Drawing Little Women: Graphic Novel Adaptations of Alcott

It’s not a big secret that I’m a pretty big fan of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I’ve published poetry written in response to some of her works, reviewed a spinoff young adult novel, and visited her home of Orchard House multiple times. So when I saw, Jo: An adaptation of Little Women (sort of) by Kathleen Gros on the graphic novel shelves in the Tween Room at the Brookline Public Library, I had to check it out.

I’d already read another modern graphic novel adaptation of Little Women by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo called Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy that was published in 2019 (My dogs also ate my copy of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy this summer). Because both of these graphic novels are modern adaptations of Little Women, it seems almost necessary to compare them and look at the work they’re doing compared to Alcott’s original 1868 Little Women.

Adapting to Modern Times

Both books are modern adaptations of Little Women, placing Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy along with the various characters who join them along the way in current times and updating the scenarios they face with more modern ones (say goodbye to pickled limes). Part of this includes changing the setting. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is set in New York City while Jo adopts a more suburban setting. Jo contains additional narration in Jo’s blog, while in Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, Jo writes a journal and additional information is shared in emails from the various March sisters to their father.

What to do with Mr. March?

Speaking of Mr. March, in a modern setting he can’t be fighting the civil war, and both graphic novels have him deployed overseas in the US Military. Jo implies this through context clues (Mr. March seen wearing dogtags and with a military style haircut during a video call), and simply saying he’s overseas which connotes military work of some sort.

On the other hand, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy make this very clear through the girl’s emails and calls with their father. There’s even a great moment where Jo tells her father in an email that she doesn’t agree with war which I thought was a great inclusion. I’m also pleased that in MJBA that Mr. March does make an actual appearance in the story near the end rather than just appearing off screen or through a video call.

Character Changes

Both novels make significant character changes, primarily to Jo, though each deals with Beth, Amy, and Meg in their own way as well.

In Jo, the four sisters are white, while in MJBA the March family is a blended family. Jo is Marmee’s daughter and Meg is Mr. March’s daughter. Jo and Marmee are white while Meg and Mr. March are black. Beth and Amy are the children of both Mr. March and Marmee and are biracial. I liked this change, as it diversifies the story without making any changes to the closeness of the March sisters.

*slight spoiler ahead, read at your own risk*

The biggest character change that is made involves Jo, as she is queer in both novels and experiences a coming out storyline in each. I appreciated this change for many reasons given that Jo can be read as queer in Little Women, Alcott didn’t want Jo to end up with anyone, and biographical details point to the fact that Alcott herself may have been queer. In MJBA this also leads to a cool moment involving Aunt March which humanizes her as a character.

*spoilers no more*

Pausing at Part One

When considering the plot changes that are made to these graphic novel adaptations, largely only deal with the material that comes from part one of Little Women. Because there is not jump in time and the characters do not age up, likely due to the limited number of pages to work with in a graphic novel adaptation for young people, the romances, marriages, trials, and tribulations of part 2 of Little Women don’t play out on the pages.

(However Freddie, a character modeled of off Fredrich Baer is a delightful addition to Jo)

Beth Lives Another Day

Because these adaptations stop at part one, Beth doesn’t get sick for a second time, and so doesn’t die. On one hand, I appreciate what this does for sticking in the framework of part one, on the other hand I think this could do a disservice to young readers who discover Little Women through one of these graphic novel adaptations because Beth’s death is a big part of Jo’s character development near the end of the novel. Those kids are also going to be crushed when they actually read Little Women (or see Greta Gerwig’s adaptation).

I also found it interesting the way’s in which Beth’s illness was handled, in MJBA, we see Beth fall ill with what is revealed to be cancer, while in Jo, Beth’s illness happened before the story starts so we don’t actually get to see the impact this has on the March family.

Investing in Sisterhood.

Perhaps the biggest carryover from Little Women to both of these modern day adaptations is that they invest in sisterhood in a manner similar to Little Women, perhaps even more so given the lack of romances that we get by leaving out part two. The March sisters are at the forefront of the texts as they should be.

So Which is Better?

I would be remiss in comparing two graphic novels if I didn’t let you know which one I liked more. While I appreciate how Jo brings forth Jo’s queer storyline more, I wasn’t a huge fan of the art style which felt very muted. I thought Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy made some odd choices like introducing Mr. March’s mother (the girls grandmother) and sort of positioning her as a love interest for Mr. Lawrence which just felt odd and unnecessary. However, I far preferred the vibrant colors and the art style as well as the increased diversity of the text in a way that didn’t feel forced.

If you’re picking just one modern day adaptation to read, I would recommend Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. And of course, I’ll always recommend Little Women and while you’re at it, read Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

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