Arts and Entertainment

For “Little Women,” the Eighth Time’s the Charm

The almost retired superior-to-Jacqueline Arts and Entertainment editor Emma Linderman reviews Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”

Reading Time: 6 minutes

When asked to write a girls’ novel in 1868, Louisa May Alcott, who specialized in thrilling adventure stories, wrote the following in her diary: “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

In the 151 years since its publication, the girls’ novel in question has indeed proven interesting; Alcott’s “Little Women” has never gone out of print, and has been adapted into a cartoon series, a stage musical, and eight feature films, the latest of which hit theatres on December 25, 2019.

Clearly, some things never get old, and Alcott’s tale of sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and their comings-of-age in post-Civil War New England is one of them. But the question remains: why another remake? Excluding a largely overlooked 2018 television adaptation, the last time “Little Women” hit screens was in 1994, when women on film were largely used as romantic devices and before the rise of the #MeToo movement. The film industry’s focal points change along with those of the public; the general consensus is that a new “Little Women” is essential for a new generation.

Though the core plot of “Little Women” remains intact, the 2019 film, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, brings to light several subtleties that are present in the original novel. As in previous adaptations, the film revolves around Jo March (this time played by Saoirse Ronan), the second oldest March sister who aspires to be a writer. Jo is modeled after Alcott herself, who rejected female standards of the era and remained unmarried.

While previous adaptations have placed more emphasis on Jo’s love life than her aspirations, Gerwig’s film is strung together by the narrative of Jo’s literary career in an industry that, like Gerwig’s, is far more favorable to men. In the film’s opening scene, Jo presents her writing to an editor, saying she is doing a favor for a friend. As the film progresses, so does Jo’s work, which evolves from plays written as a hobby to a novel about the March family, which she is asked to write by her ailing sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen).

All the girlish charm of the original novel is preserved, and is complete with a fair amount of hilarious bickering among the March sisters (notably, a screaming match after Jo burns her sister Meg’s (Emma Watson) hair off with a curling iron). What is different, however, is the story’s chronology. Rather than following the Marches from children to adults, the film lapses between the two time periods, a difference shown through the use of two overarching color schemes. Though not glaringly obvious, every scene from the sisters’ childhood is warm-hued, mirroring their carefree existence and lack of grave concerns. The main worries of this earlier period are the Marches’ father being away in combat, and Beth’s bout with scarlet fever, both of which, at least for the time being, are resolved.

After their respective comings-of-age, the Marches’ problems become far more pressing—a catalyst for Jo’s nostalgia and eventual book inspiration. Beth’s illness returns and now is terminal; Meg, the eldest, marries, leaving Jo feeling as if her sister has grown up and left her behind; and Jo comes to learn that her credibility as a writer is at risk of being marred in the professional world. For Jo, youth is a near-perfect bubble in which her dearest values are untouchable. Her cozy-colored childhood extends no further than Concord, Massachusetts, and her sisters are never more than an arm’s length away. Similarly, Jo’s writing is subject only to praise, the only readers being her family and neighbors. As these comforts begin to slip away, Jo struggles to grasp why.

The separation of childhood and adulthood is most clearly indicated by neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Though told out of order, Laurie’s role for the first half of the film is nothing more than Jo’s best friend and brother to the Marches. In a masterfully executed first encounter, Jo and Laurie dance wildly on the outskirts of a party, acting unmistakably like a couple of kids. Later snapshots show more of the pair’s antics, including Jo punching Laurie in the arm after he jokingly extends his hand, and Laurie hiding in the Marches’ attic to surprise Jo’s sisters. The fun, however, ends almost as soon as it starts. Shortly after Meg’s marriage, Laurie himself proposes to Jo, closing the gates on the pair’s seemingly innocent friendship, as well as any hope that Jo had of an everlasting childhood.

Further contradicting her era’s societal expectations, Alcott was adamant that Jo would not marry Laurie, a plot point that fans greatly anticipated. Though hesitant for Jo to marry at all, she eventually conceded, marrying Jo to the decidedly unromantic German Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who is inexplicably but inconsequentially French in Gerwig’s adaptation.

Clearly the storyline of “Little Women” is elaborate, as is the film’s cast. Jo is technically the protagonist, but at its core, the film is carried by a triumphant ensemble. Leading the fray, Saoirse Ronan is electric, and embodies every trait and mannerism given to Jo in the novel and more. Complementing Ronan’s Jo is Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie, who is just as awkwardly romantic as one would hope. The two previously starred alongside each other in “Lady Bird,” (also headed by Gerwig) for which Ronan earned an Oscar nomination. If Greta Gerwig is any indication of a progressive shift in the directorial realm, the same can be said about Chalamet and Ronan as young actors. The pair’s chemistry is wonderfully conspicuous, with both actors seving as, in the words of Gerwig, each other’s “androgynous other halves.”

The rest of the cast is for the most part exemplary, made all the more exciting by inclusions of Meryl Streep as Aunt March and Laura Dern as Marmee. A surprising standout was Florence Pugh as Amy March, the youngest of the four sisters. Pugh plays Amy from a preteen to young adult, and is just as believable as a 12-year-old as she is at 21. Both her age and aesthetic particularity have lead to Amy being labeled as a brat, and while this streak is not absent in Gerwig’s adaptation, Amy’s actions have been newly justified. She laments about feeling second-best to Jo all her life, particularly in terms of the romance that buds between Amy and Laurie after Jo’s rejection. As the adult Amy, Pugh delivers a cutting monologue detailing the female expectations of marriage to which she is bound. In the wrong hands, this detail could read like a desperate attempt at woke-ness, but instead is masterfully woven into the plot after Laurie accuses Amy of wanting to marry for money rather than love.

The sole discrepancy among the cast comes in the form of Emma Watson as Meg March. Without having seen the film, Watson seems like a nice fit for Meg’s romantic sensitivity. As the film progresses, however, it’s hard not to feel as though Watson is a few steps away from a first read-through of the script. Her British accent is also poorly masked, which was a concern given that the remaining March sisters are also portrayed by non-Americans, none of which seemed to have any diction woes.

Watson’s performance aside, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a package deal. The script is true to the novel, but would not feel out of place in the 21st century; an early scene shows Jo writing furiously by a hearth, not noticing that her skirt is in flames. After being told, “Miss March, you’re on fire,” her only response is, “Thank you.” In this instance, as well as several others, the surprising humor is in the film’s accessibility; Gerwig’s dialogue feels less like that of a period piece and more reminiscent of an everyday conversation.

The icing on the cinematic cake is Gerwig’s tying up of the film’s loose ends, including the novel’s late contradictions to Alcott’s goals. Bhaer is not dismissed as Jo’s love interest, but their engagement, which previously served as the story’s conclusion is now woven into a scene in which Jo and her editor debate over the inclusion of marriage in her culminating novel. The film’s climax is delightfully meta, and from Greta Gerwig, it would seem ridiculous to settle for anything less.

This “Little Women” is, at its core, a group effort. As far as directorial candidates go, there are few better suited for the job than 36-year-old Gerwig, who has brilliantly woven her indie film expertise into the mainstream. In terms of actors, there seems to be no better choice than Chalamet and Ronan to bring Jo and Laurie into a new millennium. As in the 1800s, the playing field is still not level, a truth that was notably highlighted in the lack of female Golden Globe nominees this year—Gerwig included. From Jo’s debate over the percent of her earnings from her novel, to a female director being brushed aside by tradition, it appears that Alcott’s “girls’ novel” has a toehold in every generation.