Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, remained unmarried throughout her life. Curiously, she described herself as having fallen in love with girls and not one bit with any man. Despite the semi-autobiographical nature of the novel, Louisa and her stand-in Jo March diverged sharply in terms of marital status. For the longest time, some people read Jo as a queer character. You see, the first printing of the book ended on a cliffhanger. In the second part, the publisher demanded a romantic happy ending for Jo, preferably with Laurie. Alcott agreed despite her strong objections but couldn’t contain her subversive streak and married off her character to Professor Friedrich Bhaer—it almost felt like a prank.
Greta Gerwig, herself a writer, understands not only the story but also the history of Little Women. Her film, a fresh adaptation of the 1868 classic, is also a necessary tribute to Louisa May Alcott.
There are three previous major screen adaptations of the novel: one in 1933, in 1949, and in 1994. In 1933, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. The George Cukor film naturally drew parallels with a book set in the Civil War and, expectedly, highlighted sacrifice and family. Right after the war, the big studios produced family-friendly fares to entertain a nation reeling from the tragedy. The biggest of them all, MGM, released a sumptuous film in full color in 1949. Forty-five years later, Gillian Armstrong became the first woman to direct Little Women. Greta Gerwig learned the right lessons from her predecessors: her film is anchored on a strong cast (1994), a splendid production (1949), and an excellent screenplay echoing social significance (1933).
For the longest time (and I argue she still is), Katharine Hepburn is the quintessential Jo March. Like the fictional character, Hepburn is an independent-minded tomboy from New England. She raised the bar so high, most of the succeeding Jos suffered in comparison. Thankfully, Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the second-eldest March sister. Her Jo is strong-willed and self-assured but also fragile and confused. Of her many standout scenes, it’s the heartbreaking disclosure of her loneliness that stood out. (“I’m so sick of people saying love is the only thing a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I’m so lonely.”) Ronan’s delivery bleeds with palpable pain and controlled anger. Truly, she is one of the best actors of her generation.
Speaking of best actors, Florence Pugh. The character mostly described as artistic and selfish is also sensible and insightful. In one particular scene (the “economic proposition of marriage”), Pugh brilliantly admonishes Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie with equal disdain, pity, and matter-of-factness. The admirable performances of Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen transformed Meg and Beth into substantial characters not seen in earlier adaptations. Watson achingly shifts from the belle of the ball to a dissatisfied young wife married to a penniless tutor. Scanlen provided the necessary strength to the shy and sickly Beth. The rest of the cast is superb. Laura Dern caps her astonishing run in 2019 as the compassionate and formidable Marmee. Chalamet continues to surprise. Bob Odenkirk (Father March), Tracy Letts (the publisher), and an unrecognizable Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence) are all delightful in their supporting roles. Of course, Streep is good.
One cannot also help but admire the production design put into the film. The old colonial house of the Marches has a lived-in quality that radiates affection amid genteel poverty. Right across is the opulent but cold mansion of Mr. Laurence. His grandson Laurie longingly stares at the happy sisters. The neighborhood stores also help establish the timeline as the film goes back and forth in time. The freshly painted stores of the past dilapidate as the story returns to the present. The costumes make each character more distinct (e.g. practical clothes for Jo, elaborate dresses for Meg). And there is a recognizable exuberance throughout the film rarely captured in the adaptations of classic novels. Massive credit goes to the stunning work of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and the original score of composer Alexandre Desplat, too.
But it is the precise writing and strong directorial hand of Greta Gerwig that elevates the film into instant classic status. The non-linear approach enhances the story, sharpens the themes, and adds depth to the characters. Consider the transition from the debutante ball scene of Meg to an older Meg confessing her inconsiderate spending to her husband. This sequence comes right on the heels of the contemplative conversation between Jo and Marmee. “There are some natures too noble to curve and too lofty to bend,” Marmee remarks. Though it is about Jo’s short temper, it also resonates with Meg’s continued dissatisfaction and materialism. Gerwig peppers the film with brilliant transitions. She positions the wedding of Meg right after the burial of Beth, in doing so, draping a joyful occasion with considerable pathos. The storytelling skills of Gerwig is in full display as she composes each scene with purpose and prudence.
Further, her adaptation discusses women and marriage with profound attention. Feminism is changing and is in the middle of reckoning the shortcomings of its past. The concept of marriage remains contentious. It is still criticized as an archaic institution, a form of economic agreement, and a source of gender inequality. Gerwig dissects the relationship of the characters with marriage but refrains from judging them. Instead, she unearths the complicatedness of the Marches. They are difficult, imperfect, and obstinate. They are allowed to make bad decisions, learn from their missteps, and mature into distinct individuals. She captures the complications of these classic characters and is the secret to the freshness of her film.
Unlike in previous films, this latest iteration of Little Women has a modified ending. Instead of the “under the umbrella kiss”, we see Jo negotiate the rights to her book, witness its initial printing, and hold it for the first time. Jo has merged with Louisa. Both author and character defied social expectations and their screen union is an affectionate salute to a woman and her book that has inspired countless generations of girls.