Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House memoirs, the story of her settler family’s migration from Wisconsin to (eventually) the Great Plains, and the series of books that followed it are close to holy writ in the canon of women’s literature. Told from Wilder’s perspective, the books recount her adventures in the schoolroom and in sod houses, through the fever that steals her sister Mary’s sight and her courtship with Almanzo Wilder, the homesteader who would become her husband. The series is a phenomenon so powerful that its inspired cookbooks and memoirs of the obsessed, like Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life. So the news that Sony Pictures is considering a feature-length adaptation of the first book is a cause for both excitement and anxiety.
Part of what makes the possibility of this particular Little House remake both tantalizing and unnerving is the people who are reported to be involved in it. Abi Morgan, who has signed on to write the movie, doesn’t exactly have a resume that suggest a prairie childhood: She wrote Shame, Steve McQueen’s harrowing portrait of sex addiction, the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, and created and wrote The Hour, the BBC’s excellent drama about the staff of a news magazine show in 1957. Morgan has a real talent for creating adults who work through sophisticated moral tangles, often of their own making, but I’m not sure how she’ll tackle a child’s perspective. And David Gordon Green, who is set to direct, may have made his name with the sensitive indie All The Real Girls, but recently he’s spent time on slacker comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter.
This isn’t to say that Little House on the Prairie couldn’t benefit from an adult sensibility. While the soapy memory of the television adaptation may obscure the reality of the books, part of the power of the original series is its clear-eyed observations of trying circumstances. Wilder may have been recounting childhood memories, but her experiences were hardly those of a sheltered innocent. Her family’s journey was marked by dreadful fevers, culture clashes with the Native Americans settlers who were being displaced from their land, and blizzards that could strand a man, eating his children’s Christmas candy to survive. Even when the family did settle into a house, they did so in a place touched by tornadoes that could break every bone in a boy’s body, where the jobs available for young women took them far from their families and into homes dominated by domestic violence. The Little House books are powerful, and can be the first ones girls ever read that trusts them to reckon with grown-up fears and consequences.
A movie that honors that tension would be a real event, both for those of us who grew up with the Little House books, the adults who introduced them to us, and all the little girls in our lives we hope will come to love Laura Ingalls Wilder as much as we do. But for that to happen, Morgan and Green will have to approach the material as a new frontier to discover, as it’s been for generations of readers before them.