In 1868, a woman finds herself pitching a story to an interested publisher. It is a story largely based off of her life with her sisters growing up during the American Civil War. She has been a passionate writer her entire life, and this is her big moment to make an impact. Unfortunately, the publisher is highly skeptical that this woman’s story is sellable. Friedrich Bhaer, a professor who is in love with her, also criticizes the work – much to her chagrin. Things take a turn for the worse when the condition of the woman’s younger sister worsens, prompting her to return home
Right away, Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s signature story differentiates itself from those that came before through its framing device. Little Women a loose autobiography about Ms. Alcott herself. It is therefore highly fitting that Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation has Jo – rather than Ms. Alcott – pitching the story instead. With her affinity for writing and acting as the effective protagonist of the story, Jo is a stand-in for Ms. Alcott. To have Jo pitch the story adds a metatextual layer to Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation that straddles the line between an adaptation of a classic story and a biography of the author herself.
Despite this, Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation of Little Women follows the same basic plot as the original. The main story is set in 1861. Jo lives in a home with her mother, Marmee, and her three sisters, Beth, Amy, and Meg. Their father is fighting in the American Civil War, leaving only the women to run the household. With nineteenth century attitudes dominating the zeitgeist, this is a significant problem. After all, there were very few ways in which women could earn money during this time. Their aunt is well off solely because she married a rich man. Women who are on their own only get by due to the kindness of strangers.
What causes Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation to stand out from past attempts is the fact that the four leading actresses, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen, have an excellent dynamic that helps sell the bond of the sisters March. It’s especially admirable how much attention she gives to the characters of Beth and Amy in particular. Even those not versed in literature know of the tragic fate that befalls Beth – her death of scarlet fever. Although the novel is fairly lengthy, one can get the impression that Beth existed for the sole purpose of evoking a strong sense of pathos when she dies due to her comparatively limited role. Ms. Gerwig addresses this problem by giving Beth just as much screentime as the other March sisters, including a moment in which she plays a classical piece on the piano. Her character stays true to her novel incarnation, but Ms. Scanlen’s performance makes her stand out a lot more. This makes the news of her death sting that much more – especially because Jo ends up sleeping through it.
Meanwhile, how Ms. Gerwig treats Amy resolves an issue many people had with her. Fans of the novel found Amy to be a divisive character. This could be attributed to the conservative values that arose in the United States during the Great Depression. People at that time expected women to be nurturing. Consequently, they considered such a self-confident woman with a remarkably petty side off-putting. Then again, her most infamous moment involves burning Jo’s manuscript when the latter doesn’t take her to the theater, thus giving both the artistically inclined and liberals a solid reason to dislike her. This caused a jarring disconnect in which the narrative insisted Jo was in the wrong for reacting so violently when in practice, she had every right to be incensed. Not helping matters is that it was the only copy, thus negating the years of hard work Jo put into it. In Amy’s defense, she does regret her actions almost immediately, but the insinuation that Jo should forgiver her sister instantly is untenable.
How Ms. Gerwig goes about tackling this subplot is interesting because, if anything, she depicts Amy’s infamous act in a far more negative light. She burns each page to savor the revenge and proceeds to gloat about it when Jo returns. While this may sound counterintuitive, the moment is more effective in Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation because it has a better grasp on how the audience would react to such a slight. The narrative correctly places the blame on Amy for this indiscretion while portraying Jo’s refusal to instantly forgiver her as a natural reaction.
What ultimately allows Amy’s character to be much more palatable is that she is still shown to be a good person when push comes to shove. Her slipping into thin ice is treated as a karmic moment, and her later grievance over Beth’s demise is genuinely heartbreaking. The narrative also manages to save face by portraying her as more outspoken. While many people derided her character for being a gold digger, this narrative makes it clear just how limited her choices are. Marrying and keeping a rich husband is the only hope women had in this era, and Amy makes it clear she wants to do so in order to finance her family. It was incredible how Ms. Gerwig could take such a controversial character and make her both three-dimensional and compelling.
All in all, Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation of Little Women manages to hit the right notes. It’s a good period piece that doesn’t shy away from depicting the era’s problematic aspects while also downplaying the outdated values in the original text. The only real problem I have with it is how Ms. Gerwig treats the relationship between Jo and her potential love interest, Laurie. When I analyzed her debut film, Lady Bird, I commented that the idea of someone as attractive as Saoirse Ronan playing a character who is implied to be considered homely and unremarkable by other characters within the narrative stretched the suspension of disbelief too far. Considering the film’s dual emphasis on realism and naturalistic dialogue, it was highly jarring that it would commit such an error.
Little Women has a similar problem, but applied to two actors rather than one. Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet have such great chemistry as Jo and Laurie that when the former claims they aren’t meant to be together, it comes completely out of nowhere. Sure, those who read the books know they won’t become a couple, but at times, it feels like the story beats occur because the author says so rather for any reason based in diegesis. This facet along Lady Bird’s supposed lack of charm suggested that Ms. Gerwig had a bad habit of telling rather than showing when she was starting out.
Fortunately, this doesn’t ultimately detract from what is otherwise a much stronger effort. Indeed, one touch I liked is how Ms. Gerwig handled the ending. Anyone who thinks that publishers forcing authors to alter their work for the sake of marketability is a new thing may be surprised – probably dismayed – to know such things occurred before the turn of the twentieth century. At the time, publishers couldn’t fathom the idea of a story starring a woman in the lead role that didn’t end with her getting married. Ms. Alcott was forced to pair Jo with Friedrich – otherwise all of her hard work would’ve been for naught.
Using its non-linear structure, the film resolves this issue by making it ambiguous as to whether or not Jo actually gets married in the end. It’s only after the author talks at length with the publisher that Jo runs to Friedrich and marries him. However, because the film depicts Jo pitching the story rather than Ms. Alcott, it is highly probable that this scene isn’t canon. In real life, Ms. Alcott remained unmarried for her entire life – with fleeting evidence suggesting she may have even been a lesbian. Placing such a strong case for feminism, it is highly appropriate that over one-hundred years after the original publication of Little Women, Ms. Gerwig restored Ms. Alcott’s original intent.
I can imagine fans of Lady Bird were mildly disappointed in Little Women. While Ms. Gerwig’s first effort was an independent effort in the truest sense of the term, her second followed a more conventional structure. However, while Little Women lacked the sheer critical impact of her debut film, Lady Bird, I firmly believe it to have been an improvement. At the end of the day, the obnoxious characterization in Lady Bird made the two leads far less sympathetic than intended. Combined with a ruinous lack of charisma from either actress, their negative traits were impossible to ignore and the positive ones impossible to remember.
Little Women doesn’t have this problem – or at least not to the same extent. I was amazed that after the bland direction she had been given in Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan could suddenly command scenes again. Sure, there are some characters who aren’t especially popular – most notably, Amy. However, these were issues people had with the original story, making it difficult to fault Ms. Gerwig’s interpretation specifically. She clearly wanted to capture the spirit of the novel without altering what made it so special in 1868, so if any creative liberties existed, they were put in place to enhance the text rather than edit it. On this front, she doubtlessly succeeded.
Final Score: 7/10