Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been a staple in family libraries for the last 150 years, passed down from generation to generation. Emerging from the story are timeless themes: becoming your best self, sisterhood and the bonds of family, and the difficult passage from childhood to adulthood. Beneath the seemingly mundane exploits of the four sisters lurk the deeper themes of the meaning of love and marriage, the relentless drive and cost of ambition, the pain of self-doubt, the devastating experience of death and loss, and grief’s transformative power.
Little Women has been adapted in many forms, including three major motion pictures and a three-part mini series for PBS. Greta Gerwig’s version reinterprets Alcott’s classic novel for the 21st century, deepening its feminist message with nods to the author’s trail blazing life as a best-selling author. Inspired in part by Louisa May Alcott’s drive to support her family through her writing, Ms. Gerwig focused on the theme of women with relationship to ambition, art, and money.
Sprinkled throughout the lavish two hour and fifteen minute film are references to women and economy: Meg’s longing for wealth and a large home like her friend, Sally Moffat; Amy’s bold declaration that marrying well was an economic necessity for women (reflecting the thoughts of the wealthy Aunt March); Jo’s drive to sell stories in New York, and using her earnings to help her family, particularly ailing sister Beth.
Ms. Gerwig’s other innovation was to disregard the linear timeline of the story in favor of a thematic approach. As a means of focusing on the sisters as adults, the film employed flashbacks to recall memories which supported the themes. While this approach created a vibrant energy and unpredictability in the storyline, it also proved challenging and confusing, even for viewers who knew Little Women well. The change between present and past was so rapid at times that it was hard to grasp the connecting point between the two.
Such an approach hampered character development, depriving the story of its emotional depth. The continual back-and-forth in the timeline robbed scenes of their emotional intensity. The buildup, for example, to Beth’s tragic death (a pinnacle moment of the story) was undone in an instant with a time-shift back to Meg’s wedding, showing Beth alive and well.
While the “heart” of the story was missing at times (the 1994 movie takes care of that aspect beautifully), there was much to engage the mind, and this is where Ms. Gerwig’s version takes its rightful place. She knows what her audience wants and delivers, all the while daring to push the edge of the envelope. After an impassioned speech to her Marmee about the terrible dilemma of loneliness for women who chose to follow their ambition, Jo (inspired by the memory of Beth) threw herself into the writing of the novel of her heart, raising the everyday story of four sisters to the level of art and greater importance. The last thirty minutes of the film was an exhilarating ride, vacillating back and forth between Jo’s mad dash to the railroad station (egged on by her sisters) to catch Professor Bhaer before he leaves for the West, and Jo sitting with publisher Mr. Dashwood, hammering out the ending to her novel called Little Women. In a fitting tribute to Louisa May Alcott, Ms. Gerwig added aspects of Alcott’s own story to the scene. For writers inspired by Jo March, the scenes depicting the writing and printing of her book were particularly gratifying.
The casting of the March sisters was excellent. Saoirse Ronan is the quintessential Jo March with all of her creative fire (and anger), along with vulnerability and self-doubt. Emma Watson was a lovely Meg and Eliza Scanlen played a thoughtful and thoroughly human Beth. Florence Pugh nearly stole the show as Amy, bringing a greater depth to a much maligned character, and spicing her performance with touches of humor. There was a genuine sense of affection and camaraderie between the four actresses that created an endearing sisterhood.
Timothée Chalamet was questionable at times as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, particularly when it came to a romantic chemistry between him and Ms. Ronan. He was, in fact, more persuasive as a future husband to Florence Pugh. Laura Dern was warm and earthy as Marmee, but it was hard to believe she was “angry nearly every day of her life.”
Supporting players Aunt March and Mr. Laurence were played to perfection by Meryl Streep (who brought a tart humor to the formidable character) and Chris Cooper (creating a warm and poignant relationship with Beth). Louis Garrel was a surprisingly sexy Professor Bhaer with far too little screen time.
The movie sparkled with energy, creativity and beauty, complete with exquisite costumes and historical details. Shot entirely in Massachusetts, settings included the city of Lawrence along with Concord and Harvard, the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and the Crane Estate and beach in Ipswich.
A point of contention was the near total absence of both the spiritual and moral core of Little Women. While today’s viewers may not understand the connection of Little Women with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, it should not be difficult to underscore the need for an inner life and the acknowledgement of something beyond ourselves in order to become better people. The movie touched upon this theme with Beth but missed the opportunity to develop it. In an interview with Gabrielle Donnelly (see previous post), Ms. Gerwig shared this insight: “There was such a bent of self-improvement and bettering oneself in books at the time … but the fact is that these days, why we love the characters is not because of how they conquer themselves but because of how they don’t.” Ms. Gerwig does understand her audience. But by focusing exclusively on women with regards to ambition, art and money, the movie neglected the deeper message that a greater use of Beth could have delivered. She did not possess the ambition to use her musical talent for a wider purpose nor did she dream of marrying into money. Acknowledged by Amy as the “best” of the four, Beth quietly gave of herself while reflecting upon the meaning of life and death, a wisdom she somehow imparted to Jo in her last days. This then propelled Jo into creating her greatest piece of writing.
All that being said, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is deserving of praise; it is a thought-provoking movie to enjoy, ponder in the aftermath, and then see again.
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