Little Women (1994): Third Hollywood Version, Directed by Gillian Armstrong and Starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder

One of the most pleasant surprises this holiday season is Gillian Armstrong’s triumphant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Americana, Little Women, which arrived in town late and unheralded by its studio, Columbia.

I’m still partial to George Cukor’s 1933 version, made at RKO, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, mostly because of Katharine Hepburn’s luminous interpretation.

Cukor’s 1933 version, starring Katharine Hepburn

Hepburn, in the second year of her career, renders a heartbreaking performance as Jo March, the tomboyish aspiring writer, who “rebels” against the mores of her times concerning “woman’s place.”

The new movie, superbly produced by Denise Di Novi (who supervised many of Tim Burton’s works), is far superior to the saccharine, overly sentimental MGM picture, directed by Mervyn Leroy and produced by David Selznick, which starred June Allyson (in the Hepburn role) and Liz Taylor.

In l980, Gillian Armstrong, a sensitive Australian director who belongs to the same generation as Jane Campion, made a lovely movie called My Brilliant Career, starring Judy Davis as a miscast, an outsider who aspires to be a writer. In fact, when I interviewed Armstrong last week, she told me that she was hesitant to take the new assignment, despite persistent pressures from Winona Ryder, because of its similarities to My Brilliant Career.

Armstrong and screenwriter Robin Swicord have shrewdly resisted the temptation of updating the l868 novella so that it would register more relevant meanings to contemporary women. As it stands now, the movie is an historical account of women’s position in American society during the Civil War. But because the book was always imbued with a light feminist streak, it’s inevitable that audiences will draw parallels between women of yesteryear and today.

What makes this Little Women distinguished is its sumptuous production–it’s the only version to be shot on location, with Vancouver standing in for Concord, Massachusetts. It also boasts an accomplished ensemble acting by Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Davis as Amy (playing different ages in the girl’s life), Claire Danes as Beth, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Gabriel Byrne as Prof. Bhaer, and Eric Stoltz as John Brooke.

Still in her twenties, Ryder has become an icon of her generation, labeled by the media Generation X. Ryder is an appealing and attractive star, but the qualities that come through in her acting, in such diverse pictures as Dracula, Reality Bites, and Age of Innocence, are intelligence and a toughness that deep down masks emotional vulnerability.

This combination of qualities is perfectly suitable for embodying Jo March, a woman who defies the conventions of her times defining femininity. Ryder is greatly helped by Armstrong’s modulated direction, which conveys effectively how Jo’s restlessness and frustration are channeled into a creative life.

When I worked on the biography of George Cukor, I found an interesting letter that he wrote to Selznick, then at RKO. Apparently, it took some time to persuade Cukor to do the film, for the same reasons that Armstrong was hesitant. “It was always considered a little girl’s story,” Cukor told Selznick, “it always seemed awfully syrupy.” But once he read the book, Cukor conceded that he found it strong-minded and full of solid virtues: a heartfelt, multifaceted portrait of family life that propagates sternness, sacrifice and austerity.

I realize that in our times, when there’s more emphasis on dysfunctional than functional families, these values may be considered old-fashioned, but I recommend that you see this exuberant version of Little Women with your family and friends.