Spoiler Alert, if you haven’t read the 1868-69 original novel or seen any of the 20 adaptations.
Greta Gerwig’s adaption of Louis May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, was released on Christmas Day 2019. It’s the fourth major adaptation of the novel, not counting multiple series or made-for-television movies, plays, radio shows, and an opera.
Gerwig is quickly making a name for herself as a writer and producer one can trust to create a beautifully crafted, intricate film that pulls on the heart-strings and celebrates humanity. Her Little Women does just that.
Set in civil-war era Massachusetts, the movie tells the story of the four March sisters. It’s a family saga, unraveling as Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saorise Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) experience their coming-of-age. But while Little Women, the book, is about the March family, “Little Women” is about the author, Alcott, as well.
Louisa May Alcott based the novel on her own life: her loyalty to her sisters, her impoverished family, and her creative endeavors. Gerwig has made this homage clear, even including in the film Alcott’s dedication to writing; adapting to be ambidextrous so she could write all through the night, after her right hand became cramped and tired.
The film, which traditionally has started as the novel does on Christmas day, begins with a nervous Jo waiting to speak to a publisher to sell her written stories. From there the narrative dips back and forth from the sisters’ adult lives to them as children. The scenes might not be chronological, but it is always clear when and where we are.
Subtle differences separate the scenes; their young lives are bright, colourful, filled with music and laughter—the very essence of childhood when anything is possible—while their adult lives are cold and dark. The consistent clashing tones result in a movie that is lighthearted and fun, despite the hard elements.
In part this is due to the specific scenes Gerwig cuts between. At one point, the film shows Jo writing from her family home attic window, then cuts to her writing in her New York boardroom. The scenes keep their emotional integrity, despite jumping through time. This departure from a linear narrative might be one of the film’s strongest features (Meryl Streep and Laura Dern aside.) It’s a fresh, new way to tell a story, especially one that’s been done over so many times.
Gerwig keeps the film accessible and relatable to contemporary audiences while maintaining realism for the time period. It feels like the nineteenth century—the sets and costumes are period-accurate, and they feel lived-in, not as stiff as some historical and classical films—but there is a universal temperament and excitement that feels very modern.
As for characters and acting, it’s no surprise that this movie is up for so many awards. There isn’t a single role that disappoints or is under-appreciated and the actresses are at the top of their game. The most surprising is Pugh as Amy. Past adaptations have often been the Jo-show, because she is a firecracker and, of the four sisters, most rejects the traditional “womanly role” in society.
Meg, Amy, and Beth are given the room to breathe and grow in Gerwig’s film. Amy, regarded generally as a clownish child, grows naturally into her sophisticated role. As her Aunt March (played by Meryl Streep) encourages her to marry rich, she says “Jo is a lost cause. So you are your family’s hope now.”
Beyond the March sisters, the characters are numerous, but no one ever feels flat or secondary. Even Beth, the youngest, quietest, most subdued of the sisters feels fully developed. Each has their own thoughts, own desires, their own dreams. Gerwig’s writing, which often incorporates Alcott’s, makes for strong dialogue. There isn’t a single case of unnecessary conversation, nor an over-exuberance in making a point.
What we’ve come to expect from Gerwig is attention to detail. From dialogue to costumes, from movement to lighting. There is no shortage of details to pick up on, no overlooking of a single, minute thing. Imperfections are rejoiced, spirits are lifted, and generations can find common ground in the humanity of the film.
It feels like a tribute to childhood, to family; of desire and ownership. A love-letter to a time that is behind us, sure, but in many ways still right in front of us. It is a refreshing take on an old classic and something that will inspire the creative women of the modern world.