It’s hard to describe the aesthetic of PBS’s new two-part miniseries Little Women other than to say it’s Louisa May Alcott by way of Blake Lively’s dearly departed rustic Americana lifestyle-website, Preserve. There are flowers and kittens and snow angels and rowboats and handmade paper chains and maple syrup in mason jars. It’s Masterpiece for the Instagram generation, where sunbeams filter through snow-covered branches, meals are eaten on artfully mismatched china, every surface is adorned with velvet ribbons, and every scene is accompanied by Andrew Bird playing the mandolin (literally: he contributed to the score).
Little Women devotees might argue that Heidi Thomas, who wrote the adaptation, is only being faithful to the book, in which—you’ll remember—Marmee gives her daughters pastel-colored copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Meg makes her own jam. Part of what’s made the novel such an enduring classic for 150 years is how it connotes a different era, replete with hand-curled ringlets, embroidered slippers, and pink and white ice cream. But there’s something deliberate about the design elements in the series, just as there’s a reason boutiques festoon their doorways with artificial flowers and coffee shops agonize over the right shade of sage for their subway tiles. When you’re distracted by how lovely something looks, you don’t care quite as much about its fundamentals.
The stakes are high for any new Little Women. The last time the beloved novel about a family of four sisters on the cusp of womanhood was adapted for the screen was the 1994 Oscar-nominated film starring Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. The Australian director Gillian Armstrong gave that movie a decidedly feminist bent, even though she shied away from the f-word in promotional interviews. Thomas, who created the BBC/PBS series Call the Midwife—an unlikely cult hit of a show about nurses in 1950s London—seems to have been compelled by a desire to make the book more accessible to modern audiences. Hence the indie folk and the dried-fruit wreaths, and the amped-up sense of the Marches’ economic anxiety. But the result is a patchy, off-kilter kind of production in which the sisters, for example, giggle joyfully on their way to relieve the Hummel family from its ruinous, squalid poverty.
If there’s something to appreciate about this Little Women, it’s the casting. Maya Thurman-Hawke plays Jo, and her ethereal, slightly alien beauty and forthright manner (both of which evoke her Hollywood lineage) pair well with literature’s most famous tomboy. The English actress Emily Watson plays Marmee, the bold and unassailable matriarch of the family. Dylan Baker is Mr. March, a pastor who lost the family fortune years ago and is now ministering to Union soldiers in the Civil War. The 92-year-old Angela Lansbury plays Aunt March, a battleaxe of a woman whose fraught relationship with the family seems to come from her disdain for her nephew’s impracticality. And Michael Gambon, Dumbledore himself, plays Mr. Laurence (the Marches’ neighbor), veering in and out of an American accent that he seems to consider an irritant.
Thomas keeps many of the classic scenes from the book, including Amy’s (Kathryn Newton) pickled lime debacle, Meg’s (Willa Fitzgerald) scorched ringlets, and Beth’s (Annes Elwy) piano recitals for Mr. Laurence. But she rewrites almost everything in her own words, which sometimes works and sometimes feels oddly anachronistic. In one scene, Jo complains that most people “mellow out at Christmas,” but not Aunt March. In another, she tells Laurie she has to “make out like I’m having fun.” Again, it feels like an attempt to modernize a classic for contemporary audiences, but it doesn’t quite pay off.
Thomas does add a number of scenes that show a deep connection not just with Little Women, but with the life of Louisa May Alcott. Alcott idealized and sanitized her own family to create the Marches, and Thomas connects with the real Alcott history when she suggests that Beth’s shyness is actually profound anxiety, and that Mr. March is a dreamer whose lackadaisical approach to earning a living has cost the family dearly. “I’ve been working on my book for 20 years, and yes, it’s starting to bear fruit,” he tells her. “That is a wonderful accomplishment, father,” Jo replies. “And a luxury I am not convinced I have.”
The contrast, though, between these grittier moments of realism and the air of gauzy, 19th-century-Coachella costume party that hangs over the series is an awkward one. With a more era-appropriate score, the visual elements might feel less cloyingly twee (after all, the 18th-century craze for all things picturesque long predates the age of influencers). As it is, the overall effect is undeniably pretty but somewhat baffling, a bit like Instagrammable avolato. It’s a well-intentioned and updated Little Women, but not quite a classic.
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