It had been two weeks since their discussion of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel, Little Women, had ended with Gwen’s surprise reveal of its graphic novel adaptation. The modern retelling –– Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo –– was published in 2019, to mark the 150th anniversary of the novel. As the cover made clear, the story had been updated to a modern New York setting, with an interracial March family and an expanded supporting cast.
“Most of the plot points match, at least to start out,” Gwen had explained. “You have the major scenes –– the opening at Christmas, Meg going to Vanity Fair, and so on. The second half is where the adaptation loosens.”
“I’m guessing they don’t end up married,” Dania suggested, flipping through the graphic novel. Gwen’s hand shot out to take the book back.
“Don’t skip to the end!” she chided.
“I just reread the original book, I know how it ends.”
“It’s not the same book, Dania,” said Eleanor.
“You should both read it. It’s an interesting companion to the original novel,” Gwen smiled.
“It looks nice enough,” Eleanor said. “How do they handle Hannah?”
“She’s gone,” Gwen said, sitting down. “The March family in this version is much more destitute financially. They have some stability, but only because the mother and Meg are both working two jobs to keep them afloat.”
“Well, the financial stability discussion should be much more robust this time around,” said Eleanor, her eyes lighting up.
“They seem younger,” Dania observed, looking over the cover. “Amy looks like she’s…ten or so?”
“She’s twelve at the beginning of the novel,” Gwen said. “You wouldn’t know it, by the way she acts. They certainly feel more like teenagers in this version, since they aren’t expected to marry before they’re twenty.”
“Mind if I borrow it first?” Eleanor asked, with a glance towards Dania.
“Go ahead,” she replied, waving the book away. “You’ll finish it in a day or two, I’m probably going to take a while.”
“Fair,” Eleanor smiled, and tucked the book into her bag.
– – – – –
As it turned out, Eleanor’s first read took a full week. Although she attempted to read the graphic novel at work, she felt a constant urge to check the book against the source material, at home. This wasn’t a story to be read passively.
Gwen laughed, days after lending the book, to see Eleanor hunched over her desk, parsing the original novel to match the moments in Terciero and Indigo’s retelling with their Alcott equivalents.
Dania blasted through the graphic novel quickly, but soon realized that she’d need to reread it to pick up what she had skimmed. On her first pass, she had almost entirely missed the introduction of Geoff Brooke, Meg’s prospective beau, for want of finding the kiss between Laurie and Jo a few pages beyond. It was only on a second read that she fully appreciated the way the graphic novel accounted for the character development of Amy’s trip to Europe, or Jo’s time as a governess, without having the girls travel.
Two weeks, then, passed before they reconvened, and Dania placed the well-worn copy of the graphic novel on the table.
“All right, let’s talk,” Dania said, “because I’ve got thoughts.”
“So do I,” Eleanor agreed. “You were absolutely right to bring this one up, Gwen, it’s so weird to compare the two.”
“There are many Little Women adaptations, but this one takes a different direction than most,” she explained. “It stuck with me.”
“Can we start with the illustrations?” Dania asked. “We’re going to get into the story, obviously, but let’s talk art style.”
“Sure,” Eleanor began. “It’s excellently designed. There are moments where the form itself helps to tell the story –– when Beth first finds the guitar in the Marquez mansion, the illustration shows her in the doorway, but the dialogue from another room is still included, with the speech bubbles leading back out behind the door.”
“I caught that,” Gwen said. “A great way to show offstage dialogue. The formatting also sets up clear rules, then breaks them in significant ways. Most pages have a white border, a line that the panels won’t cross so they don’t get too close to the edge of the page. But every now and then, a panel extends off the page.”
Gwen picked up the book and easily found one such example: the panel wherein Amy agrees to move in with Aunt Cath –– the equivalent of Aunt March –– during Beth’s illness. In a chapter of small panels, as characters sat in claustrophobic waiting rooms, to see Amy rendered in a full body image brought to the readers attention how much she had matured since the first chapter, when she had been mostly depicted curled in a ball, on the couch.
“I love that they regularly switch to a Super-Deformed style for wide shots, like they do in manga,” Dania pointed out. She found an appropriate example: an establishing shot of the Laurie’s home, the March girls rendered with dot eyes and streamlined silhouettes. “There are parts where that feels more expressive than closeups.”
“There’s a case here and there of reused illustrations, with the facial expressions changed,” Gwen pointed out. “But the more graphic novels I read, the more forgiving I am of that. I think Glitched is the only one so far that hasn’t done that.”
“It’s a lot of illustrations to finish,” said Eleanor. “This is certainly a more dynamic story than the original novel.”
Dania took a deep breath, and then continued carefully. “Are you sure?”
Gwen and Eleanor looked at each other, then back to Dania. “Are you about to argue that more happens in the novel than here?” asked Eleanor.
“You talk first,” Dania offered. “Make your case.”
