Netflix's Little Women isn't just another adaptation
If you want a faithful retelling of Louisa May Alcott's novel, the new Korean drama is a resounding failure – and that’s a good thing.
What would you do if you had money? This is the central question in Netflix’s latest Korean original, Little Women. If you’re expecting a faithful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, that question should make you think again. In the annals of Little Women adaptations – from the first lost film in 1917, to the Japanese anime of the 1980s (yes, Little Women anime is a thing), through to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version – this iteration stands out.
Directed by Kim Hee-won (Vincenzo) and written by Jung Seo-kyoung (The Handmaiden), Little Women follows the Oh sisters. Three women living in a different kind of poverty to their novel counterparts. Gone is the soft-natured Marmee encouraging her daughters to be kind and self-sacrificing while their father serves as chaplain in the Civil War. In their place is a cruel, inept mother and an absent father who gambled away the family savings before fleeing to Singapore.
The first chapters of Little Women the book cement the March family’s charitable nature as they donate their Christmas dinner to a poorer family. Little Women the series' first episode, however, sees Oh In-joo, played by Kim Go-eun (Guardian: the Lonely and Great God) and her sister In-kyung, Nam Ji-hyun (365: Repeat the Year) save money for their younger sister In-hye – played by Park Ji-hu, fresh from her breakout role in All of Us Are Dead – so she can take a school trip to Europe for her birthday. Only for their mother to steal the money and abscond to Singapore herself.
Despite this tonal change, the parallels between the Oh and March sisters are apparent from the off. Much like Meg, In-joo, who works as a bookkeeper for Orchids E&C, feels responsibility to provide for her sisters in their parents’ absence. In-kyung, rather than an aspiring writer, is a journalist for OBN who swigs tequila from a mouthwash bottle to keep from crying at sad stories. In-hye is a reserved artist, like Amy, attending a prestigious art school on a scholarship.
Each of these roles leads the sisters into the same mystery. In-joo struggles to relate to the privileged women around her. Instead, she befriends Jin Hwa-young (Choo Ja-hyun), a woman from a similar background. When she finds Hwa-young dead in her flat – and 2 billion won addressed to her in a locker – In-joo tries to find out what happened to her friend and the 70 billion won she stole from Orchids E&C’s illegal slush fund. A trail that leads her to aspiring politician Park Jae-sang (Um Ki-joon), who In-kyung investigates for OBN; all while In-hye paints his daughter.
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It’s a web of disparate narratives that, in the best tradition of Korean thrillers, is certain to converge as the story goes on.
If it wasn’t clear by now, this isn’t just another adaptation of Little Women. Netflix and TvN’s iteration eschews themes of perseverance and self-sacrifice. Notable, too, is the absence of an avatar for Beth (whose disability doesn’t fit into Korea’s outdated social mores). Similarly, the coding of Jo as a woman chafing against gender norms and their binary expectations is pulled back to In-kyung facing sexism in the workplace and In-joo dealing with a man with a foot fetish.
Instead, Little Women transports the basic tenets of Alcott’s novel into a cynical, money-driven Korea. All the better to fit the typical themes found in Korean thrillers: the division between rich and poor, and the corruption of government and business (which are never as separate as they should be).
It may feel like a betrayal of Alcott’s intentions, but it’s the show’s greatest strength. One that Alcott may well have approved of. Alcott, who regularly rejected femininity (she once said, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman's body”) – hated Little Women, and how it became synonymous with supposed “girlhood".
She preferred stories of adventure and independent daring – seen, at the time, as “boys’ stories” – and one can’t help but think Alcott would have loved these representations of her characters. In-joo doesn’t happily marry, rather she’s divorced from a conman. In-kyung isn’t trying to preserve the happy days of her family’s poverty, she’s attempting to uncover the corruption of a public figure. In-hye loves art, but she also sees it as a way to make money and break away from her family.
It may have been easier to create a Korean period piece that directly echoes the original novel – and so Little Women might have joined a plethora of average shows Korea has imported from the west. But in twisting every expectation of a Little Women adaptation, Jung Seo-kyung has created something daring and far more appropriate to the modern world.
Coupled with Kim Hee-won’s direction, which often lingers on wide shots that highlight the inequity between the Oh sisters and the privileged people around them, most traces of what we know as Little Women are gone in a show that bears more resemblance to the dark tones of Netflix’s The Stranger than the light, juvenile motifs of Gerwig’s and Armstrong’s adaptations.
This is a show about justifiably bitter women who, no matter how hard they work, cannot break the cycle of poverty they’ve been forced into. It’s a theme fans of Parasite will recognise, and a staple of Korean thrillers. It’s in this that the show improves upon previous iterations: it’s relatable. Not intended as a glimpse into sacrificial poverty but as a window into our own lives amid an ongoing economic catastrophe not of our own making.
If you come to Little Women looking for an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book, you’ll be disappointed. But stick around and you might start to recognise phantoms of Alcott’s Little Women before getting swept up in another tight, gritty Korean thriller that shows not every adaptation needs to be respectful of its source material. As an adaptation of Little Women, this show is a resounding failure – and that’s a good thing.
Little Women is available to watch now on Netflix.
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