If there’s any movie I’ve been kind of dreading this award season it was probably Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women. Not because I thought it would be “bad” by any means, it’s been critically acclaimed, has a stellar cast, and is the follow-up from the director of the movie Lady Bird which I liked quite a bit. So I had little doubt it would be well crafted, but what really had me dreading it is that I worried it would be a movie that I wouldn’t really be in a position to analyze or talk about all that intelligently. I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel of “Little Women.” It wasn’t assigned to me in school and have never been enough of a “classics” buff to read it of my own volition. I have seen a handful of its various film adaptations in passing and they’ve never done much for me and I even rewatched a couple of them in the last month in an attempt to get a better grasp of the story and the different ways to interpret them and they still didn’t really connect with me all that much. It just seems like one of those public domain books that gets kind of mindlessly remade over and over again on the big and small screen without much alteration every single generation like the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. But I certainly wasn’t going to skip something this big and talked about out of reviewer cowardice.
The film’s plot is largely unchanged from the story we’ve heard before. The film is set in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War and a few years after and looks at a household where a mother (Laura Dern) is looking after her four daughters while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army. Those daughters are the traditionalist Meg (Emma Watson), the tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and the troublemaker Amy (Florence Pugh). The family isn’t poor exactly but it’s hardly rich and they do have more well off relatives like their snobby Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) and also live across the way from the estate of a wealthy man named Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who is the guardian for his grandson Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) who comes to befriend the girls. Love triangles ensue and the girls eventually grow up and grow apart but certain bonds can only be broken so far.
Of all the adaptations there have been of this novel the one with the longest legacy up to this point was probably George Cukor’s Academy Award nominated 1933 version. That was not the first adaptation of the film (they’ve been remaking this since the silent era) but it was a major hit even if it’s probably less famous for its Alcott reworking than for how it fit into a sort of culture war that was brewing in Hollywood at the time. This was during the “pre-code” era and there was a lot of controversy at the time about the gangster movies and sex comedies coming out of the major studios at the time and this version of Little Women was being celebrated in certain circles as a conservative alternative that celebrated family values. Elements like Jo’s tomboyishness were still there (she was being played by Katherine Hepburn after all) but at its heart it is still very much a family movie with an emphasis on wholesome sentimentality and to some degree that’s also the case with the 1949 version (which is pretty much only notable for being in color) and the 1994 version which is shockingly sincere and straightforward for something starring Winona Ryder in the mid-90s. And that is more or less why I’ve never cared for these movies, they all kind of feel like they’ve all kind of felt like they exist to be played in middle school English classes and even when they depict tragedy they just feel kind of cloying.
Enter Greta Gerwig, who hasn’t made Little Women any less PG rated than her predecessors but has in many ways made the first adaptation of this thing that seems to be directed toward adult sensibilities. The clearest alteration that Gerwig has made is that she took the chronological narrative from the book and adjusted it into something closer to a flashback structure. The first scene is of Jo as an adult in New York working as a tutor while trying to get stories published and we also catch up with Amy in Paris, Meg dealing with her marital woes, and Beth having health problems. It then flashes back to their youth and the movie cuts between the two timelines through the rest of the movie. I’ve heard some reports of people finding this format confusing, and I may have benefited somewhat from seeing previous adaptations, but I thought it was pretty clear and also that the way this benefits the story more than outweigh any drawbacks. For one, it really helps to define the personalities of these four sisters right up front by showing them when they’re more developed. Previous adaptations struggled in this regard; they were able to make Jo’s differences clear enough with her tomboyish qualities but the other three sisters kind of blended together when they were just a bunch of children playing without extensive dialogue or internal monologue. Additionally, knowing from the beginning where these characters end up kind of ups the stakes on the childhood sections, which could often feel a bit episodic and aimless in the other adaptations where you don’t have a clearer end goal. And finally this allows those childhood flashbacks to feel more like pleasant memories than sappiness played straight and that somewhat plays into why I consider this adaptation to be more adult in its outlook than previous versions.
Needless to say there’s plenty that goes right here that has little to do with radical reinvention and everything to do with just getting certain things right. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Gerwig has assembled an all-star cast of actors young and old. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh are a pretty unimpeachable trio to play the main sisters and Timothée Chalamet in many ways seems to have been born to one day play Laurie. I will say that Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk seem to struggle a little bit here, in part because they’re playing overly virtuous and altruistic characters who don’t fit as well in this slightly more cynical interpretation of the source material, but other actors playing adults here like Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts do work well here and add fun little diversions to the film. Gerwig has also done a great job of making adjustments to the period detail that make things feel less stuffy without feeling overly anachronistic and Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score really helps to make things flow well. I also must say that even though the film is only fifteen to twenty minutes longer than any of the previous adaptations of the novel it sure feels like it has more breathing room which goes a long way toward making the story flow more naturally.
Now, I mentioned before that the 1933 Little Women was received as a conservative vision insomuch as it was family friendly so it is perhaps a bit of an irony that this latest version re-interprets the novel as something that was actually rather subversive, particularly in terms of how it viewed the role of women in its society. Some extra lines are written into the film to underscore this which do kind of stand out and feel a touch on the nose but I don’t exactly begrudge the movie for. I am a bit more on the fence about what the film does with its final moments in which (spoiler I guess) Jo is re-written to have become the author of a novel based on the lives of her sisters that is basically the novel “Little Women” (an idea the 1994 film also had) and a metatexual element takes over where a cigar comping publisher demands that this book be given the happy romantic ending that the real Louisa May Alcott was pressured into having, which then effects the final ending of the movie. This feels a bit like an out of place attempt on Gerwig’s part to have her cake and eat it too given that nothing else in the movie up to this point is trying to be particularly meta. On the other hand, that other ending legitimately does kind of suck and letting it play out sincerely like the other films do would not have been a satisfying end. So, at the end of the day I think my worries about not being able to engage with an analyze this movie were for naught and in many ways it’s actually a lot better than I had even hoped.
****1/2 out of Five