In honor of the premiere of SYFY Wire’s The Great Debate on Thursday, June 18, we’re hashing out pop culture arguments all week long. Today is Little Women (1994) versus Little Women (2019). Both film adaptations are great, but does one outshine the other?
Janine Schaults: Sorry to those looking for a drag-out, hair-pulling fight here. The 2019 version is an excellent addition to the Little Women canon deserving of high praise and all of the Oscar nominations it received. It’s nearly impossible for any fan of the classic book or the 1994 Winona Ryder edition to not ugly cry during its 135-minute runtime. Saoirse Ronan’s “I Want To Be Loved” scene is nothing short of earth shattering, but a few things keep it from being the definitive version.
Peyton Lombardo: Agreed, Janine. Both versions are nothing short of masterpieces, but Greta Gerwig’s 2019 remake has clearly de-throned the 1994 film. Gerwig’s brilliant screenplay gives it a much needed makeover. You’re right: Saoirse Ronan’s performance is one for the ages. But its superb supporting cast including, but certainly not limited to, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, and Meryl Streep elevates it to stardom. So, what’s your beef Janine?
JS: While Jo is the centerpiece of Little Women, its heart is dear, sweet, sickly Beth. And casting the terrifying monster from HBO’s Sharp Objects (Eliza Scanlen) in the role amounts to a massive failure. Only Claire Danes and her trembling chin can do this beloved character justice. Beth gets the most heart-wrenching line of dialogue in the book — “I know I shall be homesick for you even in heaven” — and Danes delivers those simple words to her favorite sister in the ‘94 movie with a thousand teardrops in her voice. Gerwig doesn’t even bother to include it. The 2019 adaptation found the perfect Amy, however, in Florence Pugh, a vast improvement from the ‘94 stunt casting of Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis in one part.
PL: 2019’s Amy (Florence Pugh) was absolutely terrific. Her performance was so good I was genuinely cringing when she was immaturely crying outside Laurie’s window or egotistically setting actual flames to Jo’s novel. I had to remind myself she was just playing the part! There aren’t enough good things I can say about Pugh. But I’d have to disagree with you on Beth. When the other March sisters are portrayed by mega stars Ronan, Pugh, and Emma Watson, I think Scanlen deserves some slack. And don’t even get me started on Timothee Chalamet as Laurie... pure charm.
JS: Oh, you don’t have to get started. While Chalamet knows how to fill the screen with his presence and maintains a natural chemistry with Pugh throughout, Christian Bale burns with passion in ‘94 as Laurie. His desire to become a member of the March family, first through childhood friendship and play and then through the ultimate romantic gesture, is riotous. When he kisses Ryder and that epic string of visible spit stretches between them, you can feel his hunger and her reluctance. Chalamet never truly connects with Ronan, so that monumental rejection doesn’t sting like it should. And that ending? WTF? Why can’t Jo have both her book and a partnership of equals?
PL: The ending of Gerwig’s Little Women is what makes it so special, though. The viewer is left deciding what is fantasy and what is real. And everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it has a different take on it. I think that’s pretty incredible. Personally, I was delighted that Jo was able to find success both as a writer and in her love life. It’s okay to want both!
JS: Exactly!! There’s no shame in wanting both, so why did Gerwig turn Jo’s romantic pairing into the stuff of fairy tales? Sure, the viewer technically makes the decision, but the intention of the filmmaker permeates the ending so thoroughly, the audience feels shamed for rooting for her “find a man.”
PL: I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong there, but I like that we can all have our own views on it. Can we also talk about the nonlinear storytelling aspect of Gerwig’s version? That’s a huge reason I loved it as much as I did. We get to see the impacts of life decisions along with the girls’ mentalities while making them. I seriously thought Gerwig was snubbed by the Academy this year for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
JS: At least she was nominated in the screenplay category, instead of being shut out like she was in the directing field. The 2019 version had almost as many flashbacks and flashforwards as Lost and while many complained to have trouble following the threads, the nonlinear format added some spunk. But the 1994 film is magical precisely because, as late movie critic Roger Ebert said in his 1994 review, “It’s a film about how all of life seems to stretch ahead of us when we’re young, and how, through a series of choices, we narrow our destiny.“ Starting when the sisters are young, we get to experience their joys and pains with them instead of revisiting these moments.
PL: The ability to revisit these moments and evaluate their impacts, however, is what makes the 2019 version so enjoyable. It’s easy to think that our destiny is already predetermined or an inevitable series of events, but Gerwig shows us precisely why that’s not true. These women are in control of our lives, and by hopping back and forth between the past and present, we get to see how they manifest their own destiny. The ingenuity behind Gerwig’s film puts it in a league of its own. It’s heartwarming and gut-wrenching, hopeful and sorrowful, exciting and soul-crushing. That’s not to say the 1994 version isn’t an emotionally captivating story, as well, though. Both versions shine in their own ways.
Follow the link below to rent Little Women (1994) and Little Women (2019) on Sling