A SMALL COMFORT

The title that Charles Schulz originally wanted to use for his comic strip was not Peanuts, but Li'l Folks. Perhaps Schulz, who once said that children were "caricatures of adults," was thinking along the same lines as Louisa May Alcott when she gave her most beloved novel the name Little Women. Alcott's book appears to be still every bit as much a perennial in the lives of American girls as it was during the last century, and the reason is simple--it's about the connection between one's girlhood and one's identity as a woman.

More specifically, the story's about the March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts, who, with their mother, illustrate the personality options regarded as open to 19th-century women. The key character is Josephine, the independent-minded aspiring writer; her sisters are the mild-mannered eldest, Meg; the sickly, saintly Beth; and Amy, the self-centered, squeaky-wheel youngest. Their mother is a nurturing paragon with abolitionist and protofeminist sentiments.

The new film of Little Women, directed by the Australian Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), is at least the fourth to reach the screen. (George Cukor's original sound version of 1933, which starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo, is almost as well-liked as the novel itself.) Armstrong's version is too languidly paced, and too conventional in technique, to be really exciting, and it has elements--like the young Amy's habit of affectedly overextending words, so she is, for example, "perfectly devastatated"--the prim cutesiness of which may make you squirm in your seat a time or two. But in its gentle way, this Little Women does hold an audience. It's lovely to look at, and it has a splendid, full-orchestra score by the underrated Thomas Newman. Most important, though, the actresses are all delightful company.

The current Jo is Winona Ryder, who certainly has none of Hepburn's idiosyncratic presence. Ryder acts up a storm, managing commendably despite some busyness about her face.

Jo is the best role--she's both the most commonsensical and the most romantic character in the story--so it's easy to overlook the fine work done in all of the other parts. Trini Alvarado, ill-served by the wretched Stella and little-seen since, is extremely winsome as Meg, and Kirsten Dunst uses the same timing she displayed as the pint-size bloodsucker in Interview With the Vampire to make the younger version of Amy a charming little snot. Claire Danes hasn't much to do in the toned-down role of Beth, and Samantha Mathis has still less to do as the grown-up Amy, but both come across sympathetically. A pleasant surprise is Susan Sarandon, who behaves herself as the mother--she stays dry and understated, never slipping into that oppressive staunchness that was the only leaden element of Lorenzo's Oil. The story follows the Marches, who have fallen on mildly hard times while their father is off fighting in the Civil War, through their play and work and crises, as well as their courtings by a variety of little men. These include a reserved tutor (Eric Stoltz) who falls for Meg; an earnest, penniless philosopher (Gabriel Byrne) who becomes quietly intimate with Jo; and the dashing, humorous rich kid next door (Christian Bale), who loves all of the sisters.

The central conflict of the story is Jo's fear that, in choosing either independence or domesticity, she'll be automatically depriving herself of the other. This was a far more legitimate concern for a woman in the 19th century--or even in 1933, when the original film came out--than it is now, but even in Jo's day, it wasn't necessarily an either/or proposition. To listen to Jo fret, you'd think that no woman of accomplishment in history had ever managed to have a nice husband and a couple of kids.

The mutual exclusivity, for a woman, of family and career may be an illusion. But the fear of it is very real for women, today as much as in Alcott's time, and it makes powerful propaganda for those who would encourage women to return to defining themselves solely as wives and mothers. Perhaps the reason that Alcott's simple yarn remains so fresh and undated is that it demonstrates how this need not be--how a girl can, with patience and courage, make herself grow into pretty much any kind of woman she wants to be. The title, after all, is Little Women, not Little Ladies.

 
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