Ranking the Little Women Movie Adaptations

by Camille Borodey

There’s a reason that Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters coming of age in a post-civil war America has been adapted so many times. The everyday stories of Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy continue to be relatable today. Although “Little Women” isn’t technically a Christmas story, a huge chunk of the novel and its movie adaptations take place during the holiday season, which makes it a Christmas movie for many.

4. Little Women 1949, Directed by Mervyn LeRoy: My issue with the older versions of “Little Women” is they focus too much on the romance and not enough on the relationship between the sisters, so in the end, you’re stuck with a sappy Hollywood ending and not enough character development. The 1949 version is the first movie adaptation in color, technicolor, to be specific. This movie won the academy award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and was nominated for Best Cinematography.

The first half is very entertaining, including an early scene showing the March girls entertaining themselves by putting on plays from Jo’s stories. Still, the movie’s second half drags, which is why I put it at the bottom of the list. At 32, June Allyson is comically a little too old for the part. She seems to be having a fun time playing Jo, but instead of giving her own interpretation of the character, it feels like she’s imitating Katharine Hepburn’s acting from the 1933 version. The movie also stars Janet Leigh as Meg, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, and Elizabeth Taylor, who absolutely steals every scene she’s in, as Amy.

3. Little Women 1933, Directed by George Cukor: This version is led by a fiery and charismatic performance from Katharine Hepburn as Jo. Released in 1933, part of the film’s success could have been the fact that a story about four women growing up, finding love, and overcoming life’s obstacles could have been precisely the thing depression era America needed.

The 1949 version borrowed the script from this version, so they are very similar, but I rank this version higher because the sisters have much more chemistry. This version won Best Adaptation at the academy awards and was nominated for Best Director and Outstanding Production.

2. Little Women 1994, Directed by Gillian Armstrong: Many may argue that this 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmie is the most accurate adaption. The cast is fantastic, and all the sisters have lovely chemistry. Ryder brings the tomboyish writer Jo to life, and she and Christian Bale as Laurie has such charming chemistry that you secretly wish these two could end up together.

This version captures most of the novel’s important moments. The scene where sick Beth (a heartbreaking performance from Claire Danes) comes downstairs on Christmas morning to find she’s been gifted piano never fails to make me cry. Kristen Dunst is excellent as young Amy, but Samantha Mathis, as older Amy, feels a little bland. Yes, Amy does mature by the end of the story, but she doesn’t lose her fire.

1. Little Women 2019, Directed by Greta Gerwig: Every past version of Little Women has been a vehicle for whatever actress is playing Jo (Saoirse Ronan is fantastic in the role though), making her character the film’s center. Gerwig’s version is the first adaptation that gives a more prominent voice to the other March sisters versus reducing them to archetypes. Meg (Emma Watson) is much more than the pretty uptight older sister, and we actually see her struggle with her decision to choose love with John Brook over her desire and pressure to be rich. This is the first adaptation to do justice to the vainest and disliked March sister, Amy (Florence Pugh, who lights up the screen in her stellar performance), and finally gives the youngest sister, who yearns to be a great painter, some much-needed depth.

Gerwig shows what makes the novel timeless but also gives it some much-needed updates, and these minor changes make the characters richer. Plus, the artistic choice to tell the story in nonlinear order makes for a unique storytelling style. The first scene we get with Laurie (Timothee Chalamet, the perfect choice as the spoiled yet thoughtful boy next door) isn’t with Jo, but with Amy, showing how much chemistry they have. This is the first adaption that genuinely wants you to believe that Laurie doesn’t merely settle for Amy and that they are truly a good fit. At The Academy Awards, Gerwig’s film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Pugh), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. It also won Best Costume Design.