All the ‘Little Women’ Movie Adaptations, Ranked

little women adaptations ranked

Some stories are such universal classics that Hollywood will frequently go back to tell them…again, and again. But we can always use another Little Women movieLouisa May Alcott‘s coming-of-age classic tells the story of the four March sisters growing up in Civil War America as they struggle with poverty, societal pressures, and the pangs of first love. But the four “little women” always manage to find the joy in little things, and forge their own paths as women in a time when life was not easy for the gender.

Frequently a holiday classic for its sentimental themes — and, of course, it’s Christmas setting — Little Women has managed to resonate through the years despite being over 150 years old. So we’re ranking the major feature film adaptations of Little Women, excluding the difficult-to-find silent film versions. Here are the Little Women adaptations, ranked.

5. Little Women (1949)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the 1949 version of Little Women prettiest of the Little Women films — filmed on lavish sets and in eye-popping Technicolor — but it is astonishingly stilted and stiff in its retelling of the classic Louisa May Alcott story. It may have been a result of watching the 1949 Little Women immediately after the 1933 version, but LeRoy’s retelling is baffling in its choices to hit every story and dialogue beat from the 1933 film and do it worse. Unbearably slow and lifeless except for a hilarious Elizabeth Taylor as the spoiled Amy March, this is the Disney live-action remake of Little Women adaptations. LeRoy’s Little Women is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the 1933 film, with much of the exact same line delivery, except more sluggishly paced and with added scenes of the characters simply spouting exposition while standing handsomely in their beautiful costumes against painted sets. The 1949 Little Women is the stereotypical idea of a classic Hollywood period costume: sentimental and stuffy.

How accurate is it? The strangest choice of the film is the portrayal of Beth, the second youngest March, as several years younger than all the other sisters — despite Amy’s spoiled, childish ways being well-preserved by Taylor’s scenery-chewing performance. Like the 1933 film, it leaves out some of the harsher moments of the story — Amy’s burning of Jo’s manuscript, Amy’s fall through the ice — though it doesn’t quite have the charitable overtones of the first film. One deviation it takes from the 1933 film is to have Amy almost get caned by her teacher at school, only to avoid punishment (unlike in the book, where she does get hit). Jo and Laurie (a terribly dull Peter Lawford) also aren’t portrayed as particularly close.

How little are the women? Beth is the littlest of the women — portrayed by Margaret O’Brien as an actual child, unlike her other sisters who are clearly young adults. Elizabeth Taylor is the standout as Amy, livening up the film with her comedic antics, while Janet Leigh is dutifully graceful and responsible as Meg. June Allyson’s Jo is probably the biggest disappointment, though it’s not necessarily her fault — her aw-shucks demeanor just can’t hold a candle to the fiery portrayal by Katherine Hepburn.

4. Little Women (2018)

Despite its Hallmark movie-level production and TV extras-level acting, there’s a lot to like about this modern-day Little Women. It may seem like sacrilege to transport this classic Civil War-era story to modern day, but one of the greatest achievements of Louisa May Alcott’s story is its enduring universal themes. So why not a movie in which Jo is a university student working with a hunky Professor Bhaer to get her paper published, Meg gets drunk at the prom, Beth gets diagnosed with cancer, and Amy works hard to become a successful artist? The transition to modern day is fairly seamless, and Clare Niederpruem’s film plays with a flashback structure in a way that shakes things up. Coming from Pure Flix Entertainment (the studio behind classics like God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2), the Christian overtones are pretty explicit — and the cast pretty white — but so are the ones in the 1930s and 1940s versions. It’s treacly and sentimental, but isn’t Alcott’s story?

How accurate is it? Technically, because of its the modern-day setting, not very. But the 2018 Little Women, released on the 150-year anniversary of Alcott’s book, does a pretty good job at capturing the essence of the story. All the major story beats are there — the play, the Pickwick Club, the New Year’s party, the manuscript burning, Amy’s accident, Beth’s sickness, Jo’s journey to New York — with a modern sheen. The only major change is making Amy fall off a horse instead of through thin ice, which doesn’t land quite as well.

How little are the women? I have no complaints about the women! Sarah Davenport is a little on the angry side for Jo, but it’s a refreshingly flawed approach to the beloved character. Melanie Stone as the lovesick Meg March is not bad, as is Taylor Murphy in her short appearance as older Amy March. Allie Jennings plays her Beth as a little too doomed, but I didn’t expect too much nuance from this film. They’re all perfectly TV movie-level competent apart from Lucas Grabeel’s genuinely terrible Laurie, looking like he wandered off the High School Musical set.

3. Little Women (1933)

Perhaps the most somber of the Little Women adaptations, George Cukor’s 1933 film came during the height of the Great Depression, and reflected some of the anxieties of the time. The 1933 Little Women amps up the social reform and conservation aspects of the story, giving more attention to Marmee (Spring Byington) and her charitable deeds. But the little women remain at the forefront of the story, particularly Katherine Hepburn’s indomitable Jo March. Though other Little Women movies are ranked higher, Hepburn is the purest embodiment of Jo — boisterous and intelligent, with a sensitive streak — and the silver screen legend perfects her hysterical pratfalls during this early-career film. Hepburn’s chaotic energy permeates the entire film, and though the rest of the cast doesn’t quite live up to her level — though she and Douglass Montgomery’s Laurie have a wonderfully scampish dynamic — their performances would form the template for big-screen adaptations of Little Women to come. While film is a little frontloaded, it’s a lovely, easy-going adaptation.

