This year, in search of a new Christmas tradition to embark upon, I decided to return to a text–both literary and cinematic–that I have tinkered with inside my mind for years, but had put aside for quite some time: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and for our more specific purposes here, the 1994 movie version starring Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Samantha Mathis, Trini Alvarado, and Susan Sarandon.
My initial preoccupation with it, long ago, was in exploring its potential as a theater piece. It’s been staged already, as both a musical and non-musical play (and, again more to our specific purposes here, filmed many times)—but during a lengthy study of stories about strong-willed women, I found Alcott’s book to represent an especially appealing challenge when it came to trying to figure out a fresh way “into” what might make the story special and relevant with actors and a live audience. I have some length of notebook pages stuffed away, along with one basic song, not to mention lots of memories of frustrated urges to connect with the material more than I was ultimately able to manage. It bothered me for a long time, wanting to know it and love it as so many people have–and just never getting there.
The material became much more personal to me when I was close to someone who did know it, and love it, and understand it, far more than I did. When I decided to come back to the movie this year, looking for something to write about, or observe, especially in relation to the fact that its opening scenes take place at Christmas…and, after all, it was time to write up something about Christmas…
…what moved me immediately in the movie’s opening moments is the interesting way in which Little Women takes the occasion of the holiday to show us how, depending on one’s circumstances, Christmas can be just as much about “absence” as about “presence.” We get this by way of the immediate attention paid to a letter the March girls receive from their father, who is at a great distance, serving as a Union chaplain during the Civil War. The girls’ mother (Sarandon) reads the letter to them as they are huddled around her in the warmth of their New England home, and the children are so moved by its generosity that they pity his circumstances and regard their own hardships as trifling by comparison.
And yet, of course, it’s impossible for the girls to completely remove themselves from their own concerns—and when the stubbornly free-spirited, creative, and independent-minded Jo (Ryder) retreats to her bedroom, she remarks upon how the restless workings of her imagination are both a comfort and an engine that fuels her yearning for the life-changing, the reframing of oneself.
I turned away from the images and just listened to the dialogue again. This particular sequence in the movie’s script, with the exception of some minor “time for bed now” transitioning that I edited out in my mind, suddenly rang out like poetry to me. It became something you could take right out of the scene and repurpose in the form of free verse, and still take in as a purely sensible—but also haunting and evocative—journey along a single string of thought.
Somehow this minor, fiddling experiment made Little Women a bit less alien to me than it has been in the past. I’m happy to own up to that. The overwhelming goodness, the expansive fullness of the love the Marches openly express to each other…all this and more, part of a world that so often struck me as purely that of fairy tales. Until I had the good fortune of being part of a world that resembled it more often than not.
So this tiny “poem” from the opening of Little Women is what I will offer to you for the holiday. In the brief space of these lines you see reassurance, sadness, empathy, self-critique, coping, cheer, fantasizing, and love. This was a Christmas present I just gave to myself; my gift to you will be to suggest that you take up this story again (whether you prefer this terrific version, the Hepburn, or the Liz Taylor filming of the story) and become inspired to see your own truths emerge from the enjoyment of a classic movie.
My dearest family: I am well and safe. Our battalion is encamped on the Potomac.
December makes a hard, cold season for all of us so far from home.
I think of my girls day and night, and find my best comfort in your affection.
I pray that your own hardships will not be too great to bear.
Give them all my dear love and a kiss.
Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night.
I’m a selfish girl.
Oh! Little ones. It’s Christmas Eve—Father wouldn’t want us to be sad now.
Late at night, my mind would come alive with voices and stories and friends
as dear to me as any in the real world.
I gave myself up to it, longing for transformation.