Greta Gerwig’s beautiful new adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel plays with the book’s time sequence in order to emphasize the March sisters’ journey of self-realization.
Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women has been adapted into movies quite a few times before now. The book has usually been relegated to the children’s section, or in more recent years the teen or YA section of the book store, although its 19th century language, and sophisticated themes, make it a favorite of adult readers. It has been especially meaningful for women, because the story of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—involves their search for self-realization along with the more traditional plot devices of whom they should marry, and this has rightfully struck a chord with women readers down through the years. Alcott’s sequel, Good Wives, was long ago added to the first part in most editions of Little Women, so the story as we know it follows the sisters from girlhood through growing up into adults.
Now writer-director Greta Gerwig, in her third film, presents her own adaptation of Little Women. I have to admit I was afraid that nothing new and fresh could be made from this material, covered so many times before, but Gerwig has succeeded by taking a new and interesting approach.
Saoirse Ronan plays Josephine March, Jo for short, who lives with her three sisters in Concord, Massachusetts, all lovingly cared for by their mother, nicknamed Marmee, here played by Laura Dern, while their father is away fighting in the Civil War. If you’re familiar with the story, the most famous highlights are all here—giving their Christmas breakfast to help a poor family, the introduction of Theodore Laurence, nicknamed Laurie, who becomes Jo’s best friend, and his grandfather who has a reputation for being severe, but whose heart melts when he meets the quiet sister, Beth. There’s the sensible oldest sister, Meg, and the vain and pretty youngest, Amy. And so forth.
But in this version there’s a big difference. Gerwig takes the second part of the story, when the sisters have grown up, and starts with that, showing Jo trying to sell her stories in New York, Meg adjusting to married life with two children, etc., and then proceeds to alternate back and forth between these later scenes and the earlier ones of their girlhood. There’s a purpose to this. By showing the two phases of the story side by side, as it were, Gerwig emphasizes the challenges faced by women emerging from their childhood into the world with all its demands and unfair expectations. The film thus very cleverly gives the story a more modern spin, but without altering the basic elements in any significant way.
The center of the story, as always, is Jo, who seeks to be independent and become a writer, not a common thing for women in the 1860s. In this part, Saorise Ronan once again demonstrates her magnificent talent. Her energy and conviction carry the film. Emma Watson is good in the somewhat thankless role of the more conventional Meg. Florence Pugh plays Amy, and this sister has been given more character here—rather than just a vain little fool as she’s been played in previous films, Amy has a proud and ambitious nature of her own, which makes her character’s fate, marriage-wise, seem, for once, understandable. Eliza Scanlen plays Beth, and she’s sweet and vulnerable, but Gerwig wisely refrains from overly sentimentalizing her. (An amusing side note is that these four American sisters are played by Irish, English, and Australian actresses.) Timothée Chalamet is close to perfection as Laurie, and Meryl Streep is on hand as the stiff, snobbish Aunt March.
Literary adaptations are often prone to becoming what we call “costume pictures,” period films that seem distant from our own lives and concerns. But I have to say, Gerwig has completely avoided that. This is a vibrant and intelligent movie that puts the accent squarely on the thoughts and desires of its women protagonists. The production design is gorgeous, yet it doesn’t overshadow the performances. In addition, the picture brilliantly conflates Jo March with her creator, and the novel Jo ends up writing, with the Alcott novel that we’re watching on screen. Some of the most interesting things Jo says in the film are taken from actual quotes by Alcott. Focusing on Alcott’s efforts to get the book deal she needed, and the compromises she needed to make for this, gives the ending a delightful twist. This beautiful new version of Little Women interweaves the real and the fictional in a very satisfying and meaningful way.