How accurate is it? Jo and Laurie’s first meeting doesn’t come at a party, but in a house visit after the Laurences send food over to them after witnessing their charitable deed. The film doesn’t portray Amy’s caning, nor does it show Amy burning Jo’s manuscript or Amy’s fall through ice. Amy and Laurie’s romance takes place entirely offscreen, with Jo’s story taking over the latter half of the film. The film seems to take a more rosy approach to the early childhood aspects, avoiding the harsher elements except for Beth’s sickness and the impoverished conditions of the poor people that Marmee cares for.

How little are the women? Not little at all (in their performances). I’ve raved about Katherine Hepburn, but let me rave some more. She’s absolutely sensational as Jo March, a fiery force of nature who would eat up Winona Ryder’s more romantic take and even Saoirse Ronan’s more modern version. The girls have a wonderful chemistry between them: Joan Bennett is delightfully snooty as Amy, while Frances Dee’s Meg is charmingly insecure. Jean Parker’s Beth is not as memorable as the other girls, but still a solid player, especially in the severe way she snaps at Amy when she becomes sick.

2. Little Women (1994)

The definitive Little Women for most of our generation, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version unsurprisingly still holds up today. The sumptuous, warm colors of the film play up the classic nostalgia of the story, while Robin Swicord’s sharp script gives Little Women a newly progressive tone — Alcott’s abolitionist and feminist undertones getting pushed to the forefront, especially in Susan Sarandon’s Marmee, the most complex of the matriarch’s depictions to date. While the 1994 Little Women can veer into sentimental territory, the award-winning cast and their divine chemistry completely sell it. It’s the most romantic of the past Little Women films too: Winona Ryder’s ambitious, idealistic Jo March and Christian Bale’s rambunctious, swoon-worthy Laurie (still the best Laurie of all the adaptations) delivering a delicious will-they-won’t-they rapport, and giving us some bittersweet unresolved tension.

How accurate is it? This is the most accurate of the bunch — finally getting Jo and Laurie’s first meeting right, during the dance (in a spectacular meet-cute). Kirsten Dunst gets to play the most fleshed-out of Amy’s, burning Jo’s manuscript and falling through the ice for the first time in a feature adaptation. We also finally get to see Amy and Laurie’s romance play out onscreen, though it is not nearly as satisfying as seeing Ryder and Bale exchange long glances and strings of saliva.

How little are the women? Not little one bit — except for Kirsten Dunst, the most physically small of the group, and Samantha Mathis, whose older Amy March has none of the spark that Dunst’s version showed. The 1994 Little Women is the first of the movies to use two separate actresses for Amy, and it’s what hurts the film the most. Mathis is pretty as an older Amy, but nowhere near as charismatic as Dunst was, and her chemistry with Bale is almost nonexistent. But Winona Ryder is an absolute marvel, playing her Jo as more of a romantic dreamer, while Trini Alvarado gives a lovely performance as the forever-entrapped Meg. And no one can do a cry-face like Claire Danes.

1. Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation had a lot of expectations riding on it: not only would it have to live up to the much-beloved 1994 film, it would have to live up to the monumental expectations for the Lady Bird director after her Oscar-nominated second film. And it far exceeded those expectations. Featuring the most stacked cast of Little Women adaptations yet, Gerwig’s Little Women is a stirringly soulful realization of Alcott’s rich and vibrant world. Gerwig plays with storytelling structure in her Little Women, with two parallel timelines playing in harmony — one in the warm glow of childhood, the other in the stark grays of adulthood. But it’s more than a storytelling experiment that makes the film so great: the stellar cast and sharp writing give the characters rich interior lives and the film a modern edge. Where past films cast Jo as the tomboyish heroine of the film, Gerwig’s Little Women gives a fuller depiction of all the women, especially the oft-ridiculed Amy, who gets a fantastically sensitive and funny depiction thanks to a scene-stealing Florence Pugh. The romance between Amy and Laurie (an unspeakably beautiful Timothée Chalamet) finally gets the sweeping portrayal it deserves, playing in congruence with Jo’s own sweet interactions with Fred Bhaer (Louis Garrel). But while Gerwig’s Little Women may have the most traditionally romantic love stories, it also lets the characters have their own dreams outside of love, whether they get fulfilled or not.

How accurate is it? Except for its unconventional storytelling structure, jumping across time in a non-chronological order, pretty accurate. But Gerwig’s biggest changes are in the modern characterizations of the characters, especially Amy March, who is expanded from the vain simpleton to a practical and emotionally intelligent woman who presents the perfect foil to the headstrong Jo March. Jo is a little more vulnerable too, at one point ranting about her own loneliness in an Oscar-worthy speech from Ronan.

How little are the women? Nothing is little about these women, with Gerwig assembling the best all-around cast yet to play the March sisters. Ronan gives a jagged edge to her Jo March, Eliza Scanlen gives more depth to the usually beatific Beth, and Pugh is the MVP as the hysterical, complex Amy. The littlest performance may be from Watson, who mostly spends her time reining in her accent and gazing mournfully at silks.

Other Notable Adaptations

Before the 1933 Little Women, there were two silent film adaptations, the first released in 1917 with Minna Grey and the second in 1918 with Dorothy Bernard. The first is considered lost. There have also been several miniseries adaptations, including a recent three-part BBC miniseries that aired in 2017. Previous BBC adaptations were made in 1950 (shown live), in 1958, and 1970.

Little Women has also gone international: There have also been two Japanese anime series, Little Women in 1981 and Tales of Little Women in 1987, and an Indian webseries called Haq Se in 2018. The story has also made it to audio dramas, the stage, and the opera.

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