Fresh off the critical and commercial success of Lady Bird, and a clutch of major film awards, writer-director-actress Greta Gerwig had the pick of the bunch when selecting a new project. As it happened, a new adaptation of LM Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women which she had authored for Sony Pictures was in need of a helmer – and she stepped up to the plate.
The film confidently rebukes any suggestion that Little Women might be too cosy a choice for Gerwig, who has chronicled modern life (and love) in her work from a spiky, restless point of view. Right away, it’s clear that Gerwig is intent on grabbing the text of the timeless source material with bare hands. Many other film and TV adaptations (you might be familiar with Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, beloved by many) opt for a linear telling of Alcott’s story, drawn from her real experiences growing up in Concord, Massachusetts. Instead, we oscillate between the formative years of the March girls, and a period roughly 7 years later, when their troubles with career, marriage and family come to a head. While the restless jumping between both timelines occasionally caused me some confusion (but perhaps not ardent fans of the book!), Gerwig takes care to provide clues as to where we are in the narrative; in dialogue, in set dressing and crucially, in hairstyles. This bisected structure is a bold choice that helps us to better understand the characters – who they are, and how far they’ve come.
In the past, the four March daughters (Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy) help their mother (Laura Dern) to run the family home while their father is engaged with the war effort miles away. They talk, dance and squabble, and despite relative poverty there’s no absence of love in the house. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) dreams of becoming an author, and marrying for love rather than money (if at all). Meg dreams of finding true love. Beth’s struggles with scarlet fever are soothed by her love of the piano. Amy wants to paint, and covets her older sisters’ relative freedom. Much of the plot also concerns their wealthy young neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who fails to conceal his infatuation with Jo and pines after Amy as the years go on.
As Amy, Florence Pugh’s scrappy, melodramatic performance often steals the scene when the girls are together. Pugh’s precociousness serves her well as both the younger and older version of her character (no small feat for an actress who often appears older than her actual age). The cast is completed by Emma Watson and the up-and-coming Eliza Scanlan (soon to be seen in the Australian indie Babyteeth), who all share an authentic chemistry. Meryl Streep, as the disapproving Aunt March, is imperious.
Ronan embodies Jo’s bohemian streak and spark of independence beautifully: she’s a true companion to the character Ronan played in Lady Bird. Her mother’s observation that “there are some natures too noble to curb, too lofty to bend” rings true, and Jo’s burning desire to create art despite the patriarchal constraints of the time serves as the spine of this story. Like Lady Bird and Frances Ha, it’s a story about a young woman’s tentative steps towards a creative life (and her reckoning with the alternative). As the story goes on, Jo builds from writing short and lurid yarns for a local paper to submitting her own autobiographical novel for consideration – and inevitably facing a hard-nosed publisher who demands cuts and alterations to make the story meet his audience’s conservative expectations.
Sensitively, Gerwig doesn’t just make the case that Jo’s creative ambitions are of equal importance to her sisters’ desire for love and family. She argues that women of the time were groomed to aim for the economic stability of family life: a more pragmatic life choice than chasing one’s real dreams. It’s a surprisingly self-conscious angle which the screenplay returns to time and time again. The ending, in which subtext becomes text and Gerwig challenges the status quo of romantic period dramas, is absolutely thrilling by the conservative standards of other, tightly corseted adaptations, recalling the metafictional playfulness of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Shot by Yorick Le Saux, beloved of auteurs like Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch and Luca Guadagnino, Little Women luxuriates in the crisp autumn foliage and gleaming white snow of Massachusetts as the seasons change. The chocolate-box glossiness of Armstrong’s adaptation is sidelined for a more painterly sensibility, which is no less beautiful.
Little Women is a joyful film, though always streaked with a melancholy yearning for a fairer world – and a righteous anger about the lot of women in a society that doesn’t respect, or acknowledge, their ambitions. In the present day, when some ask whether another rendition of this classic story is even necessary, Gerwig proves that some things bear repeating.