Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Little Women': Book Vs. Movie


Teachers often warn students as they're about to read some kind of classic over a school break - "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Les Miserables," "Doctor Zhivago" - don't just watch the movie. But is that sound advice for a general audience? Should we read Louisa May Alcott's novel now, before we see Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in "Little Women" this coming week? I know I regret not reading "Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo" before I saw Dean Jones and Don Knotts in that 1977 classic. WEEKEND EDITION books editor Barrie Hardymon and NPR Books doyenne Lynn Neary discuss.

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: OK, Lynn, so with "Little Women," which - full disclosure - you and I did see together...

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Yes, we did.

HARDYMON: And we both loved, and we both cried.

NEARY: Yes, we did.

HARDYMON: Now this is heresy, but what I thought as I left the theater - I have an 8-year-old boy. I thought, he does not have to read it. He can go ahead and see this gorgeous movie, which is beautifully done and reimagined. He can go ahead and see it without reading the book. And I surprised myself.

NEARY: I think that it's OK, particularly in this case, because I think with some of these classic books, they're hard for kids to get into, particularly this generation of kids...


NEARY: ...Which have - they have an enormous amount of things coming at them that can entertain them. And the language of some of these books, it's really hard to penetrate. I have to say, someone who shall remain nameless but is a pretty well-known person around here at NPR...

HARDYMON: Oh, a blind item.

NEARY: Yeah, I'm not going to tell you - recently was talking to me about the movie and said, you know, I loved that book as a kid, and I recently tried to reread it, and I couldn't because I just couldn't get past that sort of archaic language. So letting him see this movie, which is a really good movie...

HARDYMON: It's beautiful.

NEARY: ...Might just pique his interest and get him to read the book.

HARDYMON: Right. No, so this is the thing that I have thought. And I have a just sort of different formula every time. You know, I love Madeleine L'Engle's "Wrinkle In Time" books, but I'm also so glad that there is an image that exists as well, and that it's an image with all of these wonderful black actors because a lot of, like, early children's literature that I grew up with, that you grew up with really doesn't have that many - you know, they're - you just don't have a lot of diverse characters.

NEARY: None, zero.

HARDYMON: So the ability to introduce images that, you know, can expand the books and can maybe tell the story in a way that is more appropriate for 2019, 2020 I feel like is a real thing. Now, that said, is there something that you would never have let go by?

NEARY: Well, I do have some regrets.


NEARY: My daughter did watch the video of "Charlotte's Web" - the cartoon video of "Charlotte's Web" before - well, actually, she never got to the book because she loved that video. She watched it a million times. It was really not that good, even. It wasn't even that great an animation, I don't think. By the time I introduced her to the book, she just was not even vaguely interested in reading the book, so we really never actually read the book "Charlotte's Web," which, of course, is...


NEARY: Anybody who reads loves "Charlotte's Web." And I felt very guilty about that. But, yes, it happened. So you can make mistakes.

HARDYMON: My thing that I was absolutely not going to let my kids see before was "Harry Potter" because that...

NEARY: Yeah.

HARDYMON: It's so ubiquitous. The movies are everywhere. But I really wanted him to have a picture in his head that was his own before he was absolutely sold, you know, the image of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. I wanted him to be like, oh, maybe it's me. You know what I mean?

NEARY: Yeah, I do know exactly what you mean because this happened to me, actually, as a child with "To Kill A Mockingbird." The book came out just a little bit before, I think, the movie came out, but right around the time that I was of age to both see the movie and read the book. And I've always thought I read the book first, but recently I started thinking about it, and I thought, did I see the movie first or did I read the book first, because Atticus Finch...

HARDYMON: Is Gregory Peck.

NEARY: ...Is Gregory Peck, and Mary Badham is Scout? And I don't have any other image in my mind from that book. So sometimes I think I must've seen the movie first, but I honestly don't know. I don't know which I did.

HARDYMON: I think there - and now there are things in American pop culture like the - I mean, I don't think people read "Wizard Of Oz" anymore. I - you know...

NEARY: No, I don't think so either.

HARDYMON: I think it's OK for, you know, for us to be like, all right, it's Judy Garland. There it is. And that is actually where I think it's kind of great and truly why I wanted to have this conversation with you. I really wanted to absolve people of the burden of having to read the book before they see the movie. Now, you and I, we're both literary people.

NEARY: We're giving them a papal dispensation here. You're absolved.

HARDYMON: Yeah, well, better than papal. I'm giving you a Lynn Neary dispensation on the last week of her work here at NPR which says, go and enjoy the literature in any way that you want.

NEARY: That's right. Absolutely. Oh, and I think, look; anything that brings kids to reading - I really think that's the key. And some kids are very visual learners, right? I mean, some kids - they're never going to want to read these books. They're not readers, but their imagination will be triggered by the story, and the visual images will possibly take them to the book.

HARDYMON: Right. I think that's right.

SIMON: That's WEEKEND EDITION's books editor Barrie Hardymon having one last chat in the studio with our friend, NPR's Lynn Neary, who's decided to step back from the mic here this week after nearly 40 years on the air. We will miss Lynn's insights, her wit, her laugh and the most velvety voice in broadcasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.