Mr. March is away serving in Afghanistan rather than Antietam. Beth is diagnosed with leukemia instead of scarlet fever.
But the underlying story is the same: Jo wants to be a great writer and “do all the things,” and her stories are rejected by a male-dominated publishing industry. She finds support and inspiration from her sisters — marriage-minded Meg, spunky Amy and saintly and sickly Beth, as a classic family is reimagined in the 21st century.
Filmed in Utah, an updated movie adaptation of “Little Women” opens in theaters nationwide Friday — 150 years, almost to the day, after Louisa May Alcott’s book first published on Sept. 30, 1868.
Director and co-writer Clare Niederpruem chose Utah as a substitute for Alcott’s Concord, Mass., with a mansion in Murray serving as the March family home. She found actors she knew from her work on Utah movie sets to play sisters Meg and Beth. Other connections helped her draw Hollywood veteran Lea Thompson to the role of Marmee, the March sisters’ supportive mom.
Alcott’s classic has been adapted to film many times — and a star-studded production directed by Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) is due next year — but always as a period drama. When Niederpruem and Kristi Shimek, a Brigham Young University alumna who’s also the film’s editor, started writing a modern-day version of Alcott’s book, they didn’t know if it would adapt well.
“We just found it was working as we went through the writing process,” Niederpruem said. “It relates so much to our lives today. … It was really more the overall themes of love and hope and loss, and growing up.”
Actor Sarah Davenport, who plays the lead role of Jo, thought the story transferred easily into 2018.
“The journey, the arc, is completely the same [as in the book],” Davenport said. “All of these struggles and lessons and journeys that we take, we’ve taken them since the dawn of time.”
‘I got the message’
Thompson, like many girls over the past 150 years, read “Little Women” as a teen. Back then, in the 1970s, she didn’t really get Alcott’s story about the four March sisters, who share adventures and secrets in Civil War-era Massachusetts.
“It didn’t resonate for me because of the time. It just seemed so weird and outdated and obvious. … It always felt so far away from my own experience,” said Thompson, best known to audiences as Lorraine McFly in the “Back to the Future” movies.
Thompson said that when she read the script by Niederpruem and Shimek, “I got the message of the story for the first time.”
“The idea that women can have their own paths, and that they’re OK — that was really powerful to me,” Thompson said. “We all come at being a woman from a different perspective, and we should accept that in each other.”
As girls a few decades after Thompson, Davenport and Niederpruem also read the book.
“I grew up with it being a part of my childhood,” said Niederpruem, who lived in Massachusetts and once took a field trip to the Alcott house in Concord. “I reread the book a couple years ago, and related to it a different way, now that I’m a grown-up.”
“It was kind of a gauntlet for me,” Davenport recalled. “It was the biggest book I’d ever seen growing up, and I was like, ‘I’m going to read that,’ like a challenge.”
Purists may scoff, but modern adaptations of classics are nothing new. Think of “10 Things I Hate About You” (based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”) or “Clueless” (adapted from Jane Austen’s “Emma”) or Benedict Cumberbatch’s tech-savvy Sherlock Holmes.
“I’m going to be a total nontraditional English professor: It’s all good — any retelling, any twist on it,” said Becky Jo Gesteland, associate dean of Weber State University’s Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities. “The good stuff holds up to whatever treatment. And the more people that can be reached, the better.”
Gesteland has shown her students the 2010 comedy “Easy A,” in which Emma Stone plays a high-school senior hit with false rumors that she’s promiscuous. The movie name-checks Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” which Gesteland said “is a chore for students to get through.”
Showing students a lighter version “might entice them to read the book,” she said.
‘This is mine’
Niederpruem said her adaptation is “coming from a place of love and admiration. We like to think about it as our love letter to Louisa May Alcott, something we can still use as advice in our life today.”
Davenport said that when she first read the script, “I said, ‘This is mine.’ This feels like I’m really attached to this already.”
Still, Davenport, who grew up in Georgia and whose biggest acting job before this was a recurring role on the Freeform science-fiction series “Stitchers,” had to go through the audition process.
“Audition rooms are vile, and theirs was not. They had the best energy. … They were beyond kind,” she said.
