How old were you when you first read Little Women? I think I was about 8, and I was utterly typical: Jo was my favourite. Was anyone unenraptured by Jo March on reading the book? What about portrayals on the silver screen or the box?
The first one I ever saw was the 1949 Mervyn Le Roy version with June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor stealing every scene she could as scheming Amy).
Later I caught the 1933 George Cukor version with Katharine Hepburn, which is still my favourite.
And of course the 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. I didn’t hate Ryder, but I loved Sarandon (but then, I almost always do in whatever she does).
Until flippling idly through IMDB today, I’d never seen or heard of this 1978 version, but I’m terribly fascinated by how bad I think it could quite possibly be: Susan Dey as Jo, Meredith Baxter Birney as Meg, Eve Plumb as Beth, Greer Garson as Aunt March and just to put the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, William Shatner as Professor Bhaer! Yikes! Can you imagine Shatner delivering lines like this (script actually taken from the 1933 film, but just imagine):
Prof. Bhaer: Oh, please, please… just, just one moment, before… I have a wish to ask you something. Would you… Oh, I-I… I have no courage to think that… but, but, but, could I dare hope that… I? I… I know I, I shouldn’t make so free as to ask. I have nothing to give, but my heart so full and… and these empty hands.
Jo March: [taking his hands in hers] Not empty now.
Prof. Bhaer: Oh, heart’s dearest!
Jo March: [drawing him into the house] Welcome home!
I serendipitously encountered a few eclectic Jo March links as I was looking for images for this post:
Well, we can’t all be Jo reflects on the appeal of Jo to nearly everyone who reads Little Women.
People who loved Jo March when young tend to carry that through their lives: I found this image on Ursula K Leguin’s contact page, where she begs people who want her to sign books to please just send her an SSAE in which she can enclose signed bookplates. One of the bookplates she offers is this one of Jo reading in the attic, the image taken from her own copy of Little Women which she inherited from her mother.
A documentary film-maker introduces her film, Tomboys! Feisty Girls and Spirited Women, as follows:
Louisa May Alcott was a tomboy, as was her heroine, Jo March, in Little Women. But Jo, like most literary tomboys, was tamed once she reached adolescence. Real-life tomboys tell a different story.
That’s why I never re-read the sequels to Little Women, although I’ve re-read Little Women at least a dozen times. Once was more than enough. It broke my heart to see Jo tamed so completely, so acquiescent, so dutiful. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to be grown up yet when I read them, but I’ve never felt an urge to revisit them. It’s one thing to accept adult responsibilities, it’s another thing entirely to have one’s fire quenched so thoroughly. Although she was portrayed as fighting fiercely for her boys after she was widowed, everything about her was so hedged about with motherhood statements I felt I could only see Mrs Professor Bhaer, there was no Jo March anymore. I didn’t want to read any more of that, so I didn’t.
Addit: I forgot to mention an addition to the March family canon which is well worth the read – Geraldine Brooks’ March takes us away from the comfortable (if shabby) March family home to the horrors of the Civil War that Mr March experiences while he is away from his wife and daughters. This is not a comforting book in any way, and apart from a few moments where he receives letters from home there is little connection to the world of the growing March girls which we love, but it’s well worth reading for those who like to get a more politically attuned and darker impression of the times.