A buzzworthy adaptation that is anything but little
Greta Gerwig exploded onto the directorial scene with her 2017 debut Lady Bird, a touching story about coming of age when the world seems against you. The film resonated with critics and mainstream audiences alike, earning five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan. When it was announced that Gerwig’s next film would be an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, many thought that she would finally get that elusive Oscar, as Lady Bird went home empty-handed.
While Little Women is up for six Academy Awards, there is a very notable absence – Gerwig is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but not Best Director. There are no women in the directing category at all. As many were quick to point out, Gerwig deserved the nomination and likely would have won. Now that I have seen Little Women, I can confidently say that the Oscar for directing would easily have been Gerwig’s if she had been nominated.
Little Women is a tricky adaptation to do. Not because it is a hard story to tell – the original novel is beloved by many and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868 – but because of the fact that it has been adapted for film several times before, as well as other mediums like a web series, limited television series and a Broadway musical. Gerwig’s task was not just to tell the story, but to give the tale a fresh take, one that stood out from the previous iterations.
Gerwig accomplishes this by telling the story out of order. In the book, the order of events is linear, starting at Christmas during the Civil War when the March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – are all living at home, and then follows them into their adult lives when they all return home after a family tragedy. In Gerwig’s version, however, the story starts with Jo (Saoirse Ronan, a tour de force) already in her twenties in New York City, selling stories to a newspaper and trying to make it as a successful author. Meg (Emma Watson) is married with twins, with a majority of her adult storyline revolving around financial struggles. Youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role) is in France with her great-aunt (the scene-stealing Meryl Streep), learning not only to use her artistic talents but also to be an ideal society woman so she can marry rich and support her financially struggling family.
As Jo returns to Concord, Mass., the movie uses flashbacks to give context for the viewers. Those flashbacks are where the main events fans of previous adaptations or the original novel know and love take place – Amy burning Jo’s manuscript and Beth’s brush with scarlet fever, among others. There is also handsome boy-next-door Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothée Chalamet) falling in love with Jo, who could never love him back. The flashback scenes and “present day” scenes have different colour filters, helping to distinguish one from the other.
I have never read the original novel, but I watched and loved the Little Women film from 1994 with Winona Ryder as Jo and Christian Bale as Laurie. The 1994 version is warm and cosy, but has a very structured feel. I particularly fell in love with the way the 2019 adaptation was written. When the four sisters are growing up under the same roof, they are constantly talking over each other, and while that perfectly captures the chaos that exists in the March family home, there is never a moment where important information gets lost in conversation. This is a credit to the screenplay, written by Gerwig and Sarah Polley. Each sister’s essence is captured perfectly, and you can’t help but smile as you watch them all grow up.
I have to give a special shout-out to two actresses in this film: Laura Dern and Florence Pugh. Dern plays Marmee, the fearless matriarch who raises her girls on her own while her husband is taking part in the Civil War. Dern’s take on the March family matriarch is a kind adult presence that you can’t help fall in love with. She also looks amazing in the role, with credit due to the costume and hair department in that aspect. Pugh, meanwhile, has a tough job in this film, as Amy March has often been hated by fans of the book for being spoiled, too ambitious and a little self-entitled. The fact that the film introduces her as a grown woman in Europe and later shows her as a girl helps to make her feel more mature in the “present day” scenes, and also makes her a sympathetic character. Amy’s journey from girl to young woman is excellently portrayed by Pugh; the continuity between her childhood actions and her more mature viewpoints is especially impressive. She had the best shot in the acting categories for this adaptation, and while she lost out to Dern (representing Marriage Story), the nomination itself is a huge win for Pugh, whose next film is the highly anticipated Black Widow, to be released in May.
Gerwig’s Little Women is, in my mind, the most perfect adaptation of the original novel. While it did take some liberties – with its non-linear approach and a change to the ending that I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen this movie yet – the changes work very well with the tone of the film. I laughed, I cried, and I walked out with the fullest heart that I have had in a long time. Just like my mother introduced me to the 1994 version, I can’t wait to introduce her to my version of Little Women. The idea that this is a story that can be shared time and time again is the appeal of the March sisters, and this version of that story is one that will stick with me for years to come.