With Greta Gerwig's new version of Little Women now in theaters, it's time to look back at the versions that have come before. But first, a note on what's not included in this ranking: I'm only ranking the major movie versions, so I'm excluding the lost 1917 British film, the lost 1918 American film, the 1978 TV miniseries starring Susan Dey and William Shatner, the 2005 Broadway musical (but watch this clip of Sutton Foster singing the one good song from the musical), the recent PBS miniseries, or the 2018 modern day movie version.
4. Little Women (1949)
A Little Women movie lives or dies by its Jo, and unfortunately, June Allyson wasn't a great Jo. Though I'm usually a fan of her work, Allyson's performance here overshoots headstrong and lands on just plain irritating. It's a shame, since all the supporting players have been perfectly cast - including Liz Taylor as Amy, Margaret O'Brien as Beth and Janet Leigh as Meg. Also, this version recycles the music used for the 1933 film, so it loses points for originality. Mervyn LeRoy directed.
3. Little Women (1994)
If you're a Little Women fan, you'll be a fan of this perfectly fine adaptation. Everything you want is there, including a spunky Jo played by the excellent Winona Ryder. It also marked the first time a women, Gillian Armstrong, directed a big-screen version of the story. But it's very straightforward, and the lack of any bold choices makes it hard to argue that this is a definitive version. It also makes the puzzling choice of having the role of Amy split between two actresses, one younger in the early part of the film and one older in the later part. Maybe this wouldn't bother me so much if Kirsten Dunst wasn't such a recognizable face these days, since it's a little jarring when she's replaced by Samantha Morton halfway through.
2. Little Women (1933)
Katharine Hepburn is the definitive Jo March. There's no debate on this. It's a fact. Hepburn is such a perfect match for the spirit of Alcott's character that, I'd argue, left a lasting impression on her iconic star persona, still burgeoning when this movie was made. All of the other elements are really strong here, too, as director George Cukor's light touch perfectly suits the material.
1. Little Women (2019)
While Cukor's film is the definitive adaptation of the novel, Greta Gerwig's is the best and most audacious piece of cinema. I don't know if that means it should be ranked higher than the 1933 one, but I'm putting at the top of this list. Gerwig's film deviates the most from the source material by chopping up the chronology and creating two intersecting timelines, one set during childhood and one in adulthood. It's a difficult trick to pull off, but it is wildly successful at contrasting the past and the present, underscoring the melancholic nature of growing up. The new film also works as a surprising piece of metafiction, in which the writing of the novel itself becomes central to the development of the themes. People like to complain about Hollywood endlessly recycling old stories, but a movie like this proves how vital and exciting new adaptations of stories we know well can be.
How would you rank the Little Women movies? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!