A disappointing take on a beloved classic

Greta Gerwig attempts a fresh look at Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” but the result lacks the warmth and grace of its source material.

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen star in a scene from the movie "Little Women." (CNS photo/Sony)

Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women has been adapted numerous times for the big and small screens; even those who have never cracked open the book know and love the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—from their various cinematic depictions. Any filmmaker looking to bring yet another Little Women to the screen needs to contend with the problem of telling such a familiar story in a fresh way.

In her new adaptation, Greta Gerwig—the writer/director of 2017’s Lady Bird—has tackled this problem by giving us a non-linear re-telling of the story of the March family, one that assumes its audience’s familiarity with the cast of characters. The results of this approach are disappointing. You know the characters: Meg is the sensible one; Jo, the headstrong tomboy; Beth is shy; Amy, selfish. These characters and their defining traits have become iconic, and Gerwig doesn’t spend a lot of time revealing them to us.

Familiar incidents from the book and previous film versions are dutifully presented, but not in chronological order; the film opens with Jo nervously submitting a story to a new publisher, and from there moves backwards and forwards through the narrative timeline. Playing with the structure of the story leads to some interesting contrasts—the juxtaposition of Beth’s death and Meg’s wedding, in particular—but the overall effect is disjointed and hectic, and just as the viewer enters into the mood and rhythm of a particular scene, she’s abruptly whisked away to another. If we didn’t already love these characters from previous iterations, would it be possible to catch one’s breath long enough to care about what happens to them in Gerwig’s version? This is in stark contrast to 1994’s Little Women, starring Winona Ryder as Jo, which—while it crammed fewer incidents from the book into its under-two-hour runtime—allowed the viewer to spend time with the characters and their story’s humorous and warm moments, to enter into the pace of the March home and thus appreciate what it means for the individual members to grow up eventually and leave it.

A fresh take on Little Women could show us previously unexplored facets of the March girls—each of whom undergoes a transformation in Alcott’s telling that could justify its own cinematic treatment. Gerwig, unfortunately, isn’t able to show us much of the sisters that we haven’t seen before, except, perhaps, their deep ambivalence about marriage.

This ambivalence is most clearly seen in Gerwig’s depictions of Jo and Amy, easily the most complex of the four sisters, and the ones whose relationship is most fraught. Amy is seldom given her due in film adaptations, and while it is satisfying to see Gerwig give grown-up Amy more screen-time, it isn’t time particularly well spent, even if it is stylishly staged and costumed. In the book, Amy conquers her natural selfishness as she persuades a heartbroken and indolent Laurie to put his time and talent to good use, and in turn finds herself unable to marry for money, as has always been her intention. In Gerwig’s version, Amy (Florence Pugh) flares up at Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) after he questions her matrimonial motives, giving an impassioned defense of marriage as an unavoidably “economic proposition” for her, a woman from a poor family with no way of making her own fortune. This is Amy’s big moment in the film, and Laurie has no response for her. Yet when Gerwig, following Alcott, has Amy turn down wealthy Fred Vaughn and marry Laurie, we’re left to puzzle out whether this is an abandonment of her previous position; Laurie is rich (though not as rich as Fred)—is Amy’s decision a mercenary one or not? The question isn’t as much open-ended as it is un-addressed.

Gerwig is on firmer ground in the case of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who proclaims her intention never to marry throughout both book and film. Gerwig’s Jo is a kind of homage to Alcott’s original conception of the character; the novel we know today was originally published in two parts, and while Alcott had intended Jo to remain “a literary spinster” at the conclusion of part one, she eventually capitulated to pressure from her publisher and reading public and married Jo off to bookish, middle-aged Professor Bhaer in part two (a deliberately “funny match,” in Alcott’s words). Gerwig’s film includes a scene with the would-be publisher of Jo’s autobiographical novel, in which Jo argues it would inconsistent for her independent heroine to marry; like Alcott, she ultimately cedes the point and agrees to “sell her heroine into marriage.” But in an ending that is both contrived and convoluted, Gerwig seems to want it both ways; she attempts to honor Alcott’s original vision for Jo while also giving audiences the “romantic” ending she’s sure they want. A more courageous move would have been simply to let Jo end the story unmarried—or take the time to flesh out the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer so their eventual marriage is believable, as Alcott was able to do, however reluctantly.

Christian audiences hoping the film retains something of the book’s overt (even heavy-handed) religious content will be disappointed. The March family’s devout Christian faith is soft-pedaled in most film adaptations; in this one it is almost entirely erased. While one scene depicts Marmee (Laura Dern) on her knees in prayer, the only explicit mention of God comes in the form of mild blasphemy from Jo at ailing Beth’s bedside.

What’s more, the moral character of Alcott’s story is not only minimized, but actually undermined. In the book, each March sister is depicted as having a besetting fault that she must overcome through perseverance, usually with Marmee’s explicit guidance; the entire first part of the novel is structured around John Bunyan’s moralizing allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. The central theme of advancing in virtue is largely absent in Gerwig’s version. In Meg’s case, when she “goes to Vanity Fair”—a high-society ball with the wealthy Moffatt family—she ultimately turns away from its fashionable frivolity, not because it is wasteful and self-indulgent, but because she can’t afford it. In Jo’s case, her trademark fiery temper is presented less as a liability than as a strength; whereas Alcott’s Marmee admonishes her to “try with heart and soul to master this quick temper, before it brings you greater sorrow and regret,” Gerwig’s Marmee (played by Laura Dern) tells Jo fondly, “There are some natures too noble to curb and too lofty to bend” (a quote from a letter by Alcott’s mother, Abigail, about her famous daughter).

