In honor of her new Broadway musical, I’m going to have Alanis Morrisette sum up Little Women:
It’s a Christmas pudding, When you’re already stuffed
It’s a late party guest, When you’ve just had enough
It’s a glass of Veuve, After cheap wine’s made you drunk
It’s a reverent adaptation, From Greta Gerwig (who’d a thunk?!)
Isn’t it ironic?
Unlike so many other Oscar-bait films this season, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women wasn’t premiered by a streaming service or at a prestigious film festival. Short clips were teased out tastefully through the fall and the film opened to holiday movie-goers in theaters crowded with franchise blockbusters and kiddie fare.
The irony is that this recent fall’s Netflix Oscar-bait and buzzy festival darlings turned out to be really good, satisfying the typically-wanting end-of-year hunger for an intelligent, resonant film. Little Women is that, but in light of the films this year that have forced debate about pressing issues or presented familiar subjects – and actors – in strikingly new ways, it feels a bit…little. When Joaquin is in one corner doing contortionist tricks and Scarlett and Adam are having a fight people are filming on their phones and Martin is on the sofa mesmerizing all the acolytes, the interesting but neurotic chatterbox you bumped into in the kitchen isn’t the person you’re going to remember in the morning.
The line is that Gerwig’s restless energy makes Little Women feel more ‘modern’, but Louisa May Alcott’s story was always modern. What Gerwig does is deliver an accomplished and respectful film that would have been just as accomplished without her playing with the timeline or pushing the March sisters into each other – literally and figuratively – as much as she does.
Jo March is probably the closest thing to a Gerwig character in classic literature, so Alcott really did the work there. Gerwig simply runs with it, and pulls in her alter-ego Saoirse Ronan to bring this umpteenth Jo to life. Which Ronan does terrifically of course, because she’s an actress with infectious energy, but she also goes deeper than many portrayals by leaning into the underlying neurosis of Jo, her desperate need to be liked as a person and respected as a unique voice.
The other place Gerwig most leaves a signature distinct from Alcott is in youngest sister Amy. She makes the character’s narrative arc more dramatic, giving us a March sister as interesting as Jo. This – not the timeline hopscotch or the camerawork or the styling – is what shows Gerwig to be as good a director as she is an actress and writer. It helps that she has Florence Pugh to make Amy mature in such a consistent and believable way.
It does feel like Gerwig went into this film most attracted to Jo and Amy, and didn’t bring the same level of examination to the rest of the characters. She approaches the other sisters, Meg and Beth, with little more than due diligence. Luckily, Eliza Scanlen, who plays doomed Beth, is an actress capable of expressing an inner life even when given few lines and scant screen time. Emma Watson’s Meg, though, is left flailing and one-dimensional.
Laura Dern playing sweet and deferential is not the Laura Dern we’ve been jonesing over lately, so you kind of wish someone else had been stuck in the mother role. She gets to say Marmee’s most famous line – “I’m angry every day of my life” – but Gerwig doesn’t let her bring any Renata Klein to the delivery, even though Alcott would have probably loved Renata.
Then there’s Timothee Chalamet, Gerwig’s crush. He’s perfectly cast as dreamy, frivolous Laurie, a character Alcott clearly never liked and didn’t want to shackle her heroine Jo with. By matching Laurie with a more interesting Amy, Gerwig chooses to avoid the dump-on-Laurie path Alcott probably wanted to go down if not for her 19th-century manners.
Gerwig also caves on another male character. Jo’s boarding house admirer and eventual husband, Friedrich Bhaer, has been transformed from a portly 40-ish German to a hot young Frenchman. This can’t be excused as ‘moderniizing’ the story. In fact, it’s the opposite. Alcott didn’t want Jo to marry, but gave readers of the time what she felt they wanted (typical Louisa/Jo, needing everyone to like her). It was a reluctant cop-out, and by turning Friedrich so traditionally handsome, Gerwig doubles down on that cop-out, giving audiences a more romance-movie match for a Jo played by an actress whose ethereal beauty is not commensurate with the way Alcott portrayed her Jo.
But Little Women delivers. If the relentless busy-ness of the first half bothers you, the second half will make up for it. The scrums of hoop-skirted little ladies jockeying around tight parlors in short scenes are phased out, and characters are paired off more to allow them, and us, some room to breathe. The scenes where both Jo and Amy move Laurie into the position they want him in are cracking – sharp and smart and heartbreaking in subtler ways than the expected tear-jerkers surrounding Beth’s demise.
Little Women is equal parts bouncy and grounded, sharp and soft. Like Alcott did with readers, it tries to give movie-goers everything they want. Yet Alcott did leave places in her story for readers to insert their own interpretations, and this is something you’d have expected Gerwig to take advantage of. She certainly champions Jo’s iconoclastic independence, as Alcott did and as every other adaptation focuses on. That’s easy, and we have more and more cinema bringing strong, independent women to the fore. But what’s behind women who don’t show these qualities? In Alcott’s time it was safer to present an independent woman as a quirky literary creation than to critically examine women like Meg, who couldn’t, even when given the opportunity, break free of traditional thinking, or Amy, who looks soberly at the limits put on her gender and accepts them as inevitable. In light of Amy’s complaint that her painting skills are not ‘genius’ enough for her to be independent of men, you can argue that Alcott’s take-away was that Jo could behave as she wanted because she was blessed with artistic talent at an exceptionally high level. A modern idea in 1868, yes, but Greta, it’s 2019 now. Alcott would have welcomed insight from a more evolved era, that could have made her little women even bigger.
Little Women is currently in theaters nationwide.
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