Let’s say you’ve never read Little Women before. You’ve never seen any of the previous movie adaptations, either, but you’ve recently fallen in love with the whole, fine, admirable March family in Gillian Armstrong’s glowing new film version, so you run to the bookstore and buy the new tie-in paperback edition of Little Women — the one with the cast photo on the cover, the one that says ”now a major motion picture from Columbia Pictures starring Winona Ryder.” Yes! you think, a lively, unneurotic novel about lively, unneurotic women! You dive in. And you read a sentence that goes like this: ”Dear me, how delighted they all were, to be sure!” And ”’What the dickens does the fellow expect?”’
And you think, Dear me, how can I relate to the curlicued locutions and sedate dialogue of a 100-year-old writing style? So you take a break. You reflect on how you enjoyed Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in Disclosure, Barry Levinson’s sleek new movie adaptation of Michael Crichton’s swift and well-oiled best-seller about sexual harassment (with a willful, manly twist) in the high-tech workplace. You pick up Disclosure. And you read this: ”’Phil, I’m telling you. She did everything but rape me.’ He paced angrily. ‘Phil: she harassed me.”’ And ”No matter how he thought about it, how he tried to put it together in his mind, Sanders could see no good outcome. He was being screwed.” And ”Wearing just shorts, he padded into his little office. There were no faxes. He switched on his computer and waited while it came up. The E-mail icon was blinking. He clicked it.”
Now, this language you can relate to. You gulp down the book in two hours and emerge satisfied with the quick pleasures of the well-calculated plot. Some stuff is different in the movie version-subplots and secondary characters are jettisoned; Stephanie, the other (and older) high-ranking company woman, looks considerably more elegant than her book description as ”a tall, bony, awkward woman who seemed resigned to her lack of social graces”; Meredith is more directly ruthless and cartoon-aggressive, less schizy and unhinged in her behavior. Everything, indeed, is more ruthless and aggressive in the movie, everything (in the screenplay written by Paul Attanasio) is simplified and pared down to the dramatic basics. But the book — written, clearly, with a cinematic eye — rattles along bracingly: Disclosure is, undeniably, what Jo March might call a dickens of a read.
You will, however, probably never pick it up again. Nor, probably, will you ever see another movie adaptation made 5 or 10 or 20 years from now. Because Disclosure is very much a work of the moment, as time-dated, as terse, and as provocative as an E-mail message that you eventually delete: Sexual harassment is not about sex, it’s about power. And men sometimes feel powerless, too.
You will, though, go back to Little Women. And I promise, if you are patient with the language and generous about the impossibly idealized domesticity that the author promotes, you will slip into Louisa May Alcott’s world as easily as a key into a lock. You will read some description of family bonds and struggles and squabbles and observations — perhaps this image of impossibly good Beth’s face as she lay dying: ”It was no paler and but little thinner than in the autumn, yet there was a strange, transparent look about it, as if the mortal was being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining through the frail flesh with an indescribably pathetic beauty.” And I swear something immortal will shine through Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century prose. Gillian Armstrong’s cinematic version of Little Women is now being praised as ”definitive.” But so was George Cukor’s more than 60 years earlier. In another 60 years, I’m certain, there will be plenty of room for still another movie about the lives of young women. And the smart moviemaker will look to Little Women for fresh ideas. Disclosure: B Little Women: A