Film & Television

‘Little Women’: Greta Gerwig’s Bold New Take On A Beloved Classic

What do Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula LeGuin, Nora Ephron, Patti Smith, J. K. Rowling, and Hillary Clinton have in common?

They all saw themselves in Louisa May Alcott’s tomboy heroine Josephine March.

Three years ago, former Secretary of State Clinton explained to a student interviewer, “When I was young, I really identified with Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, particularly the character of Jo. The book was written at a time when there weren’t as many options for women and girls as there are now . . . I remember reading that book and thinking, I want to be like that when I grow up.”

Since 1868 and 1869, when Alcott’s novel was published in two installments, countless little women have related to its groundbreaking message of female empowerment. It has been translated into more than 50 languages and has never been out of print. It has been adapted as plays, musicals, television shows, anime series, radio dramas, and seven different movies, from a silent film in 1917 to the beloved Gillian Armstrong version of 1994.

One has to wonder if we really need another. The answer, happily, is yes.

Greta Gerwig, the acclaimed indie actress turned award-winning screenwriter and director, has just released the latest adaptation of Alcott’s beloved work. And, the book’s myriad fans can breathe a sigh of relief; the March sisters are in very capable hands indeed. In fact, it’s quite wonderful to see those familiar characters in a new light.

Little Women is at once a truly excellent piece of moviemaking, a tribute to an American classic, a worthy descendent of 150 years of dramatizations, and a powerful message to any young girl who feels disenfranchised on the basis of her gender.

Gerwig, who counts herself among those women inspired by the novel, makes bold choices about her film’s timeline. Other adaptations have started with the book’s opening line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” and ended with Jo accepting Professor Bhaer’s proposal “under the umbrella.” Gerwig chooses instead to begin with a grownup Jo, living and working in New York City, trying to sell one of her sensational stories to The Daily Volcano. Self-consciously, she tells the editor that she’s there on behalf of a friend, but her ink-stained fingertips give her away. She receives a bit of editorial advice along the lines of “less is more,” is handed the royal sum of twenty dollars and invited — or, rather, “her friend” is invited — to submit more. Jo returns to her boarding house, overflowing with such elation that she runs rather than walks through the streets of the city. She may be a grown woman, but this is clearly the same wild spirit that chafed at the limitations imposed on her because she wasn’t born a boy.

From this engaging open, in which Gerwig sets her movie up as less a domestic drama and more a writer’s beginning, scenes move back and forth between the March sisters’ joyful youth in Concord and the different paths they take as young adults. The shifts in time can be a bit tricky to follow at first, but they enable Gerwig to draw powerful parallels lost in traditional, chronological tellings. For example, we see Beth’s initial illness and her supposed recovery just before we witness her death some seven or eight years later. The two scenes follow much the same path, with Jo in bed alongside her sister, imploring her to stay. The sadder outcome of the latter is all the more poignant in contrast to the near miraculous former.

Gerwig also weaves in elements of Alcott’s own life. Her Jo explains that, instead of marrying, “I’d rather be a spinster and paddle my own canoe,” words attributed to — and about— the author herself. After selling her autobiographical novel Little Women, Jo is encouraged by her editor to marry off her characters, just as Alcott was in real life. In fact, that’s why Alcott created the less-than-romantic paragon Friedrich Bhaer as a sort of revenge. Although forced to include a marital happy ending, the author refused to hand Jo over to a conventional Prince Charming. But, as Armstrong did before her (Gabriel Byrne was awfully sexy for a professor), Gerwig eschews the author’s fusty older man for a younger and more attractive version.

I confess I wasn’t thrilled with sultry Frenchman Louis Garrel as Bhaer. Or with Timothée Chalamet, who is 24 but looks about 13, as Laurie. But, when it comes to the March family itself, Gerwig’s casting is brilliant.

Little Women follows on the heels of 2017’s Lady Bird, the director’s much-lauded debut, which earned her an Oscar nod (among hundreds of other nominations and awards). For that film, Gerwig chose Irish-American Saoirse Ronan for her unconventional heroine. Here, she again casts Ronan in the lead role of Jo, and the fine young actress turns in a performance every bit as memorable as Katharine Hepburn’s (1933) and Winona Ryder’s (1994). In fact, I’d argue that Ronan may be the truest Jo we’ve seen yet.

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