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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