Davenport said that by the end, she was crying, and so was her scene partner: the movie’s executive producer, Maclain Nelson, who directed the LDS summer camp drama “Once I Was a Beehive” and is also Niederpruem’s husband. (The couple lives in Los Angeles, but much of their film work brings them to Utah.)
“She had that energy that I felt we needed for Jo,” Niederpruem said of watching Davenport in her audition. “She kind of consumes a room, and I wanted that feeling for Jo.”
Niederpruem’s work in Utah introduced her to other March sisters. She directed Melanie Stone, who plays Meg, on an episode of the filmed-in-Utah science-fiction series “The Outpost.” She acted alongside Allie Jennings, who plays Beth, in “Once I Was a Beehive.”
Elise Jones, who plays the younger version of Amy (Taylor Murphy plays her as an adult), was in a Brigham Young University production of “Mary Poppins” when Niederpruem saw her and asked her to audition. “My first assistant director said he’d never seen someone that age adapt to film that quickly,” Niederpruem said.
Landing a star
Getting Thompson on board took connections. Niederpruem had taught an acting workshop in Georgia with actor Lucas Grabeel, who signed on to play Laurie, the boy next door and confidante of the March girls. Grabeel — who is practically an honorary Utahn, from when he starred in the three “High School Musical” movies made here — got a script to Thompson, who played his mother on the TV series “Switched at Birth.”
“It’s a classic part,” Thompson said. “It’s not a very show-offy part. It’s not a part that’s super difficult for me, because I am a mother.”
Thompson, who has directed the drama “The Year of Spectacular Men” (starring her daughters, Madelyn Deutch and Zoey Deutch) and episodes of “The Goldbergs” and other TV series, wanted to show support for Niederpruem as a young woman director and writer.
“I wanted to do what I could to support her vision," Thompson said. "Being an indie filmmaker myself, it becomes this secret society, this kind of co-op where you try to help each other.”
On the set, Niederpruem said, Thompson “wanted me to feel I knew the story I wanted to tell. … But she also wanted me to be open to ideas she had specifically about her character. … It was a lot just about talking through things before we shot, that allowed her to build a little bit of trust in me, and she felt comfortable enough that she could say something to me if she felt we were totally messing it up.”
Notably, several members of Niederpruem’s principal crew — including editor/co-writer Shimek, cinematographer Anka Malatynkska, production designer Lauren Spaulding and costume designer Emily Jacobsen — are women, still a rarity on a Hollywood film set.
Camaraderie on the set
Filming in Utah is familiar to Niederpruem, whose first job on a set was as a production assistant on a micro-budgeted 2011 monster movie, “Orcs!,” filmed here.
“I fell in love with filmmaking in Utah,” she said. “I fell in love with this feeling of camaraderie and family. Being on a film set is like going on a crazy trip with someone, and you become very close.”
Davenport said she felt that camaraderie, as the low-budget production housed the actors playing the March sisters together during filming in June and July of 2017.
“[Allie Jennings and I] would ride into set together; she would drive,” Davenport said. “I would talk about how we’ve never seen these streets before, because we’ve never been to Utah. We might as well just accept them as Massachusetts, where [the Marches] grew up. As far as I’m concerned, we’re in our hometown right now. … Being somewhere unfamiliar gave ourselves a little license for imagination.”
Davenport joins an elite group of actors who have played Jo. The list includes Katharine Hepburn in the 1933 version, June Allyson in a 1949 remake, Susan Dey in a 1978 miniseries, Winona Ryder in a much-beloved 1994 telling, and Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 production.
Davenport said Ryder is her favorite Jo, but that before filming, “I tried to distance myself from memory of any of those portrayals, because I wanted to make my own thing. I feel Jo would be disappointed in any other method than that.”
Gesteland, the Weber State professor, is a Hepburn fan, but said every version has its worth. “Each time it’s adapted, it captures the time in which it’s adapted,” she said.
“Little Women” is durable, Niederpruem said, “because the story is about nothing and it’s about everything. It’s really about a family’s journey. … The book is so much just about the human condition, and exploring the different stages of life. That hasn’t changed in 150 years. Death is still hard. Family is still complicated.”