Heidi Thomas: adapting Little Women was a dream come true

Heidi Thomas adapts classic novels for television – so why was Little Women such a challenge?  

Little Women – Kathryn Newton as Amy

In 1970, BBC Television gave Little Women its famous “Sunday tea time” treatment. Aged eight, I had just read the novel for the first time. I turned on our black-and-white telly, wildly excited to see my favourite scene on screen – the iconic moment where Amy falls through the ice while skating.

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I can still recall the howling disappointment when, instead of crashing through a frozen lake, Amy merely stumbled into a tiny ornamental pond. I didn’t know about budgetary constraints at that age, but I knew when something failed to deliver the magic of a book I loved.

When the BBC called to ask me if I would dramatise Little Women for broadcast this Christmas, I said an immediate yes – on one condition. “Amy has to go crashing through the ice on a frozen lake.” I was promised this would happen.

Having now written six Call the Midwife Christmas specials, I’m no stranger to pretending it’s December in July, and am adept at wading through synthetic snow in flip-flops. Today, winter can be faked on film quite brilliantly, but it does cost money, and requires expertise. I will never give away the secrets of the wizardry that sees my Amy flailing and nearly drowning in fathomless, freezing water, but my heart almost stopped when I saw it on the screen. I’m not sure the actress, Kathryn Newton – retrieved from the depths with her skin tinged blue – will ever forgive me, but she played her part in righting a decades-old crime.

Kathryn Newton (Getty, mh)
Kathryn Newton (Getty, mh)

When scripting a classic novel for the screen, it’s vital to pick out and burnish its most essential moments. The more beloved the book, the bigger the challenge – and Little Women has been universally adored since its debut in 1868. It’s also the book I cherish more than any other I’ve adapted. I Capture the Castle , Ballet Shoes, Cranford and Madame Bovary were all very dear to me, but Little Women was the book I lived inside.

As a nervous child, I had escaped into its pages. The March family were cosy and sociable, and made me wish I had sisters. As a beleaguered teenager with two younger brothers, I took clues from Meg, Jo, Amy and even poor, fragile Beth as to the way ahead.

Now, as a middle-aged writer at work on a television series, I fell in love all over again. Re-reading the book, I found a study of the human condition so intricate and moving that it took my breath away. It was as welcoming, warm and funny as ever, but it was also truthful, brave and reflected life in all its imperfections.

I thought, at first, that I had simply forgotten some of the details. John Brooke fighting in the Civil War jumped off the page as new to me. Meanwhile, Marmee was so much more than a saintly, embracing matriarch – she had become a strong, complex character with challenges of her own. The reason why I discovered new depths in it was obvious – I was no longer a “little woman” myself, but a grown one. Having once walked in the footsteps of the March girls, I now stood in their mother’s shoes.

Emily Watson (Getty,mh)
Emily Watson (Getty,mh)

There was only ever one candidate for the role of Marmee – the peerless Emily Watson. Dame Angela Lansbury and Sir Michael Gambon were soon on board as Aunt March and Mr Laurence, and our family began to take shape.

The casting of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy was a delicate process. Our team, led by the brilliant young director Vanessa Caswill, met dozens of candidates on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost all were completely unknown. Executive producer Sophie Gardiner and I then sifted through a lengthy shortlist of audition tapes.

Little Women (Getty, mh)
Little Women (Getty, mh)

The Welsh actress Annes Elwy was cast first, as anxious, introspective Beth. Next came Willa Fitzgerald, whose spark and grace made her just right for Meg. We decided we didn’t want to cast a child as our initial Amy, then switch to a different actress halfway through the story. The piquant, funny Kathryn Newton proved irresistible. We searched longest, and hardest, for Jo.

Everyone who reads Little Women has a favourite character, but it’s rare to meet anyone who doesn’t see something of Jo March in herself. She is angry, clumsy, restless, independent and afraid; she’s sensitive, generous and loves more deeply than she can bear. The fiercely bright Maya Hawke, awkward and ravishing by turns, captured her essence perfectly.

Maya Hawke (Getty,mh)
Maya Hawke (Getty,mh)

Author Louisa May Alcott based the novel on her own youth, spent as one of four sisters in the town of Concord, Massachusetts. After visiting her home, Orchard House – now a museum – the production team were determined to re-create its almost startling simplicity. The slightly crooked wooden building has often been evoked on screen, but generally made to look larger, and given a Hollywood gloss. With the museum director, Jan Turnquist, on board as historical consultant, we strove to replicate the intimate scale and warm paint colours of the original family home.

As the cosy room sets took shape at our studio base in Ireland, I felt more aware than ever of the realness of the March girls. In our series, their clothes – a permanent cause of worry in the book – are sometimes shabby, and their hair looks as though they have done it themselves. Because of course they would have done it themselves, just as Marmee makes her own bread and mends everybody’s stockings. The sisters dig in the garden, too, and we see Jo chopping wood and cultivating sunflowers for her hens.

We worked our way through all four seasons in the specially landscaped grove surrounding the March house. We planted roses and redcurrants, and featured falling leaves and snow. We also had several litters of kittens, which I thought would be a handy metaphor for the passage of time. They ended up underfoot, and doing nothing they were told. Various crew members took them home, and I would have adopted one myself, but didn’t want to subject it to the trauma of a plane ride.

I brought back memories that will last far longer. On set one day, I took a shortcut through the March house. Entering the lamplit parlour, I saw Jonah Hauer-King, who plays Laurie, sitting at the piano in his shirt sleeves, flanked by Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo. They were rehearsing a song, scheduled for filming later on. That one moment contained everything I ever imagined as a child.

I walked away, unseen, wishing my eighty ear-old self had known she would stand in the March house parlour, within touching distance of the girls she wanted as her sisters. That eight-year-old is long gone, but it does not matter. There are some books that you live inside. And others that live inside you.

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Little Women is on Boxing Day, Wed 27 Dec 8.00pm, Thu 28 Dec 8.30pm BBC1