In this world of endless adaptations and dusted-off IP, there occasionally comes along a film where you can feel the director’s affection for the source material emanate from the screen.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is one of those films.
Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel is one of the most adapted pieces of literature in American history. Most people are at least tangentially familiar with the story simply by the law of numbers, either from the novel itself, Hollywood’s three previous adaptations (most recently with the Oscar-nominated 1994 version starring Winona Ryder) or even from Friends, when Rachel introduces, and spoils, the book for Joey. With such a storied history steeped in expectations, it’s a wonder that there’s any ground left to mine without being woefully redundant.
Gerwig’s remedy is to play with the narrative’s chronology, restructuring and thereby reintroducing the story of the March sisters through flashbacks. Little Women begins with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) delivering a story for publication to a newspaper, under the guise of a friend. She lives a quiet but unremarkable life in a New York boarding house, where she makes enough money as a teacher to provide her family back home in Massachusetts. The Jo we’re introduced to here is a far cry from the spirited teenager she was seven years ago, living with her three sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and their mother Marmee (Laura Dern). All of the girls have experienced change: Meg is married with two children but unhappy with her meager circumstances, Amy is living in Paris with her rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep), contemplating her artistic ability and romantic prospects, and Beth is at home terribly ill. Beth’s illness is the catalyst for Jo to return home to Massachusetts, to care for her family and reckon with the past and how it shaped the women she and her sisters have become.
Restructuring Little Women is an inspired choice that more than mitigates any potential risk. We may lose the surprise of Jo rejecting Laurie’s (Timothée Chalamet) impassioned proposal, but knowing their relationship is doomed gives us a greater appreciation as to why it is and the scenes between them an added weight. All of the girls’ storylines similarly benefit from the power of inevitability that Gerwig grants them. Reverse-tracking Jo’s journey to the world-weary insecurity we first encounter offers an opportunity to re-connect with this well-known character, exploring her merits and faults through the headstrong youthful passions. Amy, historically the most challenging of the Marches, benefits the most: the difference between her rambunctious, petulant childhood and her calm, reserved adulthood is so stark that she is easily the most compelling character in the film. The tragedy of Beth is heightened by how past and present are woven together, offering a glimmer of history repeating itself that only strengthens the blow. There isn’t much to be done for Meg and her arc, but even she is afforded some lovely moments, particularly in the past.
The liberties taken in this adaptation wouldn’t work without the passion and affection Gerwig clearly has for the source material. Every frame and line of her excellent screenplay is imbued with her genuine love for the Marches and their stories. As unfamiliar as I am with the novel, I can tell that Gerwig holds Alcott’s words in the highest regard, and she did her best to remain true to them while surfacing themes that would resonate with today’s audiences. Her interpretation of the March story explores the full scope of women’s ambition, and how they run up against the expectations of oneself and society. All of the Marches are given fully-formed wants and desires, and Gerwig is generous in giving each the weight it deserves, whether it be Meg’s dreams of family life or Marmie’s neighborly compassion. She is also generous with the humor, pairing Alcott’s wit with the comedic timing that made her directorial debut Lady Bird such a delight. Together, it makes for a beautiful viewing experience, the kind where you only stop smiling to shed a tear or two (one time expected, another not so much).
With such confident and warm direction, only a truly dismal cast would warrant Little Women a disappointment. Of course, Gerwig’s list of performers is an embarrassment of acting riches, and the performances given are top-notch across the board. Saoirse Ronan reunites with her Lady Bird director for another excellent performance, capturing both Jo’s irrepressible spirit and her adulthood ennui perfectly. She’s also reunited with former co-star Timothée Chalamet, who plays an excellent foil to both her and Florence Pugh’s Amy. Laura Dern, an Oscar frontrunner as a ferocious lawyer in Marriage Story, is all heartbreaking warmth as Marmee, while Meryl Streep is a riot as the haughty, distant Aunt March. Of the cast, Pugh is the greatest revelation, taking full advantage of her character’s renewed position to deliver a deeply compelling portrait of a woman coming to grips with her circumstances. She commands every scene she’s in with ease, whether she’s petulantly yelling at Jo or coolly dressing down Laurie about the economic propositions of marriage. To say that she holds her own against several Oscar winners is an understatement, and if there is any justice, Pugh will be able to count herself as one soon.
Little Women is a film of exceptional warmth and genuine emotion, not just for Louisa May Alcott’s centuries-old novel, but also for its resonance with generations of readers. The story clearly had a profound impact on Greta Gerwig, and her appreciation is almost overwhelming in her interpretation. This version of Little Women justifies the continued popularity and relevance of the Alcott’s novel, and further solidifies Gerwig as one of the most impressive auteurs in Hollywood, capable of crafting emotionally rich and deeply satisfying works with astonishing ease. Another adaptation of Little Women is almost certainly coming within the next generation or two, but it will have an even higher bar to clear.