Which Little Women adaptation is your favorite? There have now been seven films, as well as numerous TV serials, operas and stage plays, radio dramas, and even an anime based on Louisa May Alcott’s two-volume tale of the four March sisters. While I’m familiar with the novel, and saw the 1994 film many years ago, I must confess that I have no particularly strong affection for the story. But for many people, including director Greta Gerwig, Little Women is the definitive fictional narrative of their childhood. And this is the challenge, isn’t it? How does one make such an oh-so-familiar and cherished story feel fresh and new while remaining true to the spirit of the original?
So when I saw Little Women in the local St Andrews cinema on my own—my wife was a bit wary, as she absolutely loves the Winona Ryder version and doesn’t want the story somehow spoiled—I tried to enter into the experience with few expectations, a quasi-blank slate in order to experience Gerwig’s filmic adaptation with an open mind and heart. And I’m delighted to say that my wife’s concerns can be put to rest: Little Women is a joyful delight, filled with affecting performances, a generous mise-en-scene, and a novel narrative structure, all of which make for a bold cinematic drama of a beloved story. It’s a warm hug of a film, comforting and life-giving in its graciousness.
You likely already know the basics: the four March sisters—Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh)—live with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) in Civil War-era Concord, MA as their father/husband (Bob Odenkirk, in a delightful supporting role) is away from home. A local wealthy gentleman, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and his grandson, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), grow in their affection and friendship with the March sisters, while the nearby cantankerous Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has strong feelings about the poverty and frivolity of her relatives. Meg is practical and beautiful; Jo is strong-willed and independent; Beth is kind and quiet; and Amy is the baby of the family in every way, a bit spoiled and eager not to be left out. They’re all interested in art, and they all love each other with a deep commitment. While every sister is given near-equal treatment here, the central character is still Jo, the fiercely intelligent writer who ultimately put her family’s story to the page (the sale of her story of “Little Women” to the publisher, Mr. Dashwood [played by Tracey Letts] is very well done).
Every performance in Little Women is wonderful, but I especially want to highlight Dern, Chalamet, and Pugh. Dern’s cutthroat performance as a divorce attorney in Marriage Story is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, but she’s just as a good, if not better, here as Marmee. Dern exudes warmth and serenity while also having a distinct strength about her—you just know that she can handle any situation life throws at her. Yet when she tells Jo that she’s angry every day, that she’s not a naturally patient person, that she wishes for more for her daughters, we can believe it. She’s kind, but she’s no wimp. Chalamet as Laurie is playful and romantic, bringing a lanky boyish casualness to the role via his various sprawling postures and poses. Yet it’s Pugh who gives a remarkably complex performance, and it’s especially noticeable in distinguishing between “child” and “adult” Amy. When she’s a girl, she’s whiny and silly and over-the-top in her emotions; when she’s a woman, she’s refined and charming and smart. You can see it in her posture when she’s walking: as a girl, she’s a bit out of control or thoughtless, where her Parisian adult counterpart is distinguished and refined. That Pugh can make both performances feel like the same character—that she can be both “little girl” and “grown women” all at once in a convincing manner—is a remarkable feat of acting. Between Midsommar, Fighting with My Family, and Little Women, Pugh is having a wonderful year. But then there’s also the spirited performance from Ronan, the surprisingly touching scenes with Cooper, and the stand out moments with Scanlen. And when Odenkirk finally walks into the room as Father March and says, “ah, my little women!” it’s like receiving your own warm hug.
Though some less-astute audiences may not be able to follow along, Gerwig’s elliptical narrative structure jumps back and forth between the experiences of childhood and adulthood, which heightens the emotional significance of key scenes. Parallel or mirror images between past and present emphasize the loss of innocence in growing up, the “golden age” of children having long gone as it’s replaced by the awareness of maturity. When times are difficult for the girls—e.g. Marmee leaving them to go to their father in the Civil War while Beth contracts scarlet fever—there’s still a warm hue in both the lighting and the girls’ spirits which communicates this youthful optimism. Jo will wake up and walk downstairs and Beth will be there, good as new and surrounded by her family. As an adult, the lighting is cooler and gray, the women’s spirits a bit worn by years of enduring various hardships, but also honed and refined and strengthened with resolve. This time, Jo will wake up and walk downstairs and Beth will be…well, we know the heartbreaking outcome. And that’s what makes Gerwig’s contribution to the many adaptations of Little Women so compelling: this well-choreographed orchestration of time and memory in the narrative structure, editing, lighting, and cinematography draws out fresh emotional resonance, imbuing familiar scenes (e.g. Beth’s illness, Laurie’s rejection, Jo’s published story) with new affective impact. I was moved. That surprised and delighted me.
Though the story is 150 years old, Gerwig’s Little Women is remarkably faithful to its source material and brings out the modern resonances of the tale. When Amy tells Laurie of her economic reasons for marrying a wealthy suitor, or Jo laments that she wants to be independent without having to be lonely, there’s a present-day cultural connection that bespeaks of how forward-thinking Alcott’s story truly was. It recognizes that while we have come a long way regarding women’s rights and independence in 150 years, we still have a long way to go. There’s also a Christian element here, a religious moral goodness, a cinematic example of faith, hope, and charity in the March sisters. Indeed, it a lovely film—Gerwig clearly loves every one of these characters, and such love flows from the screen to the audience with generosity and grace.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3281548/