Robin Buss on Little Women and Heavenly Creatures. I wonder if I can do it," Somerset Maugham wrote at the start of a short story, Salvatore; and revealed in the final paragraph that what he had been trying to do was to hold his readers' attention with an account of the uneventful life of an Italian fisherman whose only quality was simple goodness. Evil is always supposed to be more varied and more interesting.
Gillian Armstrong, the director of Little Women (U), may have felt that she was taking on a similar challenge. Here is a novel about four girls enjoying a pre-Freudian adolescence, in a family where everybody is almost unrelentingly kind, understanding and generous. If there is a harsh word in the script, it slipped past me unheard.
The director cannot even be consoled by the fact that the challenge has been met before, in three previous adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's book, including a TV movie in 1978, and the cinema films directed by Mervyn Leroy and George Cukor; but critics seem to be agreed in ranking them in chronological order, putting Cukor's film (which starred Katherine Hepburn) at the top of the list. Does this reflect a widening gap between Alcott's world and public taste? What hope is there for a remake in the days of Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers?
The answer is: quite a lot. There are good reasons why generations of readers have enjoyed Alcott's novels, and the domestic life of these independent-minded women, while their father is away (serving as a chaplain to the troops in the Civil War), takes on a new significance in the 1990s. The acting is excellent, especially by Wynona Ryder (as Jo) and Susan Sarandon (Mrs March). The historical background is credibly recreated and the colour photography, prettifying the New England autumn and winter landscapes, is almost too good to be true. Otherwise, this is a funny, heart-warming story, with only occasional lapses into sentimentality. It has been nominated for an Academy Award and could well supersede Cukor's as the definitive version. And, at a time when there is no longer a homogeneous cinema audience, but a number of distinct, though overlapping audiences, it will give enjoyment to those who are likely to want to see it, and may even challenge some preconceptions.
The adolescents and their families in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (18) could hardly be more different, though the two girls do have in common with the March sisters a taste for escape into romantic fantasy worlds. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is growing up in the conformist New Zealand of the 1950s, so when a new pupil arrives from England at her school in Christchurch, and begins by treating their teachers with supercilious amusement, Pauline is captivated. She and Juliet (Kate Winslet) become friends, sharing a whacky sense of fun and a passion for Mario Lanza. At first, it is the pretty, middle-class Juliet who appears to take the lead, but with time, the less-favoured Pauline asserts her dominance in what was to become, in real life, a notorious case of folie a deux.
When Juliet has to spend time in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis, the separation leads to a correspondence that intensifies their retreat into a fantasy world similar to the Bront sisters' Gondal. The film skilfully blends in scenes from this alternative reality to suggest the blurring of boundaries in the girls' minds. Meanwhile, as their friendship deepens, it is resisted by the adults who consider that it is becoming "unhealthy" - wisdom or self-fulfilling prophecy? Finally, when Juliet's parents decide to separate and to send their daughter to relatives in South Africa, the girls rebel. Pauline is convinced that her mother is the cause of all her misfortunes, and persuades Juliet that they have to murder her. The film quotes extensively from Pauline's diaries, which were a key piece of evidence at the subsequent trial.
This is a shocking story, powerfully told, with one moment of concentrated violence. The film offers no explanation for the crime. It merely stands as a reminder that not all adolescent fantasies are innocuous and that the energies they release can be destructive as well as creative.
A study guide to Little Women, intended for use within the English curriculum at key stage 3, can be obtained from Film Education, 41-42 Berners Street, London W1P 3AA.