Greta Gerwig lets the March sisters shine in her delightful adaptation
Sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots—in recent years the stream of old content warmed over for a new generation seems to have no end. The Louisa May Alcott classic Little Women has not escaped this fate; from 2017 to 2019 alone it received a total of three separate adaptations. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given the lasting popularity of Alcott’s tale. What may surprise viewers—it certainly surprised me—is just how enjoyable and fresh is the latest take on Little Women, from director Greta Gerwig.
Gerwig’s adaptation excels in practically every aspect, from the superb casting to the creative narrative choices. The decision to tell the story from the point of view of the now-grown-up March sisters, with frequent flashbacks to their adolescence, helps the film avoid the rushed feeling that the 1994 adaptation suffered from in its last act and allows the audience to spend more time with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in their adult lives—which are, frankly, more interesting than their childhood misadventures, charming as they may be.
But where the film really shines is in the respect it gives to each of Alcott’s characters as a person. Past adaptations have tended to put the characters into neat little boxes, bounded by one or two defining characteristics: Meg is the mature one; Jo is the boyish, inspired writer; Beth is shy and weak, practically a doormat; Amy is spoiled and vain. Gerwig, on the other hand, lets the March sisters—and the supporting characters as well—be more than stereotyped images. In Gerwig’s film, each character is a full-fledged human being defined not by a couple of adjectives, but — as all human beings are — by a deep need for relationship: for love. That love, as the film makes clear, is not necessarily romantic. The real focus of Alcott’s Little Women has always been on the love between sisters, family, and friends and Little Women (2019) makes this especially clear in two key departures from its source material.
In an emotional scene between Jo and Marmee, Jo (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, who has nabbed multiple awards and nominations for the performance) delivers this monologue: “I just feel like women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts…and they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty!” The first part of her speech (taken from another Alcott book, Rose in Bloom) is certainly powerful, but in her next line, Jo reveals an even deeper truth: “But…I’m so lonely,” she says. This scene comes after the death of Beth, who loved and believed in Jo more than perhaps anyone else. Jo goes on to question her decision to turn down Laurie’s proposal; though she does not love him romantically, she tells Marmee that she “care[s] more to be loved”. Reeling from the loss of Beth and confronting a lonely future, Jo wants nothing more than to be loved again. Laurie, of course, returns to the March household married to Amy, leaving Jo unable to retract her refusal.
If the film ended as the book did, Jo’s desire for love would of course be satisfied in the German professor Bhaer; everything would be tied up into another neat little box in which every living March sister gets her Hallmark happy ending: marriage. Instead, Gerwig takes her boldest liberty with Alcott’s characters, by going back to their true origin: Alcott herself. Alcott, who based Jo and the Marches on herself and her family, never married; she married Jo off to Bhaer in order to satisfy her male publishers, who, as the film explicitly tells the audience, wanted every female character to end up married or dead.
In Gerwig’s film, we see the traditional ending: Jo runs after Bhaer to stop him from going to California, and they kiss in the rain, Hallmark happy ending to a T. But then we return to Jo in the publisher’s office, presenting him with her finished book. This time, she offers the book that Beth told her to write, the book inspired by Jo’s love for her sisters. It is left to the audience to decide whether Jo actually did marry Bhaer, or whether, like Alcott, she remained unwed. This ambiguous ending emphasizes the core of Little Women: the women themselves, Jo and her sisters. Like Alcott’s story, Gerwig’s adaptation is not about Hallmark endings; it is and always has been about the real and often difficult love between the wholly human and often complicated March sisters.
Caroline O’Callaghan is a junior living in Badin Hall and studying studio art and theology. Contrary to popular belief, she is not a horse girl; she is a dog girl who dabbles in horses. (Editor’s Note: she’s totally a horse girl.) (Author’s Note: No I am not.) Cast your vote at firstname.lastname@example.org.