘paying’ Louisa. The many ‘to the camera’ takes were forced and completely unnatural, in her attempt to make the words her own. All the others were quite good, esp. the actor playing Emerson, but I couldn’t stand them constantly going back to Louisa. Rather than being pulled in to the story, I was repelled. Disappointing.

  • Vira Barholomew

    We also enjoyed the presentation tremendously and would like very much to see a repeat. Will it be repeated again? Or where can we get the information for possible purchase of that episode?

  • Cherry Carver

    This show was really awful. The actress who played Alcott made her look like a psychopath. I hated this portrayal. Worthless.

  • sandy

    i saw this program around christmas back in dec. it was just wonderful…i had no idea about her life and family, or that she wrote pulp type stories. as a kid, i loved little women., given to me by my mom. i love every movie adaptation, too. american masters is a fascinating series. i watch every one and record them on the dvr. they are done extemely well, no gimicks, real actors. love this series on pbs.

  • Susan Wozniak

    Is this available to watch?

  • Amber

    Louisa May Alcott was great author, I’ve researched on her background, SHE WAS TOTALLY AMUSING!

    And anyway, the show was really really really THE BEST! Very well done!

  • paloma

    she is very pretty, and i love everything from her she is the best i miss her. she was my mother’s sister


    I did not know that the Author of the book Little Women is actually a woman! The movie was more dramatic and it envelops the strength and determination of young lady to pursue her dream to become a writer.

    I love Louisa May Alcott’s, Little Women since the day I have read the book! It was not just a story! It was the real story of every woman who is determined to achieve her dreams. I recommend you to read the book and watch the movie.

  • Laura @ Search

    Hi great article thanks for sharing. Can someone please tell me what happens at the very end of this short story by Louisa May Alcott?

  • Reader

    I read “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott when I was maybe about ten years old and loved it. (I read the library’s copy.) I recently found a used paperback copy at a book sale and plan to re-read it. (It’s a cheap edition, but it was only 25 cents.) As an adult, I also took out from the library, and read, “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” by LMA. And I’m currently reading another book by LMA, a lovely edition of a book called “Eight Cousins, or The Aunt-Hill.” It was withdrawn from one of the library systems in my city to be used for sale at a book sale. But it didn’t sell. So, after the book sale was over, the library offered all books that didn’t sell for free. Yes, you read that right. So, I took LMA’s “Cousins,” and the sequel, “Rose in Bloom.” Read LMA. And most particularly make sure you read her best book, “Little Women.” (Do you remember the funny episode of “Friends” when Joey read “Little Women”? That episode showed that “LW” is for everyone, young or old, female or male.)

  • Dwayne

    I love all of the documentary series on PBS and when I saw Louisa May Alcott had an American Masters episode while channelsurfing I was willing to give it a chance despite not really knowing much about her work beyond that she’d written Little Women. I tried as best I could for as long as I could, but the technique of “acting out” the diaries/history was tremendously cheesy and jarring – not at all well executed. I wanted a history of Louisa May Alcott, not a play of her life. A tremendous disappointment, because I’m sure there was a great, compelling story to be told about her, but the vehicle used herein to convey it forced me to change the channel before I got the essence of the story.

  • whooping cough treatment

    I love what you have wrote.

  • Dorothy Quate

    When can we see this on TV again????

  • amintern

    Check your local listings

  • Bobby Stickler

    Man, it’s just good to be able to hear from the players again, I was an original Randy supporter, but I still don’t know what he was doing! We are not rebuilding, we have some very, very good players already, this guy being one of them. I am currently feeling Brother Golden, seems to understand what the heck he’s doing! Go Canes!

  • bbbbb

    Louisa is great


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