There is a guilty secret shared by more readers than you might imagine: some of us have never been fond of that preachy novel Little Women. It is a minority opinion to be sure: generations of women writers from Simone de Beauvoir to JK Rowling and Patti Smith have declared that they were inspired by Louisa May Alcott's 19th-Century book, especially her strong-willed, semi-autobiographical heroine, Jo.
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Greta Gerwig’s wonderous adaptation cuts through the novel’s moralistic surface to mine the themes beneath: feminism, creativity, independence and individuality. Without sacrificing any of the story’s period charm or authenticity, she adds a contemporary feel that can appeal to the book’s devoted fans and its sceptics alike. The performances are dynamic, notably those by Saoirse Ronan as the fiery Jo, Florence Pugh as the underestimated Amy, and Laura Dern as their wise mother, Marmee. And the film looks glorious. Wryly knowing and deeply emotional, it is a triumph.
Gerwig’s self-assured screenplay restructures the novel by starting with Jo and her sisters as adults, then going back and forth from their childhood to the present. That change highlights them as women, not little women-in-training, each with a sharply-defined character. This Jo is an amalgam of Alcott and her fictional character, first seen as an aspiring writer in New York. She takes her stories to a stern but encouraging publisher, Mr Dashwood, played by Tracy Letts with mutton chops. (He was, of course, Ronan’s father in Gerwig’s first feature, Lady Bird.) “Morals don’t sell nowadays,” he advises Jo, urging her to write more sensationally. Modern though it sounds, that line comes directly from the novel. It also slyly comments on Gerwig’s refusal to moralise, and sets the meta tone for all the Dashwood scenes, which borrow from Alcott’s experience.
Ronan is luminous as Jo, volatile and full of lightning-fast reactions
Fashionable Amy is in Paris as companion to their rich Aunt March, deliciously played by Meryl Streep with eye-rolling hauteur. Back in New England, Meg (Emma Watson) is married and a mother. Quiet, sickly Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is at home playing the piano.
The sisters’ memories gracefully take us back seven years, with Meg and Jo on the cusp of adulthood, but still staging theatrics and playing games in the attic. Inside the cosy house, Gerwig and the cinematographer Yorick Le Saux create a world of candlelight and fireside warmth. Outside, the New England countryside is an enticing landscape of clear, bright light and vivid colours, from green lawns to russet leaves and snowy paths.
Ronan is luminous as Jo, volatile and full of lightning-fast reactions. As a rambunctious girl she becomes great friends with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), the boy next door. And she has an angry streak, prompting Ronan and Dern to have a striking conversation about controlling their tempers. “I'm angry nearly every day of my life,” says the deceptively calm Marmee, who as portrayed by Dern is vivacious and energetic. This Marmee is not mawkish, even when imploring “my girls,” as she calls them, to give away their Christmas breakfast to a poor family suffering nearby.
Each of the main characters gets at least one generous set piece in the film, and Jo has several. One of the best silently shows the adult Jo, tired and intense, kneeling over dozens of manuscript pages spread out on the attic floor. It may be set in the 19th Century but the scene is one of the truest depictions of a writer at work ever put on screen. Ronan creates a character that goes deeper than Jo’s profession, though. She is at times torn between her desire for independence and the loneliness of that situation.
Pugh and Gerwig redefine the much-maligned Amy, bringing out her passion to be an artist and making her sympathetic. Justice for Amy, at last! Pugh takes her from a petulant child to a thoughtful, sophisticated woman who struggles with the knowledge that she has talent but no genius.
Much of the film’s modern, feminist current comes from attitude and style, including Jo’s male-inspired costumes of waistcoats and neck scarves. Occasionally, that theme becomes overt. In Paris, where Laurie has fallen for Amy after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal, he warns her against a loveless marriage for money. “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition,” Amy insists, when a woman cannot earn a decent living. And Gerwig gives her a scene Alcott’s readers may have dreamed of, a perfect example of how the screenplay takes unspoken cues from the novel and lets them blossom. Amy’s first response to Laurie’s declaration of love for her is full of hurt, as Pugh ferociously says: “I have been second to Jo my whole life, and I will not be the person you settle for just because you cannot have her.”
Meg is more sanguine but has her own complications. The young woman who dreams of having pretty things when she goes to a ball – frankly, there could be fewer dances in this film – becomes the wife of an impoverished tutor (James Norton). She loves him but blurts out during an argument: “I try to be contented but it is hard. I am tired of being poor.”
There’s not much Scanlen can do with pallid Beth, the soon-to-be-dead sister, though. And Chalamet is more charming as the spirited boy than as the tame adult, who registers so little on screen he might as well be a ghost.
Jo returns to see Dashwood at the end of the film, having written what we now know as Little Women. His advice that she should have the fictional Jo get married, taken from Alcott’s publishing experience, allows Gerwig to create a resolution that is at once swoonily romantic and aware of its over-the-top romanticism.
Screen adaptations of Little Women go all the way back to a lost, silent version from 1917, and include the famous 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn and a lovely 1994 film with Winona Ryder. Even in that long line, Gerwig’s smart, delightful film seems on its way to becoming a classic.
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