Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women documents the March sisters’ journeys from naive girls to adults, and the social diminishment of their family, who live in straitened financial circumstances. This is the thread that the new Korean series adaptation, Little Women – produced by tvN and distributed globally by Netflix – uses to weave a tale far darker and knottier than its source material.
In this series, we follow the Oh family, whose dinner table conversations fixate on money, or the absence of it. Elder sisters Oh In-ju (Kim Go-eun) and Oh In-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun) have long made peace with eschewing luxury brands and and vacations abroad so they can figure out how to pay off the massive debts their father incurred. All they want is for their talented youngest sister In-hye (Park Ji-hu), who’s enrolled at a private art school, to not face the same social ostracism they did.
So, when their selfish, materialistic mother Ahn Hee-yeon (Park Ji-young) absconds with the money earmarked for In-hye’s school trip, In-ju and In-kyung are left with despair and little time to come up with another 2.5million won. After a powerful figure comes to their rescue, though, In-kyung reckons with alcoholism and suspension at work. On the other hand, In-ju is caught up in a dangerous embezzlement scheme after her friend dies by suicide and leaves her with 2billion won.
Against the backdrop of contemporary capitalist society, the Oh sisters are not only clawing against their insignificant place in society but also trying to protect what is currently a veneer of a filial bond. Each wants to protect her family from the darkness of the world, not knowing that their actions extend an open invitation to it. Little Women’s leads deliver on this complexity and then some. As the eldest daughter in the family, Kim’s In-ju is the quintessential third parent. Kim balances In-ju’s different sides with ease – as the responsible eldest sister, she’s taciturn and self-sacrificial, but as the striver dreaming of a better life, Kim brings a sympathetic, starry-eyed awe. When her innocence costs her her peace of mind, Kim expertly leads In-ju into morally grey territory.
As Oh In-kyung, Nam Ji-hyun moves away from the perennially bubbly characters she’s been saddled with for much of her career and emerges as the most complex, layered, and nuanced character in the show. She embodies the middle child, trying to heal the abrasive relationship between her mother and sisters, coming off as meek and subservient – which makes it all the more surprising to see her secrets come to light. Oh In-hye is a change of pace for Park Ji-hu, who’s coming fresh from zombie series All Of Us Are Dead, but that does not make her any less mysterious. Precocious yet helpless, Park makes In-hye relatable as she learns the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished.
Chung Seo-kyung’s brilliant writing and Kim Hee-won’s direction employ symbolism and metaphors to bring this stories to life. Objects often represent personal struggles or ambitions for the sisters. In-ju’s ambitions and struggles are often reflected through prolonged focus on shoes – as the outcast, she wears cheap flats, but after her friend’s death, she inherits her ridiculously expensive set of heels, which brings her problems she never wanted. Similarly, the addicted In-kyung often clutches a bottle of mouthwash, which is later revealed to contain tequila. Even the sisters’ fraught relationship with their mother is depicted through the last batch of yeolmu kimchi she makes for them before she leaves. They eventually throw it out, but not before cooking one last delicious meal with it – a vestige of love before the stark reality kicks in.
Still, Little Women never lets us forget the humans behind the symbols. At the show’s core are both the practicalities and desires driving In-ju, In-kyung, and In-hye forward into the unknown road. So far, Little Women has proven as grounded as the story that inspired it: It’s not about defeating fate through grand gestures, but reforming one’s relationship with their ‘little-ness’ and perhaps eventually learning to be comfortable with it.
Little Women is now streaming on Netflix, with two new episodes out every weekend