Roush Review: PBS' New Adaptation of 'Little Women' Is 'Warm and Intimate'

Matt Roush
PBS

Bravo and a four-hanky Mother’s Day salute to PBS’s Masterpiece for taking a rare detour into the American archives, proving again that the march of time has been kind to Little Women.

Perhaps the most beloved sister act in all of literature, first published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s enduring masterwork of honest sentiment is a natural for film and TV. Being a classicist (as in TCM), I tend to favor George Cukor’s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn over the 1949 (June Allyson–Elizabeth Taylor) and 1994 (Winona Ryder) remakes. And somehow I missed the 1978 miniseries with Susan Dey as Jo, Meredith Baxter as Meg and Eve Plumb (!) as Beth.

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The miniseries co-stars Iain Glen, Keeley Hawes, Anupam Kher and Fiona Shaw.

The new three-hour (over two Sundays) BBC co-production, filmed in Ireland, is one to remember. Warm and intimate, with an unforced realism that keeps schmaltz to a minimum, the adaptation by Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) echoes Jo’s epiphany that rescues her from writer’s block: “Our house is full of stories, lives unfolding, wings waiting to take flight.”

Maya Hawke soars as an unaffected and unshowy Jo, perfectly plain yet entrancingly dynamic. Though cranky Aunt March (the ever-marvelous Angela Lansbury) has a point when she dismisses Jo as a “great ungainly windmill of a girl,” this headstrong and uncompromising heroine earns our respect and affection for her devotion to the other March sisters. Willa Fitzgerald is a radiant Meg, and Annes Elwy rends the heart as painfully shy and sickly Beth, but only Kathryn Newton as willful Amy seems too mature and calculating, making her petulant destruction of Jo’s manuscript seem unforgivably cruel.

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The show is expected to roll out to all PBS stations on Dec. 11.

The March family pillar of reason is, as always, Marmee, and the glorious Emily Watson grounds her Puritan piety in a sorrowful strength, especially during the early Civil War chapters. When Marmee finally breaks down upon losing you-know-who, this mother’s grief is palpable, likely to unleash a torrent of This Is Us–level tears.

The little men of the story — Jonah Hauer-King’s smitten neighbor Laurie and a bland Julian Morris as his tutor, John Brooke—may not always measure up, but it hardly matters. This isn’t their story. It’s Jo’s, Meg’s, Beth’s, even Amy’s. After so many years, these timeless women feel as relevant as ever.

Little Women, Sundays, May 13 and 20, 8/7c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)

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This article also appeared in the Apr. 30 - May 13 issue of TV Guide Magazine.

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