The main title sequence for PBS’ “Little Women” is sublime in its simplicity. As a tune is plucked out on a banjo, soon joined by a fiddle and guitar, watercolor flower and bird sketches either bloom or fly thanks to stop-motion animation. It only lasts 30 seconds, but it’s modest, clear, heart-stirring, and utterly without guile. It’s the perfect encapsulation of why Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century tale of the four March sisters continues to appeal to this day.
“Little Women” was part of many young girls’ childhoods, required reading from mothers who had also been inculcated in the March sisters’ lessons on how to be good and find meaning in domesticity and virtuous deeds. Incredibly moral and square by modern standards, this should feel dated but it doesn’t. The “Masterpiece” adaptation manages to do what previous versions didn’t execute nearly as well: transport the viewer back to that time and yet still feel fresh and modern with the clarity of its message.
Set during and after the Civil War in Massachusetts, “Little Women” centers on the titular March sisters: responsible eldest daughter Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), tomboyish Jo (Maya Hawke), compassionate Beth (Annes Elwy), and the vain Amy (Kathryn Newton). When we meet them, they live in genteel poverty without much parental guidance because their pastor father (Dylan Baker) is off ministering to soldiers in the war and their mother Marmee (Emily Watson) has gone to him when he falls ill.
Unlike the shorter film versions of “Little Women” in the past, the PBS miniseries gives the story three whopping hours (split into one hour for the premiere and two hours the following week). Finally, the Marches’ story, which spans several years in the novel, gets the proper time to unspool and breathe at an unhurried pace, part of the reason for this version’s success. It is able to faithfully portray the majority of the sisters’ individual experiences, something that the past versions often had to truncate. The passage of time is felt, the nuances in interactions are more clearly portrayed, and characters have the time to evolve naturally. It also draws out far more humor than previous versions may have not had time to enjoy.
There’s not a weak link in the ensemble, beginning with the no-brainer casting of the great Angela Lansbury as the demanding Aunt March and Emily Watson as the warm and frazzled matriarch Marmee. Standouts also include Newton (“Big Little Lies”) who is the walking and talking embodiment of the impish, blonde-haired and blue-eyed beauty from the novel, and Jonah Hauer-King as the dimpled, charismatic rogue Laurie Laurence. Both bring just enough of devilish spirit and humor that it elevates their characters, who could come off as spoiled and petulant.
Ultimately, though, this is Maya Hawke’s vehicle, the first that she’s driven in her acting career on screen. And what a debut it is. Every production of “Little Women” hinges on who’s cast as Jo — whether it’s been June Allyson, Katharine Hepburn, or Wynona Ryder — to be the outspoken freethinker whose heart beats for her family and whose pen is poised to create genius. Jo’s early feminist spirit has always been the entrée for modern women into the Marches’ sphere. Her attempts to navigate what it means to provide for her family while steadfastly maintaining her independent ideals regarding relationships has fueled arguments for decades.
Hawke, who is the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, simply dazzles. As Jo, she’s earnest, vibrant, and unselfconsciously coltish. Her direct gaze and husky voice are magnetic, and with this portrayal, it’s not hard to understand why Laurie is drawn to the animated and singular Jo, despite her every protest. The debate over that lopsided romance is one of the most enduring conversations about “Little Women,” with each new iteration attempting to shed light on Jo’s mental state and their dynamic. This PBS version has entered the fray in a way that may sway the opinions of longtime fans.
PBS’ “Masterpiece,” known for collaborating on lush co-productions of historical dramas like “Victoria” and “Downton Abbey,” delivers an equally gorgeous rendition of “Little Women” but with a major difference. Instead of doubling down on grand sets and elaborate costuming, it’s bent on capturing nature and simplicity. After all, the Marches don’t have much in the way of material possessions and therefore rarely attend fancy events or have nice frocks. Much of the time the March sisters try to make do with their shabby attire by making over dresses, letting down hems, and disguising soiled gloves.
Instead, what we get are scenes with natural light, the March sisters with unruly and windblown hair, a surfeit of kittens (that cat is always pregnant it seems), and views of the outdoors to mark the change of the seasons. The way it celebrates the simpler pleasures is more straightforward and charming, which in itself is impressive, because it instills these values in the viewer.
Beautifully produced and faithful to the original story, the miniseries also captures the joyful spirit of the novel despite its many heartaches. For every generation comes a new “Little Women,” but PBS’ version promises to be the go-to standard for a long time to come.
”Little Women” airs in two parts beginning Sunday, May 13 at 8 pm ET and continuing Sunday, May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”