Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019)

After dozens of adaptations for the stage and screen, a good number of television series (both live action and animated), a few musicals, an opera, and a radio play, do we really need yet another version of Little Women? The answer delivered in the first round of reviews of Greta Gerwig’s second feature is a resounding yes. For Little White LiesDavid Jenkins, the 2019 Little Women is “one of the great films of the year, if not the decade, if not the young century, and for Gerwig, it’s a transcendent leap from 2017’s Lady Bird.

Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—growing up in genteel poverty in Massachusetts during the Civil War was first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. In the first, which takes us from Christmas 1861 to Christmas 1862, the sisters’ ages range from twelve to sixteen; the second volume is set three years later. “The biggest choice Gerwig makes is to cut Alcott’s narrative into pieces and rearrange it by theme rather than chronology,” writes Alison Willmore for Vulture, and the result “feels, exhilaratingly, like the throwing down of a gauntlet. Gerwig’s Little Women demands its viewers reconsider these familiar characters and what we’ve always assumed they stood for. It doesn’t just brim with life, it brims with ideas about happiness, economic realities, and what it means to push against or to hew to the expectations laid out for one’s gender.”

Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson suggests that the cast list reads “as if a certain subset of Film Twitter willed a movie into being via collective meme-wishing.” Emma Watson, a “long way from her days as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies,” as Variety’s Peter Debruge points out, plays Meg “as the sister who most knows what she wants.” Saoirse Ronan, “just twenty-five years old,” notes Lawson, “but already deep into a Great Actor career, gives perhaps my favorite performance of hers to date” as Jo, the head-strong, tomboyish writer with whom Alcott clearly identified. Ronan has “honed her wunderkind skill and can now carefully, deftly calibrate it,” writes Lawson. She “keenly realizes Jo in all her conflicted loyalty, the struggle between her familial contentment and her yearning for something more.”

Beth, the shy sister who never fully recovers from a bout of scarlet fever, is played by Eliza Scanlen, who broke through last summer in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects. “As always,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “the most complicated character is Amy, a selfish brat redeemed by her unquestionable love for her sisters.” Florence Pugh “continues to prove herself a distinctive talent, managing all the tricky contradictions of the role with disarming grace, humor, and a willful streak that grows almost imperceptibly into wisdom.” Amy, an aspiring painter, is taken to Paris by her Aunt March, and Rooney finds that Meryl Streep is “clearly having a ball as the imperious snob.” At Slant, Michael Joshua Rowin suggests that “Streep could have easily portrayed her character as a cartoonish, old-fashioned biddy but instead imbues her with a resigned sadness.”

Rounding out the cast are Laura Dern as the girls’ compassionate mother, Marmee, who is “almost too good to be believed,” finds IndieWire’s Kate Erbland, “and Bob Odenkirk’s boisterous initial introduction as the March family patriarch feels out of place (though it’s later redeemed during one of the film’s more amusing final sequences).” For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “the sharpest, fiercest thing about this story is the unspoken, unacknowledged face-off between Jo and Amy, romantically triangulated with Laurie, who is a physically slight figure, impish, puckish, littler than the women who surround him.” Timothée Chalamet, “not Streep, is Gerwig’s secret weapon,” argues the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “Even Alcott agreed that Laurie was an underwritten suitor in the book: here he’s the liveliest character on screen, all jaunty mischief, japes in the snow, and a kind of junior-Byronic tendency to brood and mope.”

Overall, Robey finds that this new Little Women “has a striving, teacher’s pet quality: so keen to excel that it almost trips over itself, as if Gerwig was still eagerly pitching her multitude of ideas for the movie—good ideas, generally—even as you watch.” But introducing her cover story for the new issue of Film Comment, an outstanding interview with Gerwig, Devika Girish writes: “Few adaptations of Little Women—and indeed, few period dramas—have felt as alive, immediate, and fleet-footed as this film, a work overrun by feeling and yet structured by ideas.”

Girish is especially impressed with what Gerwig has done with the troublesome ending, a final turn that even Alcott found absurd. “She addresses the sellout artifice of Jo’s marriage head on,” writes Girish, “through a negotiation scene between Jo and her editor on matters of pay, copyright, and gendered expectations in popular literature. It’s a moment that nimbly layers the text of the novel, details of Alcott’s life and career, and meta-reflections on Gerwig’s own place as the latest director to adapt a much-mined book, into an extraordinary palimpsest of our evolving notions of authenticity and ownership.” As for Gerwig herself, “I wanted to construct a movie where, when Jo gets that book at the end and holds it, you are getting the satisfaction of something that you didn’t know you needed to see. But as soon as she gets it, you think, ‘I needed it and I didn’t know it.’ To me, that is the desire incarnate, the desire fulfilled.”

Further Reading

We’ll likely see quite a bit of Gerwig and her illustrious cast in the run-up to the opening of Little Women on Christmas Day. A few weeks ago, Amanda Hess spoke with Gerwig about her lifelong engagement with the novel for the New York Times, where Ashley Spencer has put together an oral history of the making of Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, and Claire Danes. Matt Donnelly profiles Ronan for Variety, and in the Los Angeles Times, Amy Kaufman talks with both Ronan and Pugh.

In the New York Review of Books, Jennifer Wilson lays out the case for Hospital Sketches (1863), a collection of letters Alcott wrote to her family back home while she was working as a nurse on the front, as the turning point in the writer’s career, the book that “proved that her true gift lay not in inventing new worlds, but in observing the one around her.” And writing for the Los Angles Review of Books, Emma Baker recommends March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women, in which Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley each “take on one of the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, respectively) as their subject, and probe their relationship to the character—both as a model and an imperfect reflection of themselves—over time.”

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