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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23 Replies to “Movie Review: Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a thought-provoking and daring take on the classic novel”
I’m one of those who won’t be seeing this film, pretty much for the same reasons I don’t watch dramatizations of the lives of people who are still living or whose lives are well-documented (e.g. recent movies and TV series about members of Britain’s royal family). For me, because the lives of the March sisters are definitively and thought-provokingly documented in Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece, any re-interpretation only puts barriers between us and them. I have seen the 1933, 1949 and 1994 movies, and all of them left me feeling as though something wonderful had been violated (even though I admired Peter Lawford’s wistful “Laurie” :-). I’ve tried to analyze this reaction, and have concluded that at the end of the day it comes down to this: When you feel you know, or have known, someone, you do not want a fictionalized version of them. I feel that if a creative person admires “Little Women” and wishes to honor it, he or she can best do so by incorporating its enduring themes in a work that is completely original. Thank you for your thoughtful, balanced review of this latest film.
You’re welcome. Little Women is such a deeply personal story. I admit that I do not feel the same attachment to it because I did not grow up on it. I read it late in life and actually both times I read it I actually listened to it. After this movie, I decided to actually read it! I think though that little bit of distance I feel about the story makes me anxious to see how other people interpret it, and I’ve learned tons about why people feel the way they do about this story.
While I normally feel the same as Christine, I wanted the movie to do well and was curious about this feminist take on a much-loved story. I also wanted to know if my nieces might enjoy this adaptation.
My dad and I went to see it Friday night. (I had to wait two whole days!) He found the non-linear storytelling confusing and thought my nieces would too. I thought they’d be OK if they read the abridged version of the book I gave them but the 1994 movie would be better. Like you I felt the childhood scenes were too rushed and I also missed the emotional connection to Beth. However, my dad cried like a baby, he says…
I didn’t miss the spiritual aspect of the novel and felt the moral aspect was covered well enough although it lacked some of Marmee’s wise counsel.
I will have a full review on my blog very soon. https://bluestockingmusings.blogspot.com
Be sure and email it to me – I look forward to your review. People react so differently to this movie, it’s really quite amazing!
I´ll probably go and watch it at the end of this week. I keep hearing that the ending was rushed and dividing opinions. Everything looks beautiful but based on the script Amy seems to be the only one who gets her full-character arc. I still think little women would work best as a well-written series.
Funny, I didn’t think the ending was rushed – I hadn’t heard that comment before. People react quite strongly to this movie, mostly positive. I agree with regards to a series and it has been tried a couple of times but it never seems to be enough. As for me, I’ve gone back to reading the book again. 🙂
This film is praised for having a female director, female screenwriter and mainly female cast, and yet 1994 film had a female director, female screenwriter and a female cast. You hit the nail when you said that Gerwig knows her audience. There is a certain amount of nihilism in this adaptation (which is a current trend) and so was in the pbs series but it´s not something that exists in the book, Alcott meant it to be “pure and not even a bit sensational”. One of my friends who saw the film said that maybe they made a mistake by rereading the book before they went to see the film since then she was constantly comparing the things that we’re missing.
Did you notice too how everyone had to do things all on their own? I particularly noticed in Marmee’s speech to Jo about her anger. In the book she credits Mr March with helping her but in the movie it was just her own strength. Heaven forbid she should credit her husband with any help! And then there was the whole thing about some Noble characters don’t need to be deterred or whatever comment like it’s okay for Jo to have all this rage. Even Jo is smart enough to know that’s not right!
The quote I think you’re alluding to, Susan, is actually from Abigail’s journals! I just finished them and I remember it jumping out at me since I’d seen that clip online. She writes in 1850: “I believe there are some natures too noble to curb, too lofty to bend. Of such is my Lu.” I interpreted this (in both the journal and the movie) to mean not that it’s OK for Louisa/Jo to be angry, but that she doesn’t want her independent girl to become something she isn’t. Just thought I’d throw that in there!
Thank you for clarifying that!
Thank you for a brilliant review, Susan. I’ve tried and tried to analyze for myself why this movie left me surprisingly cold (although I responded heartily to the 1994 version), but couldn’t put my finger on it. You did. There were anachronisms (Jo goes hatless to interview a publisher? Laurie gets falling down drunk? Public kissing?), but there were some in the 1994 version too, and they didn’t bother me. I thought the scrambled sequencing here was theoretically an interesting, refreshing approach, and of course knowing the story so well I had no trouble following it. But it turned out – as you pinpointed – that the structure really was the problem. You couldn’t be drawn into an emotional scene without slam, bam, it’s seven years earlier (or later). So I felt distanced emotionally…and despite the many beauties and excellences of the production (in particular the costumes, settings, Ronan and Pugh’s performances), I was disappointed.
In all honesty, I can’t really take full credit for that insight. I had to read other negative reviews (and there were only 4 out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes) in order to figure out why I too felt flat when I saw it the first time. I think Gerwig assumed that the viewers would already know the characters and it would not be necessary to build backstories. But what she failed to take into account is that when you encounter actors playing these characters you have to get used to them playing the characters and then you build a relationship. I had to see the movie twice in order to build those relationships. But I still didn’t feel the emotional reaction that I felt with the 1994 movie.
I haven’t seen any other even semi-negative reviews. I think people are reluctant to give them because they’re so pleased to see a young woman director and a strong woman themed movie, plus there are plenty of wonderful things about it. Fine performances, gorgeous settings, what’s not to love? But if love does not come, because of a clunky misexecution in structure, I think it’s important to point out that fault. It’s not a reason to hate or not to see the movie, but it needs to be said.
I was also disappointed by the film–despite the fine acting and the high production values, the movie felt very flat to me. Of course, the trainwreck screenplay structure certainly didn’t help matters!
And while I wish Greta Gerwig well, this is why Little Women didn’t work for me: there was too much 21st century woke Greta, and not enough 19th century moral Louisa.
Ooo, great comment!
I mostly agreed with your assessment of the film. I didn’t miss the spiritual aspects and felt the morals included were fine. A full review is on my other blog https://bluestockingmusings.blogspot.com/2020/01/little-women-movie-review.html
I mostly agreed with your review. I didn’t miss the spiritual aspect and I thought the moralizing was fine. A full assessment of the movie is on my other blog. I mostly agreed with your assessment of the film. I didn’t miss the spiritual aspects and felt the morals included were fine. A full review is on my other blog https://bluestockingmusings.blogspot.com/2020/01/little-women-movie-review.html
I cannot wait to see it! I’ve read everything I can find on the Alcotts! I visit the Concord house at least twice a year as well as their graves.
Louisa wrote a “girls’ story” to take care of her family. I think she would love this adaptation of her story!
As you are so into the Alcotts, you might want to join our Facebook group. Search for “Louisa May Alcott: a Group for Fans, Readers, & Scholars.” and ask to become a member.