'Little Women,' rewritten for the movie, offends purists, is endorsed by others

March 07, 1995|By Chicago Tribune

When children's author Laurie Lawlor was asked last spring by Columbia Pictures to rewrite "Little Women" to ride along with the movie, she thought it would be a way to attract a new generation of readers to Louisa May Alcott's 19th-century novel.

Now, almost a year later, Ms. Lawlor finds herself accused of "dumbing down" one of the world's most beloved classics.

Her "Little Women" -- drastically slimmed down and rewritten -- came out in December, as did the movie. Both were immediate hits.

The movie grossed $45,002,636 in nine weeks. As of last week, the book, aimed at readers age 8 to 12, had sold 315,000 copies. A second spinoff, also by Ms. Lawlor, a read-along version for even smaller readers, produced by Newmarket Press and featuring stills from the movie, has sold 60,000 copies.

Enter the purists. A month ago, a number of educators, interviewed for an article in a slick entertainment weekly, reacted with shock and horror when asked to comment on Ms. Lawlor's little "Women." Princeton professor and Alcott scholar Elaine Showalter, when read quotes from the Lawlor version, said simply, "Oh, my God." It was, Ms. Showalter sniffed, part of a literary lightening process known as "dumbing down."

Thus, in recent weeks, Ms. Lawlor, who lives in Evanston, Ill., has padded to her phone to take calls from as far away as London and, one dawn last week, from an all-talk radio station in Detroit whose listeners wanted to tear her to shreds.

Ms. Lawlor is already well known for 18 previously published works, among them the Addie series of pioneer-family adventures and a street-smart tale called "How To Survive 3rd Grade."

So, should Ms. Lawlor be found guilty as charged?

"The kids loved her book," reported Kitty Ryan, the learning center director at Naperville, Ill.'s River Woods Elementary School, where Ms. Lawlor recently served as writer-in-residence. "The movie, and Lawlor's readable version, made the novel more accessible to them," she added.

"Children are not dumb, but they have limited life experience," Ms. Lawlor said. Younger readers, she added, get confused, in the 560-page original text, by tangled subplots and out-of-date words.

"A crop is so comfortable I don't think I shall ever have a mane again," wrote Alcott. "I rather like my hair this way," revised Ms. Lawlor.

Classic stories have always been retold in simpler versions for children, observed John Holdren of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Va. But such retellings should be faithful, in language and description, to their times, he argued, noting that, with "Little Women," he'd rather have children grappling with more of the book's original language.

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