Monthly Archives: December 2011

Comparison shopping: Little Women

I had the idea for a compare/contrast piece a while ago, and I am forced to admit that I watched the first of these three movies nearly a year ago. But I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about how busy my year’s been, so let’s just dive in, shall we? I decided it would be fun and interesting to watch all three film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and to discuss their differences and similarities. I’d seen the modern adaptation before, probably not too long after it came out, but the other two, being more “classic,” were not really on my radar until a few years ago. I greatly enjoyed watching these films, and I would recommend any of them, although I think that they are reasonably different, despite sharing source material.

Little Women is the story of the four March sisters, who are growing up in New England during the Civil War. Formerly wealthy, their circumstances have changed and they must struggle not only to adapt to their new lives, but also to maintain their values and unique personalities in the face of adversity. Their mother, Marmee, and their father, writing to them from the front, teach and encourage them to remember those less fortunate than themselves. Meg, the eldest, struggles most against not having the same opportunities as her wealthier peers, and is concerned with being a proper young lady. Jo, the main character of the story, is tomboyish and independent. She dreams of being a writer. Beth is the sweet one; she’s frail, shy, and loving toward everyone. Lastly, there’s Amy, who is pretty, slightly spoiled, and artistic. The story follows these “little women,” as well as their friend Laurie, “the boy next door,” as they all grow up and discover themselves, each in her own unique way. Alcott’s novel has always been popular, with its simple realism, moral message, and engaging characters. It’s no surprise that it’s been adapted for film multiple times, and that each adaptation has chosen to highlight certain aspects of the characters and their story.
1933

The first film version was helmed by George Cukor, and starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo in an early leading role. She is joined by Frances Dee as Meg, Jean Parker as Beth, Joan Bennett as Amy, and Douglass Montgomery as Laurie. It won the Oscar for Best Writing, Adaptation, and received nominations for Best Director and Best Picture as well. The first thing to be said about this particular adaptation is that Katharine Hepburn is utterly perfect in the role of Jo. She was just made for it. Everyone else acquits themselves perfectly well (I seem to recall that Jean Parker’s Beth was particularly effective), but the story belongs to Jo, and there never has been and never will be (in my opinion) anyone who could play the part as well as Hepburn. Beyond that, I think this movie is the strongest adaptation. It’s black and white, which accentuates the simplicity of the story, and it highlights very faithfully most of the key scenes of the movie. It steers away, somewhat, from the more “sensational” plot points, but I think that must reflect on its place in history. That it chooses to focus more on the close-to-home struggles of the Marches, and their efforts to help the less-fortunate, probably resonated quite loudly in 1933, as opposed to scenes of fancy parties and travels to Europe. It’s a straightforward and emotive movie, very earnest and honest in its treatment of the source material. As such, I found it the most enjoyable, but in retrospect, I suppose it could be seen as a little boring. It’s absolutely worth a watch for Katharine Hepburn, though, so if you’re a fan, this movie is a must.

1949

I call this one the “pretty people version”. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starred June Allyson (Jo), Janet Leigh (Meg), Margaret O’Brien (Beth), Elizabeth Taylor (Amy), and Peter Lawford (Laurie). The movie plays like a shinier version of the original, in that it’s in color and everything is just a little more attractive and, well, “more,” but it mainly follows the same arc as the 1933 version. June Allyson is very boisterous, but fails to match up to Jo’s more understated moments, while Janet Leigh’s Meg comes off as positively bitchy. Margaret O’Brian was a popular child actress at the time, and is the obvious choice for Beth, but she’s a little much sometimes. The star here, unsurprisingly, is Taylor. She is perfect in the role of the simpering Amy. All in all, I think this version was intended to evoke the earlier, but really is “bigger” in a sense. Bigger names, Technicolor effects, and so forth. It’s great fun to watch Taylor, and Lawford’s certainly easy on the eyes, so I don’t wish to imply that it’s not a worthwhile film, but the 1933 version remains superior. This adaptation was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, but I find it telling that while the former won an Oscar for screen-writing, this one won for art direction. That sums up the differences in many ways.

1994

The third and final adaptation makes some marked departures from its predecessors. Obviously, the first two are not so much in recent memory, and the world’s a pretty different place, so this version reflects that. Directed by Gillian Armstrong, it features Winona Ryder as Jo, with Trini Alvarado (Meg), Claire Danes (Beth), and Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis as Amy. It is notable that this is the only time Amy is portrayed by two different actresses. Christian Bale stars as Laurie, and Susan Sarandon appears as Marmee, in a much bigger role than in the previous movies. The role of Marmee is actually the vehicle that powers the major differences between this adaptation and the first two. This version attempts to inject a fair amount of biographical information about Louisa May Alcott’s life into her story, and focuses less on her moral message than on the more subtle shadings of feminism that occur in the novel. It also features those more “dramatic” scenes that were omitted in the first two, and overall has a more melodramatic feel to it. While all of the actors are quite capable, I have to say that they are largely unimpressive and/or poorly cast. In particular, the petite and elfin Winona Ryder as boyish Jo, and Claire Danes as a sickly Beth who towers over her sisters and frankly, looks older than most of them, really detract from the film overall. Susan Sarandon makes an excellent Marmee, but doesn’t deserve the often-saccharine dialogue. Interestingly, Trini Alvarado shines as Meg – her character is developed the most and she plays it well. Despite winning some awards and receiving a Best Actress nomination, in my opinion Winona Ryder really isn’t strong enough to carry this movie, and her casting overshadows the entire ensemble for me.

