Little Women, Big Hype: Re-Branding a Classic

Katie Nash

With the novel celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018 and the release of its sixth film adaption in 2019, Little Women has seen a recent surge in popularity, with numerous book sellers from Waterstones to Blackwells including it in their 2019 bestsellers lists.  A family favourite for generations, the novel has never been out of print. Yet, to what extent do film adaptations ‘re-brand’ the original book and does this hinder or enhance its popularity?

Little Women was written by Louisa May Alcott and originally published in two volumes, in 1868 and 1869. It explores the lives of the four March sisters from childhood to adulthood, following their romances, careers, and ambitions. Whilst some critics believe that we should enjoy Alcott’s work in its own right, every new film adaptation brings a fresh outlook on the much loved story.

Most recently director Greta Gerwig has been praised for her 2019 adaptation, particularly her manipulation of time throughout the film. Gerwig chooses to open with a crucial scene where Jo meets the publisher of her story, returning to the writing of the book throughout the film. 

Indeed, every year that a film adaptation is released, Little Women is re-branded with a new front cover which usually features stills from the film. As a marketing technique, this has numerous advantages. Firstly, it attracts fans of the film to read the book. It also encourages people to re-purchase a story they may already own, for its additional features such as film stills or new front cover. 

Many book covers also feature star actresses, from Katherine Hepburn in 1933, to Saorise Ronan in 2019. The book then ultimately becomes an advertisement for the film, as well as physically promoting the actresses who play the main characters. However, this arguably changes the way in which the story is read, as Alcott’s characterisation may become confused with impressions of the actresses. On the other hand, the front-cover image could enhance character understanding. For example, the 2019 book cover features Saorise Ronan as Jo, running down the street, establishing her character as lively and energetic.

Interestingly, the branding for the 2019 film and book cover also features the original cover design of the first edition – arguably showing how the history of the book and adaptations have influenced one another over time. Amidst these layers, the question of whether or not rebranding based on film adaptations, distracts from, or facilitates Little Women’s continued place in popular fiction remains a much-debated topic.