Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: HBO’s The Casual Vacancy has us thinking about other book-to-TV adaptations.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books have captivated young readers since they were first published nearly a century ago. So the series’ jump to TV in the ’70s seemed like a natural transition. But NBC’s Little House On The Prairie used Wilder’s books as a springboard more than a blueprint. The only Little House episode that appears to have a direct connection to the books is the first pilot in 1974, as Pa takes Ma and his three young daughters traveling across the Great Plains. The family eventually settles on Plum Creek, near the tiny burg of Walnut Grove. From there, the story departs significantly.
Still, Wilder’s actual homelife offered enough of a background that the show was able to deftly set up its winning template as early as episode two, “Country Girls.” TV-watching families could find no more perfect parents to emulate than Ma and Pa, who ran a strict household tempered by loads of warmth. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have offspring like the Ingalls kids, “yes, ma’am”-ing and doin’ chores all over the place. Besides its bucolic setting, Little House also scored with the casting of the Ingalls family. Impulsive and courageous and insecure (usually fretting that she wasn’t living up to the standards set by her bootlicker sister Mary), Melissa Gilbert’s Laura was a TV hero that kids of any age could identify with. Bonanza star Michael Landon had been offered a directing gig, which he took under the condition that he would play Pa.
Now that they’re “in town,” Pa has promised Ma that the girls will be able to attend the requisite one-room schoolhouse. As “Country Girls” commences, Mary, typically, can’t wait to get to school, while Laura the upstart refuses, leading to the kind of Pa-“Half-Pint” heart-to-heart between Landon and Gilbert that would define the series. The girls’ subsequent walk to school not only highlights the hills they have to climb to get there, but the small post office and Mr. Oleson sweeping the stoop of his store, showing the seeds of the town of Walnut Grove. The Ingalls’ introduction into their new school is an anxiety-laden situation relatable to 1970s kids as they watched 1870s kids: Mary and Laura are immediately made of fun of for being “long-legged snipes” and “country girls.”
These insults point to a definitive trait of the Ingalls family: their poverty. A country girl herself, Ma sells eggs to raise money for the family (and gets sneered at by Nellie Oleson’s mother, Ma’s evil equal) and sacrifices her own dress cloth to make new clothes for her daughters. At the school assembly at the end of the episode, Nellie’s speech is all about meaningless possessions, and Laura’s is about Ma’s fabric sacrifice. The message is clear: The Ingalls have everything they need, and would for nine full seasons.
Availability: Available on Amazon Instant Video and in DVD box sets. Various episodes are also available on YouTube.