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The Latest Adaptation of 'Little Women' Doesn't Disappoint
May 13, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 

There’s a scene in Downton Abbey where Lady Grantham laments the fractious relationship among her three children by sighing, “No one ever tells you about raising daughters. You think it’s going to be like Little Women and they’re at each other’s throats from dawn to dusk.”

Actually, that’s not an entirely inaccurate description of Little Women, at least in the faithful new PBS Masterpiece Theater adaptation that premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The three-part drama doesn’t reset or rework any significant parts of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-69 novel about the four March sisters growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War. 

That sets it apart from several of its multiple previous adaptations, like the 1994 movie that starred Winona Ryder. 

This production, which aired late last year in the U.K., steers away from stars in general, consistently coming across as an ensemble piece. 

The central role of Jo March, who grows up to become an author and often serves as the voice of the story, is played by a rookie, albeit a rookie with a high-profile pedigree.

Maya Hawke (top & right), the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, makes Jo both appealing and exasperating. She’s not always nice to her sisters, notably the impulsive and sometimes resentful youngest sister Amy (Kathryn Newton, top). 

Meg (Willa Fitzgerald, top), the oldest sister, is already working as a governess to help support the family. Beth (Annes Elwy, top), who suffers from anxiety and eventually something worse, at times tries the patience of the others, though they also often protect her. 

We meet the March family in the early days of the war, when their father Robert (Dylan Baker), a chaplain, has been called into service. 

That leaves their mother Marmee (Emily Watson) to keep the household together until she receives word that Robert has fallen seriously ill and needs someone to take care of him. 

That would be Mom, which leaves the four March sisters home alone. Well, alone except for Aunt Josephine (Angela Lansbury), who provides valuable guidance at key junctures, and neighbors like James Laurence (Michael Gambon). 

Still, the sisters have to keep the train running. To their credit, and no doubt accountable in large measure for the book’s enduring popularity, they work hard not to let this unforeseen crisis derail their lives. 

They move forward, toward romance and the careers that were much harder for women to attain in those days. Not every dream comes true, and there are tragedies along the pathway, but there’s a pluckiness to the March sisters that has given them an enduring grace. 

Like Alcott, writer Heidi Thomas resists wrapping the sisters’ stories with too neat a bow. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and while they will always come together in a crisis, they are fully capable of annoying each other and taking the bait for silly quarrels. 

This latest production, doubtless not the last, suggests Lady Grantham could have seen much of the March sisters in her own daughters. As could millions of other mothers and fathers in the 150 years since Louisa May Alcott spun her endearing tale.

 
 
 
 
 
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