When I started this project, I admit that I assumed the earliest version would be the best, and the latest version wouldn’t stand up. While I do still believe that to be true, I think that I have found things to appreciate in each version. The main achievement of Little Women is in its characters, and while the movies are inconsistent within themselves, there are performances in each that really bring the March sisters to life. The 1933 version, operating under the maxim that “less is more,” succeeds the most in bringing the story to life, but one has to give some credit to the 1994 version for what it tries to do. There’s a lot more meat to it, and it’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into the details, but the dialogue and the performances don’t (for the most part) match up, making it wildly uneven. The 1949 version is the most “entertaining” in its way. Bright, attractive people giving good performances within a charming story … what’s not to like?

All in all, I think these three movies stack down in chronological order, but it depends on what you like and want out of a literary adaptation. For faithfulness, watch the 1933, for entertainment, the 1949, and for heightened meaning, go with 1994. Watch Katharine Hepburn play Jo, Elizabeth Taylor play Amy, and Trini Alvarado play Meg. My final recommendation would really be to see all three, especially if you’re a fan of the novel, but I hope I have at least given you enough information for you to choose which one will best suit your interests. Unless you’re waiting for the blockbuster version in which Jo disguises herself as a boy, goes out to join the war effort, and blows lots of stuff up. They haven’t gotten around to that one yet, although I bet Michael Bay has at least thought of it.

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2011 Wrap-Up

I have been feeling horribly guilty, of late, at the level of neglect I’ve shown blogging in the past month or so. I have had the same movie out from Netflix for nearly 2 months, and just as soon as I manage to watch it, I can write a post I’ve been planning/working on for the entirety of this year. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to close it out before the year ends, but life in general (and December in particular) has been absolutely insanely busy.

I decided today to write a wrap-up of 2011, so I just looked back through my postings, and I do feel a little better. I definitely get a little short on reviews, but I had some fun lists, and I think I branched out in terms of trailers that caught my interest this year. That’s something I’ve noticed about my movie-viewing habits as a whole, actually. At year’s end, most of the movies that are currently being talked about are things I’d really like to see, and have already optimistically been added to my Netflix queue. That’s a pretty big change from my usual mode of only wanting to watch things that featured actors I liked, or were based on a book I’d read, or fit into a few narrow categories. I’m crediting the continued AFI project with broadening my horizons a bit.

Anyway, I wanted to sort of summarize the things that captured my interest this year, so here goes. The year in movies, according to yours truly.

Top Five Movies Seen (not necessarily released in 2011)

Favorite News Items/Trailers

Favorite Posts


 

Breakout Performer of the Year

 

 

I admit to not having seen that many of the films that were released in 2011, but in terms of my own notice of goings-on in the cinematic world, I feel that I would be remiss if I did not bestow this title upon an individual who captured not only my attention, but that of everyone in the movie world this year. I hereby declare Michael Fassbender as the first official Banana Oil Movies Performer of the Year. Despite having appeared in some successful movies prior to 2011, this is the year that’s made Fassbender a star. He appeared in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Shame, A Dangerous Method, and Haywire in 2011, and his performance in Shame has already garnered him numerous Best Actor honors, including a Golden Globe nomination. It won’t be a surprise to anyone if he picks up an Oscar nomination early next year. I personally have only managed to see Jane Eyre and X-Men, but I found him to be an absolutely electrifying screen presence, and I am truly looking forward to whatever comes next for this talented (and pretty darn handsome!) guy.

Honorable mentions: Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston

2011 Movies at the Top of my Netflix Queue

With a now-one-year-old around, it’s hard to get out to the movies, but there are plenty that I will be looking forward to seeing from my couch as soon as they’re released on DVD. Stay tuned for reviews!