“I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” This quote from Louisa May Alcott appears on the screen at the beginning of Gerwig’s film; the movie’s strongest element is its depiction of the relationship between personal tragedy and artistic expression. But unfortunately, Gerwig chooses to rely on the love for the March girls that her audience brings into the theater—love for their “troubles” as well as their “jolly” times—rather than giving us new reasons to fall in love with them.


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About Catherine Harmon 576 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.

10 Comments

  1. I haven’t liked any of the Little Women movies because I love the book and none of them do a good job of representing it. The Winona Ryder version featured feminist rants that annoyed me, though I’m glad to have managed to forget the specifics.

    I won’t even go see this one because I’ve seen a couple of commercials for it on tv and the way the characters speak is so jarringly modern that I cringed.

  2. All the girls from Lisieux’s Martin family entered a convent. That isn’t dishonorable–on the contrary–but isn’t available to protestant girls. There’s no Christian principle that we must prefer to get married; Jesus and St Paul say if we reason about it we can conclude it is better to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Every child needs to have that choice explained to him or her.

    • Aren’t there Anglican convents? Of course the Alcotts weren’t Anglican either but they were a pretty unconventional family in real life. As were a number of their acquaintances in New England. I don’t know if remaining unmarried signified quite as much in that sector as in the rest of society.

      • If you search at Google for:

        do anglicans calls themselves protestant

        you get about 4,600,000 results.

        If you fix your mistake and search instead for

        do anglicans call themselves protestant

        you get about 10,900,00 results.

        From the Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglicanism :

        In the first half of the 17th century, the Church of England and its associated Church of Ireland were presented by some Anglican divines as comprising a distinct Christian tradition, with theologies, structures, and forms of worship representing a different kind of middle way, or via media, between Protestantism and Catholicism – a perspective that came to be highly influential in later theories of Anglican identity and expressed in the description of Anglicanism as “Catholic and Reformed”.[9] The degree of distinction between Protestant and Catholic tendencies within the Anglican tradition is routinely a matter of debate both within specific Anglican churches and throughout the Anglican Communion. Unique to Anglicanism is the Book of Common Prayer, the collection of services in one Book used for centuries. The Book is acknowledged as a principal tie that binds the Anglican Communion together as a liturgical rather than a confessional tradition or one possessing a magisterium as in the Roman Catholic Church.

        • Yes, the High Anglican liturgy and the interior of some Anglican churches are very similar to Catholic ones. In fact some Anglicans are more traditionally minded than liberal Catholics. But the Pope and certain Catholic marriage and family matters seem to be what divides us. Which has been the case from the beginning.

        • Since the Book of Common Prayer was a version (with the Catholic bits left out) an English translation of the pre-Reformation Breviary, that is why it was logical in 2010 for Rome to authorise the Anglican Ordinariate in the UK ( and late, in the USA and Australia) which allowed former Anglicans / Epicsopalians to keep their cultural patrimony in liturgy while reuniting with the Catholic Church and acknowledging the primacy of the Pope. This was triggered by the Chuch of England ordaining women and priests and permitting homosexual “marriages.”

  3. I found the movie delightful, despite your two key points: the confusing timeline and lack of faith. I went with a young adult daughter who had not read the book, so I was intently aware of how it might have been confusing. Surprisingly, when it had finished and I asked if she had been able to follow the story, she said, “No problem.” It seems that the director had used different colour palettes for each period of time, so she quickly used the visual clues to know where she was in the sequence. (This may be a generational adaptation, since young people are intensely aware of such subtleties.)

    As for the faith angle, in reading the book, I was quite aware of how different their creed was from the Catholic faith. Their Christianity was above all an ethical religion, a series of virtues to be studied and implemented, less by grace than by sheer hard work. There was little sense of Jesus as Saviour, but rather Jesus as Model of behaviour–to be emulated and reunited with in heaven after strenuous effort (hence the highlighting of Pilgrims Progress). Surely, Beth had a tremendous natural faith in the book, and she fought her fears as she declined, but even her heroic virtues seemed more her own work than God’s. More faith along the lines of Alcott’s novel wouldn’t have added to the story; the focus was always off kilter because of her own theological background.

    I liked the pace and the vibrancy, loved the chemistry, appreciated the honest vignettes of family life, and found far more depth to the Jo-Amy tension–some of which I had actually missed in the book. I thought it wonderful that she took more time to show what Amy had accomplished in terms of maturity, which undercut any suggestion of Laurie “settling” in some half-baked way. Everyone contributed to his success in life, and it was actually adoring Amy, who administered “tough love,” insisting that he stop wasting his life moping and do something of value. She was clear-eyed and prudent at the end, and they could make an excellent and worthwhile match–and if his money was a factor, at least she was entirely honest with him!

  4. Catherine Harmon, Louisa Mae Alcott’s Marche family members were not “devout Christians” as you said. They were Trancendentalists.

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