Viewer Guide: Little Women and Hello, My Name is Doris with Richard Peña

October 12, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s classic is Little Women, the 1994 feature film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved coming of age novel, directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Autobiographically inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s own family, Little Women recounts the story of the March sisters, all coming of age in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. With their chaplain father away at the front and under the quietly steady supervision of their mother, affectionately nicknamed “Marmee,” the sisters navigate the transitional years of adolescence, confronting various crises that steadily pull them toward womanhood. Wynona Ryder stars as Josephine—more commonly referred to as just “Jo,” an aspiring writer and the tomboy of the family. Trini Alvarado stars as elder sister Meg, with Claire Danes as the sensitive Beth. Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis share the role of youngest sister Amy,  Susan Sarandon plays the indomitable Marmee, and veteran character actress Mary Wickes plays the  girls’ crusty but wealthy Aunt March. The men of Little Women are represented by Christian Bale as the neighbor boy Laurie, Eric Stoltz as Laurie’s tutor John Brooke and Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer, a German ex-pat whom Jo meets when she launches her career as a writer in New York City.

First published in 1868, author Louisa May Alcott undertook writing the novel at the request of her editor, who asked her to write the type of “girls story” that would be popular with readers of the day. Alcott was initially reluctant, but encouraged by her father Bronson, she proceeded with the assignment as a “money project,” breaking the narrative in two parts, yet writing in her diary about having to force herself to “plod along.” An immediate success upon its publication, Part One sold out quickly, with Alcott delivering her manuscript for Part Two just three months later on New Year’s Day 1869. While certainly inspired by the autobiographical story of her own family, Alcott took some creative liberties, particularly when it came to the characterization of her father. A prominent figure in the transcendentalism movement and friendly with great minds of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, in reality Bronson Alcott was both overbearing and often unable to provide a steady income for his family, with the Alcott family frequently sinking into outright poverty. Scholars have eventually come to believe that Alcott also drew inspiration for her novel from the early life of her mother, Abigail.

Over the 150 years since its publication, Little Women has garnered its share of both advocates and detractors. But perhaps the novel’s enduring popularity stems from the desire of each generation to recast the undeniably powerful narrative within the social mores of each successive era. After two early silent film versions and two later Hollywood adaptations—the first directed by George Cukor in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn, the second directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1949 with June Allyson—director Gillian Anderson’s sensitive and handsomely produced film was in fact the fifth theatrical movie version. There have almost been too many television adaptations to count, and most recently a multi-part BBC production aired on PBS’ MASTERPIECE. The novel has also found its way into musical theater and has even been adapted as an opera. But wait, it’s not over yet—a contemporary retelling has hit movie screens this year, with yet another film version reportedly in the works from director Greta Gerwig.


This week’s indie is Hello, My Name is Doris, a 2015 comedy drama directed by Michael Showalter.

Sally Field plays Doris Miller, a sixty-something single woman taking her first tentative steps in life after the death of her invalid mother, finally finding herself on her own for the first time after serving as her mother’s caregiver for most of her life. Her brother and sister-in-law urge her to get rid of her mother’s house on Staten Island—along with everything inside of it—as Doris has clearly crossed over the line into being a hoarder. Trying to shake her post-funeral daze, Doris’ only other reliable solace comes from her feisty longtime friend Roz, played by Tyne Daly.

On her way to her data entry job at a Manhattan office, something remarkable happens in the packed elevator: a handsome new co-worker named John, played by Max Greenfield, is forced to crowd into her. And even more remarkably, instead of ignoring her as if she’s not even there, he begins to make polite small talk to cover their awkward close quarters. And from such a small seed a mighty oak of erotic attraction begins to grow inside of Doris, unleashing a confusing volcanic passion that Doris initially doesn’t know how to handle. Inspired by self-help mantras, Doris decides to do something she’s never done before: she is going to “Go For It,” throw caution to the wind and launch an all-out assault on John as her romantic conquest, regardless of how improbable a quest it seems likely to be.

Essentially a reflection of the entrenched sexism of the male-dominated film business—or is that simply society—there seems to be no end of movies about romances between older men and younger women. But Hello, My Name is Doris actually tackles a subject that remains relatively taboo in American culture: a romance between an older woman and a younger man. From Sunset Boulevard to The Graduate to Harold and Maude, the outcome is usually unhappy or downright tragic. True, while Doris does make quite a mess of things, and doesn’t get her man in the end, at least the film approaches the subject with humor and understanding, without the inherent revulsion that usually characterizes other such May-December romances. A popular entry at various film festivals, the film was released theatrically in 2016, with Sally Field later honored with a Best Actress nomination by AARP’s Movies for Grownups Awards in 2017.


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