Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is an awesome bundle of contradictions. It’s the rare classic literary adaptation that manages to have it both ways, paying homage to a beloved tale while updating the problematic parts for the modern age. It’s a triumph, and one that cements Gerwig’s place in the pantheon of American auteurs.
For the uninitiated, Little Women is a classic 19th century American novel. Written by Louisa May Alcott, the book had the audacity to be about women more than a century before that was trendy. It’s been brought to the silver screen before (most recently in the 90s, with a star-studded cast helmed by Winona Ryder); however, never has the celluloid version of this story felt so vibrant and real. As both the screenwriter and director, Gerwig has been given the chance to create a film that truly embodies her vision – and what a vision! While each of the titular Little Women receives a chance to deliver a speech about heavy issues, like mortality or the place of women in society, all that wisdom is tempered by a ton of fun. When the sisters are together, they wrestle and bicker realistically. When their mother (known as Marmee) tells neighbours, “My girls have a knack for getting into trouble,” the audience truly understands why: Every shot of the March sisters’ home feels full – of realistic household clutter, of sibling rivalry, and of love. The film embodies the frenetic energy typical of large, unruly family.
While beautifully shot and written, the success of Little Women also owes a huge debt to its stellar cast. Laura Dearn is warm and dignified as Marmee. The matriarch of the March family, Marmee is a woman so saintly she’ll literally give the scarf of her neck to anyone in need. Emma Watson is nuanced and relatable as Meg, a character who believes the feminist message that women should be anything they want to be, but bristles when more careerist women like sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan) suggest the only acceptable choice is to pursue professional ambitions, rather than personal goals. Ronan is also compelling as the raucous and headstrong Jo March, the film’s rebellious protagonist and the family’s resident writer. Then there’s Timothee Chalamet, who is perfectly brooding and handsome as Laurie, the wealthy suitor The March women pass between themselves. However, the true star of the film is Florence Pugh’s hoydenish Amy.
As Amy, Pugh proves she is one of our finest young performers. Already famous from her star-making role in this summer’s horror film Midsommar, Pugh proves she has range in her portrayal of the youngest March sister. Amy is a complicated role to play, because the character literally grows up over the course of the film. But whether Amy’s brattily burning her older sister’s manuscript in a wicked act of adolescent range or playing the part of sophisticated twenty-something a decade later, Pugh makes Amy’s evolving personality feel real. When the young artist has a meltdown in her Parisian studio, Amy’s declaration that “I want to be great or nothing” feels earnest and sympathetic rather than grandiose. In a lesser actress’s hands, Amy’s characteristically sweeping statements could come off as overly theatrical, but Pugh’s subtle tone and facial expressions turn every soliloquy into a pleasure.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Gerwig’s film is how she nods to the way Louisa May Alcott wished she could have ended her novel. Alcott, who never married, wanted Jo to follow in her self-partnered footsteps. The book is full of romance, to be sure, but its author didn’t want to signal to her impressionable readers that they had to get married. Instead, Alcott saw marriage as a personal choice, not an imperative. Unfortunately, that sentiment proved too modern for her 19th century editors, who pressured Alcott into marrying Jo off to professor Bhaer, whom she meets while living in a Manhattan board house.
Gerwig, however, maintains the “romantic” ending Alcott was pushed into writing, but simultaneously pushes back against it. Without spoiling the twist, I’ll say this: the cleverly edited conclusion allows fans of the book to enjoy the familiar romance of the original ending, while also demonstrating how Jo’s story easily could have – and maybe should have – gone a another way. Ultimately, Greta Gerwig’s innovative adaptation allows Little Women to have its cake and eat it too. Yep, Gerwig is officially a genius!