Little Women Puts a Delightful Spin on a Timeless Classic
February 8, 2020 | Written by Audrey Wang, Illustrations by Kyla Vigdor
“No, writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it.”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps writing will make them more important.”
These lines are from a conversation between Jo March (Saorise Ronan) and Amy March (Florence Pugh) respectively, and though it’s just a casual conversation in passing, it resonates loudly. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Little Women is the most recent adaptation of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott that follows the lives of four sisters in the 1800s, moving between New York City and Concord, Massachusetts. This story of their “little life,” as Jo says, maybe isn’t quite as little, and it certainly isn’t so to Gerwig.
Illustrations by Kyla Vigdor
The score is timeless, the acting is phenomenal (with Academy Award nominations for Ronan and Pugh), and the cinematography is beautiful, but it is Gerwig’s writing and directing that truly makes this adaptation work as well as it does. Gerwig puts so much care and attention into every single character’s glances, words, and motions. Brief, intimate scenes — like when old Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) listens to Beth’s (Eliza Scanlan) piano from the staircase — give depth and history to otherwise minor characters.
The movie flashes back and forth between the winter of 1861 and the fall of 1868. The parallel timelines bring clarity and comprehension, tying storylines together that once were so distant. Gerwig puts the past and present closely together, giving the audience a more consistent and realistic story about the changing lives of each of the women.
Gerwig stays pretty true to the text in terms of dialogue, but when the film diverges and uses her original words, issues of the past gain a whole new modern context. Gerwig never takes you out of the 1800s. Instead, she delves deeper into the women themselves. In the case of Amy March, who is commonly seen as the selfish foil to Jo, Gerwig crafts a new side to her character that isn’t seen in other adaptations. Amy’s monologue within the film, in which she
describes with great clarity what she must do in order to survive in society as a woman, is pointed, poignant, and expertly performed.
Illustrations by Kyla Vigdor
And who else sacrifices the most, but a mother? Though she didn’t get an Academy Award nomination, Laura Dern is a standout as the beloved matriarch of the family, Marmee. The true depth of her sacrifice is shown in the deep breaths she takes in before she goes to create magic for her girls where there is none, or the gentle ferocity with which she delivers the line “I’m angry nearly every day of my life,” while aglow in candlelight. It is all real and raw, and even in smaller plot points, Gerwig demonstrates a deep understanding and care for these women.
Though it seems like it could never end perfectly, Gerwig pulls some strings and sets up the ending in a way that Jo March takes the place of Alcott almost, giving them both the happy ending they desire, and the one that they deserve — all the while letting the audience draw their own conclusions for all. It’s a sweet fix that comes together smoothly, letting everybody have a piece of the cake.
Gerwig takes this timeless tale and beloved characters and puts such a delightful spin on their story that filmmaking just seems easy for her, as if she’s sprinting through the streets, purely for the joy of it.