  • Beginners
  • The Artist
  • Hugo
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Midnight in Paris

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who’s supported me in this endeavor over the past year. Most importantly, my husband and daughter; the former for listening to me babble about movies, and the latter for being a great sleeper so that we did manage to sneak in a fair number of viewings! Special thanks also goes to fellow movie blogger Ruth over at FlixChatter for always encouraging and inspiring me, good friends Emily and Ben for also listening to me babble and for sometimes assisting in post ideas, those friends who allowed me to subject them to A Fish Called Wanda, various other movie bloggers for many kind words of encouragement, and last but not least, to YOU, dear readers. Thanks so much for checking out my blog … I really love writing it, and it’s great to know that there are some who enjoy reading it. Best wishes for the holiday season, and here’s to more movie magic in 2012!

News, thoughts, and other nonsense.

Hello, there. Yes, I’m still alive. I won’t bore you with a bunch of excuses for being a slacker; I’ll just say life has been busy. But! The world of movies has also been busy, and there are plenty of interesting things to discuss. So let’s, shall we?

1. Momentum is building around a film adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. A lot of us nerds might be cranky about a movie being made, but realistically, it was going to happen someday, and I personally think that if it’s done well, it’ll make a pretty good movie. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s the story of a extraordinarily gifted boy who is recruited by the government to rid humanity of an alien enemy. That’s oversimplified, of course, but that’s the gist of it. There will be lots of special effects, and I think given the popularity of things like the Hunger Games series right now, it’s a natural choice for Hollywood (or whoever). The most recent news regarding the project is the announcement that Asa Butterfield, currently to be seen as the title character of Hugo, has signed on to play Ender. Given the positive buzz surrounding Hugo and Butterfield’s performance specifically, I think this is a good thing. (Has anyone seen Hugo? I’m dying to.) At any rate, in the new internet tradition of trumpeting every single casting decision from the rafters, I’m sure we’ll be getting up-to-the-minute news on this one. Apparently Harrison Ford is also being discussed? Ooh.

2. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yeah, Christmas, but I’m talking about the start-up of awards season. Despite all its flaws and intricacies, I love it dearly. I’ve particularly enjoyed playing with the prediction charts over at the Gold Derby website. It’s interesting to see who would appear to be a lock (Christopher Plummer for Beginners, yay!) and who doesn’t have as much buzz as one might like (Fassbender for Shame). I realize that having these discussions is silly when I haven’t seen any of the movies in question, and I know that a lot of people like to argue for the things they like without any understanding or appreciation of the “politics” involved, but, for me, all of that is part of the fun. I guess it’s sort of like fantasy sports, in some ways. It’s less about team loyalties and how good you think something/someone is and more about how it all shakes down when you look at all the factors.

3. In further Les Miserables news, we are now being subjected to an awful list of potential Eponines, including Lea Michele, Taylor Swift, and Scarlett Johansson. Given that Eponine’s got some great songs (my husband is rolling his eyes right now), I guess the best choice would be Michele, who has actually played the role on stage, but admitting that really depresses me. She just doesn’t fit with the rest of the cast, somehow. I think that Anne Hathaway is a poor choice for Fantine (clearly, CZJ was busy), but she might actually have served better as Eponine. Who’s your pick? I feel like I’m missing someone good …

4. Finally, a bit of movie-going research! You might recall that a few weeks ago, I posted about why everyone should see A Fish Called Wanda. Now, when I posted that link to Facebook, I got quite a lot of response from a particular group of friends, none of whom had ever seen the movie before. As it so happened, we were going to be in a position to get together with those people over Thanksgiving, and so we arranged a screening in order to educate them. They were all very kind to humor me and not only sit through the movie, but also provide me with a bit of feedback. And so, we’ll let the jury (ha ha, get it?) decide whether or not AFCW is a “must-see”.

Our viewing group was made up of a seven individuals, four women (not counting me) and three men. Now, full disclosure, one of the men present had seen the movie before, but he saw it with me (about a year or so ago) because I told him that he really HAD to, and so he still counts for the purposes of this very highly scientific study. So! Of the seven, only one declared that she flat-out didn’t like the movie, citing a lack of sympathetic characters and character development, which I can understand. She did acknowledge that it was funny, however. Of the remaining 6 people, two deemed it enjoyable, but not anything they’d have chosen to watch without coercion. The rest all gave it positive reviews, citing the excellent cast, comedic timing, and the performances of Kevin Kline and John Cleese, particularly. All in all, I think I am going to count this showing a success, and officially declare A Fish Called Wanda a truly “must-see” movie. I shall leave you with some poster-worthy quotes from my guinea pigs fellow movie fans. Enjoy!

A witty, keep you on your toes, don’t drink anything at the wrong moment or you’ll have your own spit take, delight that I would watch again. — Sarah
Better than a sharp stick in the eye! — Jake
John Cleese made the movie worth watching for me … three stars. — Heather
A charming and quirky little caper. — Sarah Jean
A very enjoyable movie overall! — Alex
Great ensemble, excellent comic timing and performance. Feel bad for Ken. — Ben
Certainly it’s funny and the clothes are hilariously awesome … the fish thing ruins the movie for me. — Jen