Little Women, the 19th-century classic American novel by Louisa May Alcott, is the story of four sisters – their trials and triumphs, successes and failures – set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Inspired largely from Alcott’s own life, the novel is that rare beast: a critically acclaimed work that continues to sell even today.

While the book has seen many adaptations on film and stage, including a 2017 BBC One series and an upcoming movie by Clare Niederpruem, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film is widely believed to be definitive. It was nominated for three Academy Awards including one for its lead actress, Winona Ryder.

The book, published in two parts, is the imaginatively drawn portrait of the March family: Mrs March and her four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (from oldest to youngest). For most of the first part, the father, Mr March, is away. Serving as a chaplain, he is ministering to the soldiers fighting the Civil War, a conflict that redefined the nation and its conception of itself.

Alcott is a writer of rich detail. She describes the snug setting of the girls’ home in Concord, Massachusetts, with an unerring eye for splendour. This is particularly impressive since the Marches are not well off, having lost all their money. From sewing together on a quiet evening to staging one of their elaborate plays, the March siblings are shown living a life full of love and vigour.

Alcott is especially adept at developing each of the four sisters as full characters. Even as they represent common traits – the devotion to altruism, for instance – the sisters stand apart from one another. Meg, the eldest, is fond of luxury, having been born before the family’s circumstances became strained, but has adapted well to the new situation.

Jo, the heroine of the novel who is believed to have been modelled after Alcott, is a tomboy who dreams of escaping her feminine limitations and finding success as a writer. Beth is the most tender-hearted, with simple desires and no great ambition to chart her own course. Finally, Amy, the youngest, is the family’s pet who shows promise as a painter and ultimately becomes the most successful of the sisters in the conventional sense.

The other major character is Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, the girls’ neighbour in Concord, who develops a fondness for the March sisters partly due to his loneliness (he lives with his grandfather). Born into a family considerably better off than the Marches, Laurie is liberally permitted his artistic wishes (he dreams of being a musician). Through Laurie’s pining for a connection with the sisters, Alcott reinforces a central theme of the novel: the importance of familial love above all other considerations.

A resounding success in its time, Little Women redefined the so-called women’s novel. In focusing on its characters’ ambitions, not least their desire to emulate a mother who is keenly into social work and a father who assists the war effort, it moved away from what was disparagingly known as the “domestic” novel. But it wore its feminism lightly, and perhaps for that reason, more consummately.

Jo does become a writer, for example, but it is not the vampire fiction she writes as a free bird in New York that brings her success. It is when she returns home to Concord and heeds the advice of her friend (and future husband), Friedrich Bhaer, that she begins writing a book about her own family, which ultimately gets published and becomes a bestseller. Unlike her creator, Jo settles into marriage and domesticity. It is a tribute to Alcott’s skills as a novelist that these choices seem both organic and well-deserved, resisting the modern literary critic’s attempts to paint them as compromises.

While the book, at close to 500 pages, takes a leisurely approach to developing the characters, the film, at a little under two hours, must achieve the same goal quickly and without the benefit of a narrative voice. Anderson is helped in this by a stunning cast. Susan Sarandon plays Mrs March, Ryder is Jo, Trini Alvarado is Meg, Claire Danes is Beth, Kirsten Dunst plays the young Amy and Samantha Mathis her older version. Christian Bale plays Laurie, while Gabriel Byrne is Bhaer.

Each of these castings is pitch-perfect – Sarandon, despite little screen time, leaves a lasting impression as the strict but loving Marmee. Ryder as Jo is a surprising choice since the book’s Jo is a more androgynous character than the petite actress who was barely in her 20s when the film released. Yet, Ryder plays the part to perfection, punctuating her character’s active nature with a softness that is her own.

The men too are well-cast. Bale transforms from the Marches’ boyhood friend to a potential suitor – and the moustache that signals this change is ably aided by the actor’s versatility. Byrne plays Jo’s older, professorial beau, and his sheer physicality goes some way in outlining a contrast with the wispy Bale of the film.

Little Women (1994).

The risk with adapting a book as populated with scenes and imagery as Little Women is the loss of important material. Robin Swicord, who wrote the screenplay, avoids this pitfall by selecting scenes that don’t just take the plot forward but also accentuate the relationships between the sisters.

This is true right from the opening sequence, in which the girls are preparing to welcome their mother on Christmas night. “My sisters and I remember that winter as the coldest of our childhood,” Jo tells the viewer, before the scene switches to Marmee reading a letter from the girls’ father. With cries of jubilation at the occasion and frowns of worry for the fate of their father, the girls kiss their mother good night. They return next morning to a sumptuous breakfast that they decide to give away to a poor immigrant family.

This simple sequencing, selected piecemeal from the book, immediately signals a familiarity that the novel takes longer to establish. The dialogue stays true to the novel – little Amy, for example, has a habit of mangling words – and the rushed sense of a household teeming with life is especially apposite for a film that contemplates the divide between domestic bliss and the persistent demand to make something of oneself in the larger world.

That said, the film successfully makes a larger statement about the arc of the girls’ lives beyond the private sphere. Two scenes in particular stand out. One is when Laurie approaches Jo with a proposal for marriage, which Jo declines. Bale is terrific as the broken-hearted Laurie – his eyes convey both hurt and surprise. When he finally marries Amy, he makes good on a promise he had long ago made himself, and which he repeats to Jo during this scene: since the beginning, he had longed to be a member of the March family.

Little Women (1994).

The other scene is Beth’s final night. She has lived for some time under the shadow of scarlet fever but now there is no hope. She has a long conversation with Jo, who has returned from New York to nurse her: “Why does everyone want to go away?” she asks Jo. “I love being home. But I don’t like being left behind. Now I’m the one going ahead. I am not afraid. I can be brave like you. But I know I shall be homesick for you. Even in heaven.”

That entire subplots need to be given up during an adaptation from book to film is understandable, but something else happens here that is related to the mediums themselves. The dialogue between Jo and Beth above, for instance, is interspersed with authorial remarks in the book, which makes for a sort of running commentary on the action being described.

While this is natural for the written medium, a film can – and Little Women does – overturn this dynamic. Not only is there no other voice to grapple with, the film gives wings to the imagination by offering flesh-and-blood people as stand-ins for the viewer’s abstract notions. We are aghast at the equanimity with which a sickly Danes utters those grievous words. The reality of the film, not to mention its compactness, charges these scenes with an energy that is somewhat dissipated in the book.

I came to the book after watching the film, and this experience both helped and hindered my reading. While I was grateful for the visages leaping from the page as I read about the exploits of the March sisters, I was also exasperated by the long scenes where Alcott does little more than lovingly describe a household that I had already come to know so well from the film.

And that perhaps is the hallmark of a truly great work: its ability to inhabit its space so completely that it surpasses its original medium in adaptation. In that respect, the book, because of the film, is an unqualified success.

Little Women (2017).