LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The book "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott was written in the 1860s. And the beloved tale of the March sisters has been made and remade for TV and film ever since.
(SOUNDBITE OF "LITTLE WOMEN" ADAPTATION MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Jo, you look splendid.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Josephine March) I feel perfectly miserable with 19 hairpins all sticking straight into my head. But damn me, let us be elegant or die.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Jo, where have you been?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What kept you so long? I must say.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Josephine March) Well, Aunt March croaked as she always does and I lost my temper.
WINONA RYDER: (As Josephine March) Now, I want you to do all the pages that I've marked. I won't have a sister who is a lazy ignoramus. And don't sulk. You look like a pigeon.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, imitating pigeon sounds).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the newest masterpiece adaptation airing on PBS, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are together again in their snowy New England home as they face the trials of growing up in the Civil War. Joining us now is Heidi Thomas, who adapted the book for this series. Hello.
HEIDI THOMAS: Hello, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What a legacy there we heard. You know, this is such a beloved book. And it's aged well, this story, which is so modern in many of its sensibilities.
THOMAS: It really is. I first read the book in the very late 1960s as a little girl of 8, and I have seen, I think, most of the adaptations. But I deliberately didn't revisit them whilst I was preparing my own adaptation because I wanted to go straight to the source. I wanted the book to speak to me and to the actors who were portraying the characters and then to speak to the audience beyond that. I wanted to see what was in it that still sang out and was still relevant.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. For me, Jo becoming a journalist, not getting married to the wealthy boy next door was groundbreaking when I read it. It seemed to sort of light a way into the future that wasn't - that was different from all the other books that I had read up to that point.
THOMAS: I think the lovely thing about Jo as that character is when you first meet in her middle to late teens, she's chafing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE WOMEN")
MAYA HAWKE: (As Josephine March) I should have gone away with father in disguise, signed up as a drummer boy and done my duty as he has.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Jo, I don't think that's allowed or even possible. Besides, I can't think of anything more disagreeable. Why would you want to sleep in a tent?
THOMAS: And yet, by the end of, really, the second novel, "Good Wives," she's found her place in the world. She hasn't even necessarily had to break rules, just make them or remake them in her own image.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And for people who don't know or don't like "Little Women" - and apparently there are those people out there.
THOMAS: I don't know those people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does this version offer them? Should little boys and men be watching this, too?
THOMAS: Well, I actually found - when I revisited the novel as a woman in my mid-50s, I found Laurie a really interesting, multilayered character - someone who's had a loveless childhood, who is adopted into a very loving but slightly fractious family.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laurie is the boy next door.
THOMAS: Oh, yes. Laurie is the boy next door - Theodore Lawrence, to give him his full name. But I think that why shouldn't men identify with female characters? Women are always being encouraged to identify with male protagonists in fiction. Interestingly, my husband, when he saw a screening of the very first episode - he didn't know the novel at all. And when he came to the screening, he said afterwards - we weren't sitting together. He said, I cried four times. And one's first response is, why only four times? Why didn't you sob throughout? And I said, why did - but I said, why did you cry? And he said, first off, because it's good. And I think he was just relieved - tears of relief. But as a teenager, he had had an episode of agoraphobia. He had a very, very anxious episode where he hadn't been able to leave the house or engage with society. And he found Beth's journey towards Mr. Lawrence's door really profound - you know, the idea that she tries two or three times to break over the threshold of her own home and go somewhere that's frightening for her. And I absolutely love that - the idea that as a grown man in his 50s he, was really identifying with I'm rooting for a girl in her teens in a novel that's 150 years old.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about some of the casting and of course the great Angela Lansbury, who was in this, as she plays Aunt March. What is it like to write for an icon like that? Does it change the words? Does it change or is it just in the delivery?
THOMAS: There are two layers of iconography when you tackle a character like Aunt March. And that character is played by Dame Angela Lansbury. In the first instance, Aunt March is this sort of vinegar-toned woman who comes across as a spinster quite often in the popular imagination. She's actually a childless widow. And I think when you take that into account, you find a soft underbelly to the character that you can excavate, that you can examine. So, on the one hand, I tried not to be too overruled by Aunt March herself. She's actually quite a frightening character even on the page. And once I had sort of leapt over that wall, I found hidden corners to her. And we were always conscious that we would want to get the biggest star possible to play this role. There are some magnificent theatrical dames out there - Dame Angela being absolutely the top of our list. And what you have to do is make that role worth playing. And in the book, she does disappear from the page more or less after Meg's wedding. And I was very keen to bring a little more of Aunt March's reasoning and her presence and her soul into the latter part of the scripts because I wanted to make this role worth Angela's while.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess my last question is, why do you think this story still resonates? What do you think it brings to a new generation?
THOMAS: Honestly, I think a story about young women finding their voices and learning how to sing in a world that does not always make things easy for them is never going to be irrelevant. You know, I just think this is an experience I had. It's an experience my mother had. And now I have - I have no daughters of my own, but I have god-daughters and nieces, and they are going through similar experiences. They have to find out - not according to the modern trope - who they are. But in order to find their place in the world, they have to find out who they are not. And I think that's something the March girls accomplish with considerable spirit, ease and elegance to be - well, maybe not ease because we see them go through a lot of pain. And yet, they all celebrate what they have and inhabit their life experiences utterly. Is there a better lesson for the modern world? I don't think so.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Heidi Thomas, the writer behind the new adaptation of "Little Women." It begins airing tonight on PBS. Thank you so much.
THOMAS: Oh, Lulu, it was lovely talking to you. I can tell you know the book really well and that's always so nice.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.