Published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women continues to be read, studied, and poured over by readers of all ages and stripes. Alcott’s story of the four March sisters is timeless in nature, despite being anchored in the time of the American Civil War. As the novel jumps in time between the sisters as children and as adults, a story of friendship, love, and dreams is explored, leading many readers to self-identify as one of the four. 1948 saw the first cinematic adaptation of the novel with famed actors Janet Leigh, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien as the March sisters, but it’s the 1994 version that the majority of modern audiences remember. Starring Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Eric Stoltz, Susan Sarandon, and Christian Bale, it’s a cast dangerously close to outshining the material. Likely to replace the ’94 version as the best modern adaptation of Little Women is the recent release by writer/director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), who trims, adjusts, and bends the original tale into something Alcott would surely admire.
A simple description of Little Women would be that it’s the tale of four sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), growing up in Massachusetts under the supervision of their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), while their father is away fighting for the Union Army. To describe it in such a way not only diminishes the sisters as merely being possessions of their parents, but also suggests a kind of pining away without the light from their father. In reality, the four March sisters generate their own light, refusing to put their lives on hold, choosing instead to take them by the reins to see where it might take them. For Jo and Amy, that means pursuing their dreams of creation as writer and artist respectively, while for Meg that means marrying for love with a hope of wealth to help take care of the family. Beth, however, is merely content being as close to her sisters as possible, taking part with her sisters’ adventures where possible. But like all families, nothing is ever easy and it’s surviving the hard times which carves out who we are as people.
To observe Gerwig’s Little Women is to marvel at how a film filled with such delight and pain, such uniqueness and commonality, could be a third feature that’s somehow greater than her last. Whether you’ve seen the amazing Lady Bird or not, everything in Little Women is executed with such precision that experienced audiences are bound to get swept up in the story as though this is the first time. Some of this may be due to Gerwig’s adaptive style which uses a delightful meta framing for the whole of the film. Alcott drew from her family to create the Marches with Jo, most likely, representing herself. In this way, the film opens with Jo entering the office of Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) in hope of selling her work. After this exchange, the camera quickly cuts to a shot of a red book in left frame showing off the gilded title of the film with Alcott’s name underneath. Though this is the only time the audience is shown this, it’s a brilliant way to (a) acknowledge the original novel and (b) prep the audience that this is, in fact, an adaptation, and that it will be Jo’s story. In the original novel, the story travels in time via a Part One and Part Two, but Gerwig brilliantly uses Jo to funnel time. The present is a place in which events culminate, and the past is remembered with a fondness or is ruminated on in light of current events. Just as any living, breathing person might find themselves gazing off in space or sparked to recollection by some long-forgotten thing, so does Gerwig send the audience back-and-forth through time via Jo. The narrative does present events unknown to Jo, so she is not a perspective the audience clings to, but it’s her time stream which controls the unfolding of events for us. In this way, Gerwig uses Jo in the same manner as Alcott, as a cypher for all the events which do and have transpired. This all, of course, curves back around at the end of the tale and, through Gerwig’s narrative approach, the audience not only observes Jo’s rise to adulthood but can feel the emotional weight of it all. We know that Jo is a manifestation of Ronan’s performance under the direction of Gerwig under the influence of Alcott, yet, through sheer mastery of execution, everything about Jo materializes into something concrete.
This is, perhaps, the biggest reason why Little Women resonates so greatly with so many for so long. The characters within the story are fully-realized, possessing dimension and weight. To make them manifest for her adaptation, Gerwig assembled some of the best actors in their respective generations to play the characters both young and old. In 2017, Ronan first worked with Gerwig on the critically acclaimed Lady Bird, establishing that perfect pairing of actor and director. Here, Ronan is given another fantastic character to give form to and she absolutely makes it her own, filling Jo with staunch resoluteness, quick wit, and a soft heart. Watson imbues Meg, Jo’s older sister, with a quiet determination without sacrificing that desire to be protected, desired, and flattered with gifts. Pugh, having a terrific year with performances in Midsommar and Fighting with My Family, captures the complexity of being a younger sibling wanting what the older siblings have while also carving out something for herself. Scanlen has the hardest job of all, presenting Beth as the most contented of the March siblings, forever in a state of youthfulness and innocence which, once lost, cannot be regained. Each of the four actors offer compelling performances on their own, but, together, they create a tapestry of the female experience in a time not so long ago when everything about a woman’s life was defined by whom they marry. As Gerwig’s adaptation so frequently reminds, marriage is an economic proposition in which the wife gains funds, but the husband takes everything the woman possesses, including prior valuables, any children born, and anything else for which the wife bears fruit. The role and perception of women has only shifted but so much in the last 151 years and none of the March sisters are ones to be diminished for any man. Though only presenting a specific period in their lives of transition from girlhood to adulthood, this is likely why Little Women is so timeless and evocative.
Where time and space were infinite, there’s be room to get into the beautiful costumes from Jacqueline Durran (1917) which so wonderfully capture the spirit of the era while also making each of the characters unique. So often do period films strive to match historical records that they forget that people lived in those times and would dress accordingly to match their preference and comfort at every stage of development: emotional and physical. Or the fantastic cinematography from Yorick Le Saux (A Bigger Splash) crafting the precise, individual look of past (golden) and present (blue) until they seemed to merge together to form the future by the end. In this way, Le Saux created not just a visual representation of time for the audience but conveyed Jo’s internal view of that era, layering them with the emotional weight of memory. There’d also be time to discuss Dern’s resonate internal performance or the utter joy of Meryl Streep’s paradoxical Aunt March. Instead, we can only acknowledge that the women of Little Women are what make it so damned transcendent and this cast’s take through Gerwig’s vision is going to be the first step for many audiences into a lifetime of wonder and glee, disappointment and sorrow, all with the knowledge that our stories continue beyond the last page. That we are immortal through those we love. That we are not alone.
In theaters December 25th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.