"Little Women": The British -- with lots of our help -- try an American classic


elThere are many good things about PBS' "Little Women" remake, from plus production values to extraordinary work by Maya Hawke as Jo. And at the core are characters who still move us, 150 years after they were created. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There are things we
expect from a film on PBS' “Masterpiece”: The script will be very
smart, the actors will be very skilled ... and the story will be very
British.

But now comes
“Little Women.” It's a thoroughly American story – even if some
people forget that.

“When it went out
in Britain, some people were tweeting, 'Why do they have American
accents?'” screenwriter Heidi Thomas said. “They don't perceive
it as an American novel, but as a universal one.”

Set in Concord,
Mass., it focuses on four sisters whose dad is in the Civil War.
Globally, it has sharply impacted some people ... and gone unnoticed
by others

“I was brought up
in England and we didn't read 'Little Women,'” said Angela
Lansbury, who plays the great aunt. “It wasn't part of our required
reading.”

Many English people
read it anyway – Thomas was 8 or 9 when she did -- and saw the
movies. The classic character of Jo was Katharine Hepburn in 1933,
June Allyson in '49, Winona Ryder in '94.

Now Maya Hawke has
the role. “I have been sort of in love with that character since
the 8th grade,” she said. This role “was one of the
most terrifying and thrilling opportunities that I've ever had.”

And almost the only
opportunity. For Hawke – the daughter of movie stars Ethan Hawke
and Uma Thurman – this is the first TV or movie role.

“We wanted to find
actors who were starting out in their careers,” Colin Callender,
the film's producer, said of those playing the sisters. “You
haven't seen them, with one exception, in anything else.”

That sort of depends
on what you've been watching. Willa Fitzgerald (who plays Meg) did
one season of “Royal Pains” and two of “Scream.” Kathryn
Newton (Amy) did the “Big Little Lies” mini-series and was the
older daughter in the final season of “Halt and Catch Fire.”
Hawke and Annes Elwy (as Beth) arrive virtually unseen.

Elwy is Welsh, but
the other young actresses fulfilled a sort of compromise between the
two producing forces, one British (BBC), the other American
(“Masterpiece”).

“Every attempt
would be made to cast the young women with American actresses,”
said “Masterpiece” chief Rebecca Eaton. “And the older people
with, as Colin used to say, 'British acting royalty.'”

These are regal
actors – Emily Watson as the girls' mother ... Michael Gambon as
the rich neighbor ... and Lansbury, who has had three Oscar
nominations – the first one 73 years ago, when she was 19 – and
18 Emmy nominations, without winning any of them.

They filmed in
Ireland, where the young actresses could hear Lansbury “telling us
amazing stories from all parts of her career,” Fitzgerald said.

All shared the
spotlight – at first. The story, Thomas said, is “shaped a bit
like an arrowhead. It starts from quite a broad place, with all four
sisters in full play. And it gradually narrows down (to) Jo.”

Jo has “a fervor
for life and for communication,” Hawke said. She also has
obstacles, something the actress can relate to: “Women weren't
supposed to read and weren't supposed to write, weren't supposed to
work. I did not have that, but I did have a real challenge in
learning to read and then learning to write. I came very late to
this.”

The project is part
of a powerful female focus, Eaton said. PBS' president, programming
chief and “Masterpiece” chief are women; this film also has women
as writer and director.

What about Jonah
Hauer-King, who plays Laurie, the boy next door? “I grew up in a
household with a mum and two older sisters,” he said. “They
treated me with a lot of kindness and cruelty in equal measure. This
felt like coming home.”

There are other
co-stars, including a parrot who, Hawke said, “had some rather
unpredictable behavior when it came to hair-pulling and shoulder
climbing.”

And appropriately
for this project and these times, Eaton said, “it was a female
parrot.”

-- “Little Women,”
8-9 p.m. Sunday, PBS; then 8-10 p.m. May 20