Greta Gerwig Brings 'Little Women' To The Screen
Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic gets a feminist take
"Little Women" (1933)
"The Beguiled" (1971)
"Lady Bird" (2017)
Louisa May Alcott’s novel "Little Women" has been adapted to the screen many times and it gets a new one this year from Greta Gerwig.
"Little Women" has been a silent film (the 1917 film being the first screen adaptation), multiple Hollywood features, an animated series, a BBC mini-series, and even a Japanese anime and an opera.
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.
Alcott's novel was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books at the request of her publisher and used her own family as inspiration for the March sisters. The strong-willed aspiring writer Jo being her literary alter ego.
The book chronicles the sisters' lives as they transition from childhood into young adulthood. Meg (Emma Watson) is the eldest of the siblings and sets a course for family life with a man she adores. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is next inline and displays a fierce independence and a determination to become a writer. Amy (Florence Pugh) is the practical one and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the baby of the bunch. Single-handedly overseeing the family is Marmee (Laura Dern) while Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk) is serving as chaplain for the Union Army.
Gerwig and Ronan re-team for this adaptation fresh off the success of their indie collaboration "Lady Bird." They bring a fresh enthusiasm to the project and seem eager to revisit the old classic to see what it has to say to contemporary audiences. The result is a well-made and brightly performed film, but I have to say I can't stand it. It’s just not my cup of tea. I never liked having to read this beloved classic in school maybe because the character bearing my name spent the whole time sick and trying not to bother anyone.
The characters in Alcott’s book drip with goodness and self-sacrifice, and I have to confess, it bores me. I much prefer the flawed and tormented characters of the Bronte sisters or the satiric wit of Jane Austen for women writers published in the same century.
As for Gerwig's film, I can look at it objectively and appreciate the craft and care she puts into adapting it. I enjoyed how she restructured and reshuffled the linear narrative into one that moves back and forth in time to set key moments from different time periods against each other.
I even thought all the performers were perfectly cast. I was also impressed at how Dern and Pugh served up such different emotional colors from their other work this year, Dern having played the ruthless lawyer in "A Marriage Story" and Pugh taking us through the ringer of grief in "Midsommar."
I can appreciate all of that, yet I still found it hard to sit through the film because it's just not the kind of film I find easy to embrace. Although I will credit this adaptation as being the least annoying of the feature films.
I bristle at the relentlessly heartwarming tone, the constant group hugs, the selfless giving up of the little they have to give to others. Call me Scrooge but I just prefer characters who are more flawed and troubled. Even the characters described as mean come across as likable, and when Amy burns Jo's manuscript it doesn't carry the weight of true meanness from Amy, or true pain for Jo. Even the Civil War comes across as something the exists just to highlight how good and caring Marmee is.
As one would expect from Gerwig, she revisits the 150-year-old novel with a feminist eye. Each of the sisters get a scene to explain, justify or champion a point of view.
Meg extols the virtues of marriage to someone you truly love and want to share a life with even if that life is under constant financial strain. Amy stands up for her determination to make an economically sound marriage because women have to means of attaining wealth and security any other way. And Jo demands that women be respected for their minds, ambition and talents and not just be seen as creatures of the heart.
All these scenes are written, directed, and acted with the utmost sincerity and sense of empowerment. Pugh is especially effective in her scene, which you could see in an odd way as a precursor to Marilyn Monroe's argument for marrying a wealthy man in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
I loved Gerwig’s "Ladybird" where the characters felt more real and more interestingly flawed, but "Little Women" has too much homespun sweetness and feel-good cheeriness for my taste. I felt much more at home with the nastiness of "Uncut Gems" that also opened this week. But for all of you who loved the novel, I’m sure you will embrace the film and the charming March sisters.
For a contrasting opinion of "Little Women," check out the review from our new arts calendar editor, Julia Dixon Evans.