“Well, it’s obvious that the stakes are higher here than they ever were in the novel,” Eleanor explained. “The March family is economically dire in narratively significant ways. We see the mom and Meg going to their jobs, as well as Jo’s more confrontational relationship with Aunt Cath. But there are subtler nods as well. The March girls spend time with Laurie because socializing elsewhere costs money. Meg experiences classist comments in the Hamptons, but Amy experiences them at school, too. There’s always a clarification, always an answer given for where the money comes from.”
“That’s most obvious with Meg’s arc,” Gwen pointed out. “I like how they handled her drive to get married. It’s not because she’s a romantic who longs to settle down. It’s because a rich partner will bring stability to her and the family.”
“Plus, people keep calling her out for thinking about marriage at seventeen,” added Dania.
“All that to say,” Eleanor continued, “it’s no longer a story about a family with a maid and a rich best friend. Characters have to take actions against their troubles to overcome them. It’s much less cerebral.”
“Oh, but that’s why I like the novel more!” Dania interjected.
She looked to the others, not meaning to have stepped in early. But she was impassioned, and the pair looked on invitingly.
“In the original book, all of the problems were things like relationships, or social issues, or…you know, stuff you can’t pin down so easily,” Dania struggled to explain. “The whole first half is written like this morality lesson, with Marmee coming in at the end of each chapter to ask the daughters what they learned. It’s understated, but tense, because there’s no easy answers about how to solve those issues. Right?”
“Sure,” Gwen replied. “The conflict centers on how they can find happiness without truly breaking from gender roles.”
“Except Jo, obviously.”
“Well, until the end.”
“I feel like the conflict in Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy is about people doing things,” continued Dania. “It’s what Meg does when she’s teased in the Hamptons, or how Amy responds to the taunting at school. Even Beth, when she gets sick –– all the dialogue here is about fighting the disease, not the moral questions of how her death will affect the family.”
“Well, wouldn’t that make it better?” Eleanor asked. “A story where people act on their troubles instead of merely suffering them?”
“It would be, except there is always an action to take,” Dania argued. “Little Women is, centrally, a story about people who have no real structural support. Jo cuts her hair off to support Marmee’s travels. Meg faces a husband who expects her to fill a role she’s not prepared for. Amy fails multiple times because Marmee knows she will learn from the experience. There’s never someone they can turn to for help –– Mr. Lawrence, sure, but that’s only financially.”
“Which is in the graphic novel, too.”
“But there’s more support in the novel, because it’s modern day! When Amy is teased at school in Little Women, the end of the chapter is the mom asking her if she learned something. In the graphic novel, they go to the school staff and put a stop to it.”
“Shouldn’t they?” wondered Eleanor. “What’s wrong with taking control of your own life?”
“Nothing, obviously,” Dania said. “But the point is, they can. In Little Women, they can’t. And that conflict is way more interesting to me.”
“Dania has a point,” Gwen stepped in. “Because many of the social hurdles in Little Women have been cleared 150 years later, the conflict of the story shifts from an intellectual to a tangible one. The characters no longer have one path for their lives, now they can make choices, and break the mold more easily.”
“Fine, but I still think that’s an argument in favor of the retelling, not against,” Eleanor said. “The ending shows the girls talking about what they want to be when they grow up, and each goal is tied in with the events of the story leading up to it. For an adaptation that had to be reverent to the source material while also fundamentally changing its ending, they did a good job of using those stories to support new character arcs for each sister.”
“They have a similar thread in the original, with the ‘Castles In The Sky’ discussion,” Gwen added. “Each sister talks about their dream life, and by the end, everyone’s dream has changed. Not because they couldn’t achieve it, but because their values shifted.”
“As a result of the gendered world around them,” Dania insisted.
“Yes,” agreed Gwen. “The sisters’ life goals in Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy change drastically from beginning to end –– but their values, the things that shape those goals, those never change. Because they don’t have to.”
“Because they have the freedom to pursue what they will,” Eleanor repeated.
“You can argue for the merit of either approach to conflict: centering it on action versus values. But both options make for insightful commentary on gender, and how it affects the minds of little women.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“I like the progressive elements in the graphic novel,” Gwen offered. “There’s more clear planting and payoff in the original, though. Some plot threads in the retelling bend away from the original without setting up a reason for the change. I didn’t buy Meg breaking up with Brooke at all –– all the setup implied they should have stayed together.”
“I felt the same about Beth getting sick,” Dania added. “It had a purpose in the original, to teach Jo something. But here, especially considering how that plot point concludes, it felt like it took up a lot of space for little payoff.”
“The new version captures the family dynamic especially well, and that’s always going to bring me in,” Eleanor admitted.
“Little Women is a classic for good reasons, and the most important, most universal elements, are captured in the graphic novel.” Gwen opened the book and was faced with the four sisters, heads shaved in solidarity with the sick Beth. They grouped together on her hospital bed, watching movies as a family.
“It’s a great thing to come out to celebrate the 150th anniversary,” Dania said. “Especially if you just reread the original.”
“It certainly makes you appreciate both a little more,” smiled Eleanor.
The three looked warmly to each other, and Gwen placed the new book on the table, beside its older counterpart. The trio looked on, at the two accounts of the lives of these four women they had come to know so well.
Image Credit: Little, Brown and Company