I have mixed feelings about the upcoming Little Women movie.
Sure it has a great cast and a director who loves the book, but it will never be the same. Like many bookish, nerdy 90s kids, I believed that the books were always, always better than the movies. I grumbled that the Lord of the Rings movies weren’t faithful to the books and I clean refused to watch the last few Harry Potter movies. The movies, long as they were, could never get all the words in the books – I mean, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory weren’t even funny. Nor could they capture all the elaborate fan fiction I was writing, with its “Strong Female Characters” and exciting plot twists. Little Women was one of my favourite books growing up. Meg, Jo, Beth and, Amy were young women navigating the world together. Jo, especially, was everything I wanted to be when I grew up – funny, confident and a writer. Would Little Women ever be as perfect on screen?
Now, as I’ve got older, I had to admit that not all movies were the unimaginative, budget-constrained, lowest-common-denominator-appealing entertainment my snobbish teenage self had thought them to be. The Godfather is a bloody brilliant movie. I even had to admit that The Devil Wears Prada and Bridget Jones’ Diary, were a teeny bit better than the books – no one, no one in my fanfiction was as deliciously evil as Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, or as self-consciously silly as Renée Zellweger’s Bridget. And frankly, The Devotion of Suspect X wasn’t even close to Drishyam in entertainment value. But these are short books. Surely, it isn’t possible to put a long-form novel on screen and still tell a great story?
Or is it?
In my 90s home, cable television was called the idiot box. All you could watch were mega-serials with flimsy plots and very dressed up women, dubiously dubbed cartoons on Cartoon Network and Friends if your parents didn’t catch you watching. But unbeknownst to me in my pre-broadband world, television was changing. The Sopranos was first, letting the story of a mafia don unfold on screen like a novel. Not long after, David Simon took his experiences as a crime reporter in Baltimore (and the book Homicide, no less!), and turned them into The Wire.
TV wasn’t mindless anymore. It was a means to tell a story, at leisure, with the kind of attention to detail you would expect in any great novel. The actors could really act, and the stories were raw and real. I found myself gripped as the stories of Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell unfolded before me, the emotional roller coaster no different from the finest novels. Even the sitcoms were changing – shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine went far beyond the tired comedy tropes of Friends and Seinfeld, to make truly wonderful jokes.
And so it was that I, a book snob if there ever was one, found myself watching glued to the screen, and admitting that some of those shows were…well, they were majestic, spectacular works of art. Take Wolf Hall, Mark Rylance’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels on Thomas Cromwell, which captures the sombre, dark mood of the times and the inside of Cromwell’s head. Or consider Sharp Objects, which took Gillian Flynn’s eponymous novel, added some chilling performances by Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson and turned it into a fantastically terrifying watch. Or Sherlock and Elementary, which located fiction’s most beloved Victorian detective in the present day, showing that no one ever really tires of great detective stories. I found myself reluctantly admitting that I really looked forward to the adaptation of Good Omens; and really enjoying every second of the show.
Television isn’t perfect – not even David Tennant and some clever use of Queen songs can be as good as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s writing – but it’s a pretty awesome way to tell stories. You can devour television, binge-watching all weekend as you would any unputdownable page-turner, or you can savour it, stretch it out, watch a tiny bit every day as the finale inches ever closer. Movies require an investment, a trip to the cinema, three hours of your time, popcorn of questionable quality. Television is more forgiving – always there for you at home, on your own couch, just like an old friend or a great book.
Which brings me back to Little Women. Sure, I will watch it – I mean, who wouldn’t watch Meryl Streep play Aunt March – but two hours of Meryl Streep will never be as good as the book. A TV show though? I would wait with bated breath for it.
Anupama is a policy researcher who still wants to be a writer when she grows up. She claims to tweet at @dishonblequote, but mostly just follows cute animals.