Over the past few days, I have begun watching the YouTube series “The March Family Letters”. This is from the same team that did “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Frankenstein, M.D.” (among others). This time they are retelling Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
I’m twenty episodes in (just over half of what has been posted so far) and I’m not actually sure how I feel about it yet. Like the previous adaptations from this group, it’s a modern vlog retelling of the classic novel. Unlike the previous shows, I’m not as convinced by their modern updates to this particular story. I like the series, but it doesn’t feel like Little Women to me.
Since I think Meg has gone through the most change from book to show, I’m going to start with and sort of focus on her. Meg is the oldest sister and perhaps the one I identified most with in the books. She was very well-rounded there. Alcott’s Meg is a responsible woman who is clearly capable of all the things a proper woman did (running a frugal, yet inviting household, caring for a family, coping in a crisis, etc.), but also a young woman able to dream of what she wants and enjoy the little pleasures around her. She clearly feels their poverty in ways the younger sisters don’t and isn’t happy about it, but she still manages to appreciate the ways they are lucky.
The Meg portrayed in “The March Family Letters” is rather different. She is clearly still a highly responsible woman, but at times it’s almost too her detriment in ways I never felt it was in the book. She feels older and almost bitter in some ways and when she talks about girlish pleasures (parties and fashion), it always seems to have a sarcastic quality instead of being genuine pleasure. I like that she is both working towards a career (although I question if any of the March girls would work so hard towards a career she doesn’t actually want) and wanting the family and kids future where she can be a stay-at-home mom. I’m just not so sure I see Meg in this young woman who is paranoid about poverty enough to study something she doesn’t care much about and who seems to not see the point in things that exist only for pleasure.
In the series, John Brooks (Meg’s eventual husband) is transformed in Joan Brooks. I am not sure about this change yet, although I very much like Joan’s character. The problem is that she doesn’t feel that much like John Brooks to me. I’m also not sure what it means for Meg’s future in the story. I love the idea of them having a relationship and getting married and all, but part of Meg’s story was that she was the conventional sister. She led the life she was expected to lead and was happy in it – she was the proof that you could absolutely be happy in that role, which I think was a really important element of the feminist message of Alcott’s book. She clearly shows through Meg that you can be feminist and conventional at the same time – it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. The point is to be able to choose whatever you want, and that means conventional choices are allowed too. So what does this change do for Meg’s conventionality? On the one hand, if done well it could go a long way to giving a normalizing image of a lesbian relationship, but on the other hand it is unconventional in the world we live in today and so the very change in and of itself changes the quality of Meg’s conventionality. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.
Jo is definitely different in the series from in the book. Instead of being a tomboy, she’s a hardcore feminist. I think that Alcott would absolutely have approved of this and it definitely makes sense. The only issue I have with it is that the change (so far, at least) sort of erases Jo’s personal struggles with the very fact that she is unconventional. I found those struggles to be a particularly fascinating part of the book and hope they aren’t gone entirely. There’s presumably a lot of show left, so perhaps we simply haven’t seen it yet.
Beth is still the sweet, quiet, shy girl from the books. Because of this, we don’t see her that much except when she is singing and playing her guitar. For the fiction of the vlog, that makes a lot of sense. I have little idea, however, if the rest of her personality and character are there to be found or not. In the books, she cares for kittens and dolls, is too shy for school and stays entirely at home, and is happy simply surrounded by her family. Elements of this are here, but the character is older and I think that changes some of these things. We don’t see the kittens or dolls and I have no reason to believe so far that she did not go all the way through regular schooling, but we don’t know. I’m also not sure how they’ll handle her later. I think I need to wait and see more of Beth to really have much opinion on her, but I think she’s a particularly interesting challenge for a project like this.
They’ve done a great job with Amy. We’ve seen precious little of her physical vanity, but her flamboyant and artistic nature as well as her inability to compromise have absolutely come out. Overall, she definitely “feels” like a modern Amy. I’ll be interested to see how they handle her character development, but so far I think she’s probably the one who feels the most accurate to me.
Obviously, I fully intend to watch more of this series. I don’t feel like it is as close an adaptation as some of their previous series’ were, but I think that they are doing some really interesting things and I want to see how they end up working out. One of the virtues of the show is definitely that if you don’t know the source material, it is still fully watchable. And for me, the very fact that it does have me thinking so much about the changes and similarities is one of the biggest draws for this kind of project. The analysis itself is one of my favorite parts of the experience.
If you are interested in watching this show or any of their previous adaptations (they’ve so far done Pride and Prejudice, Sanditon (one of Jane Austen’s unfinished works), Emma, Frankenstein, and Little Women), check out Pemberley Digital on YouTube.