Gritty Little Women and Cultural Gentrification

With the announcement of a gritty and dystopic Little Women, we look at other Hollywood instances of cultural gentrification.

In case you’ve been busy living your life this week, perfectly unaware of the developing ruminations for next year’s pilot season at the CW, you might want to sit down for a moment: CW, in partnership with the production arm of CBS Studios, is developing a “hyper-stylized, gritty adaptation” of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century coming-of-age novel Little Women.

That’s right, the March girls are going to become half-sibling frenemies on the cusp of discovering a Philadelphia-set conspiracy and “dystopia;” rather than cutting her hair for the Union cause during the Civil War, Jo may now be cutting throats; instead of skating on ice, the sisters will be fighting the urge to push each other through it; and presumably, the only Christmas carols getting sung will be in F-minor, hauntingly accompanied to the slow-motion slaughter of Aunt March. That old bat is going down hard.

If it’s not obvious, I’m quite skeptical about a “gritty” reboot of the Little Women classic. While never my favorite story growing up, it’s always been easy to see the appeal for this picturesque depiction of adolescence on the homefront with American daughters. Indeed, it’s this very 19th century backdrop that made Alcott’s musings about family, young love, and death quizzically universal—perhaps causing it to even be more wistfully profound as an adult.

Throughout its 150 years of printed existence, young adults of both genders have been drawn to this story of sisterhood and great expectations, which in turn has led to countless stage and screen adaptations, including quite memorably George Cukor’s 1933 take with Katharine Hepburn as central heroine Jo March, and even more triumphantly the version by Gillian Armstrong in 1994 with Winona Ryder in the lead role. Naturally, each of those films is vastly separated by contemporary gender politics, audience expectations, technology, and simply reinventing Alcott’s story for “modern” viewers.

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However, something significant has occurred since that previous, two-decade old iteration. First, “young adult” has ceased to mean a demographical detail and instead has been redefined as a genre. And secondly, there’s been a cloying rise in the assumption that to “modernize” means to nullify what made a story or character so endurable in the first place (i.e. different).

Increasingly, rather than modernizing a “brand” to current sensibilities, Hollywood is gutting the interiors, demolishing the historic sites in the backyard, and putting in a condo with a rooftop swimming pool on the shattered foundations. This isn’t a fresh, modern take on Little Women; it’s a beige gentrification job intended to keep the brand recognition but discard anything threateningly unique. If the actual series is anything like its high-concept premise, all this Little Women will need is a Starbucks down the street, and it’ll be ready for tenants.

By any measurement, to continue cultural significance, a story (like a person) must change with the times. And with a few notable exceptions, no literary adaptation is so great as to refuse reinvention for a new audience that might find a context long ignored by previous generations. In this way, modern pop culture can be as fluid with literature and folklore as the Royal Shakespeare Company is before mounting their all female-trapeze variation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet, the beauty of such cultural reappropriation is that (ideally) the performers never forget the letter or intent of the Bard.

Unfortunately, whether by supply or demand, modern audiences are evermore offered the same package in classical wrapping.

Much like Little Women, Lois Lowry’s The Giver has been retroactively grandfathered into the modern “Young Adult” genre. Pleasantly, this meant that Jeff Bridges could finally produce and star in his long-gestating The Giver film in 2014 after Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent (among others) proved there was an audience for this sort of adolescent dystopia. But less pleasant was that the contours which made The Giver such a classic were smoothed over by studio group-think: central character Jonas got aged up from 12 to 16 (but played by a studly 24-year-old Brenton Thwaites); Odeya Rush was thrown in to be a requisite love interest; and Jonas was offered an authority figure to battle, played here by another acting legend mugging for a paycheck (this time a gray-haired Meryl Streep instead of Divergent’s bored Kate Winslet or the admittedly awesome scenery-chewing of Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games).

Consequently, everything special about The Giver was ironed out for the picture to conform with a post-Katniss world, making it strangely appear to be a clone of Veronica Roth’s unoriginal Tris Prior book series instead of the other way around. Ultimately, rather than being about matters of societal collectives and an allegory on social mobility and “free will” within the confines of civilization, we were left with an action film more preoccupied with a star-crossed teen romance.

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But this example or even the whole “genre” of Young Adult is hardly unique.

Indeed, as Hollywood seems to march toward the latest flavor-of-the-decade craze—shared universes—every franchisable brand is being reexamined under a super-powered lens. Hence, four attempts to make Robin Hood currently in production in Hollywood with nary one ignoring what popular franchises they’re mimicking.  Sony Pictures is fast at work on Hood, which promises to bring an Avengers meets Mission: Impossible take to the Merry Men. But first it has to beat Disney’s Nottingham & Hood to the big screen, which Disney views as a medieval redo on the Pirates of the Caribbean brand. Meanwhile, Universal Pictures is almost stopping all pretense with its classic Universal Monster horror legacy, preferring to gussy it up to look as much like what Marvel Studios is doing as possible.

“We don’t have any capes [in our film library],” lamented one Universal executive last year during a roundtable interview. “But what we do have is an incredible legacy with the monster characters…and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre [and] put it more in the action-adventure genre, and make it present day.”

In other words, we’re about to get Dracula as a superhero (if 2014’s Dracula Untold doesn’t already count).

Admittedly, Universal was truly burned when they remade The Wolfman in 2010 with lavish sets, Oscar winning makeup designs by Rick Baker, and an A-list cast. But then again that film went into production without a finished script and (ultimately) a steady director. Perhaps instead of spending so much money on trying to turn the wolfish Lawrence Talbot into a CGI-laden blockbuster, consider updating it to modern sensibilities that maintain the qualities of the hapless, doomed sad sack everyone loved/feared?

Hell, John Landis already did it once with his 1981 movie, An American Werewolf in London, which was a modern ‘80s retelling of The Wolf Man in all but name, right down to the Universal logo introducing an ill-fated American tourist who’s damned on British moors.

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Ultimately, the real missing ingredient that seems to be dogging everyone from Universal Monsters to the four studios trying to build their way to a Friar Tuck spin-off is an unwillingness to look at these “brands,” or stories, on their own terms. Robin Hood has been adapted a hundred times to the big screen and was successful for many of them, be it Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, or even an animated fox. And when it does work both financially and critically, it’s because it is still about a swashbuckling altruistic hero, and not an interlocked series of films or (in the recent past) Russell Crowe’s medieval Gladiator sequel that advocated for libertarianism.

The most successful reinventions are the ones that realize that there is no real patent to be had on reconfiguring the wheel. Instead build your vehicle around that solid foundation.

It’s the only way to explain the yawning chasm of differences between Warner Brothers’ $100 million budgeted Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and BBC’s austerely produced Sherlock. One constructed slick and eye-popping 19th century sets while the other had the deerstalker-sized cajones to place its Baker Street partnership in the modern day. One of which featured a a classically professorial Moriarty in its sequel and an expected waterfall climax, and the other had a nebbish Sherlock Holmes fanboy with homoerotic tendencies blow his head off on top of a hospital rooftop.

And yet, one was a much better Sherlock Holmes adaptation than the other with cultural penetration that outlasted its opening weekend. And hint: it wasn’t the one that was trying to turn the good detective into Tony Stark in Victorian drag.

Rather than chase the latest flavor of the month with Iron Man, BBC utilized a decimal percentage of the WB marketing department’s reach to make Benedict Cumberbatch an international star—they created a modern take on the character that reinforces for audiences why he was loved in the first place.

Who knows, we might be saying the same thing in a year about CW’s gritty and dystopic Little Women, assuming it goes to series. But somehow, I doubt it.

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