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'Little Women' review: Luminous adaptation of the Alcott classic

Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Annes Elwy as Beth

Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Annes Elwy as Beth and Maya Hawke as Jo in "Little Women" on MASTERPIECE on PBS Sundays, May 13 and May 20. Credit: MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC and Playground

THE SHOW “Little Women on Masterpiece”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on WNET/13, concludes May 20 at 8 p.m.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT With the Civil War underway, and Mr. March (Dylan Baker) away near the front in Washington, the March sisters and their devoted mother, “Marmee” (Emily Watson), must make do and happily manage to do exactly that. The eldest, Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), is a paragon of virtue; there's also painfully shy Beth (Annes Elwy); and Amy (Kathryn Newton), the youngest. Then there’s Jo (Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman). She’s rambunctious, independent and talented. Naturally, next-door neighbor Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) is intrigued by this unique spirit.

Meanwhile, a very special bonus in this latest “Women” adaptation by “Call the Midwife’s” Heidi Thomas: Angela Lansbury plays the March family matriarch, Aunt March.

MY SAY What’s this — another “Little Women”? There have been (take a deep breath) anime versions, operas, musicals, at least two TV miniseries, a dozen movies, including two silent ones, and that more-or-less recent all-star 1994 theatrical with Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst. “Little Women” isn’t a book but an industry that spans centuries and genres. Why this fascination? Why another “LW”?

There are many (many) ways to approach these questions, and as it would happen, “American Masters” will offer the perfect one next Sunday, May 20, after this latest adaptation wraps. “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women” (WNET/13 at 10 p.m.) is a superb exploration of Alcott’s life (over extended dramatizations, she’s played by veteran stage actor Elizabeth Marvel).

It also emphatically proves what generations of fans already knew or suspected: Jo March was Alcott herself. Into Jo she poured her full humanity — her anxieties, love, grief, ambition, joy, passion and, especially, humor (Marvel interprets this humor as wryly ironic). A radical reconfiguration for literature and culture of the time (1869), here was a woman who could think and feel and be all that she was meant to be, and certainly didn’t need a man, or “Laurie,” to get her there. Actresses as accomplished — and varied — as Ryder or Katharine Hepburn could find something new and fresh to say about her because there always would (and will) be something new and fresh to say about her.

All this, naturally, puts the onus — a considerable onus — on a relative newcomer with two famous and accomplished parents of her own. Maya Hawke’s Jo has luxuriant curls that fall nearly to her waist, and initially that striking bounty of hair is her defining characteristic. But when it’s famously chopped off to pay passage for “Marmee” to Washington, she must adjust her identity and herself. Hawke adroitly manages both, and has little choice in the matter because “Little Women” is, after all, a coming-of-age story.

Her Jo is as fully human and alive as you’d want her to be, and need her to be. When Amy burns pages from some juvenile fiction Jo has labored over, Jo doesn’t merely slap the offending sister, but throws a hard right that nearly decks her. In the closing minutes of this adaptation, her beloved father advises a grieving daughter to “sift through all the pain and grief. There are words there. There’s a woman there, and it’s you.”

There sure is, and Hawke is just the latest to successfully discover who this woman is.

BOTTOM LINE A luminous adaptation, with Hawke as one more memorable “Jo” in a long and glorious line of them. And absolutely watch the “American Masters” portrait on Alcott next Sunday, too.

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