Greta Gerwig brings innovation and familiarity in equal measure to her adaptation of the Louisa May-Alcott classic
As per usual I’m late to the game on this one. I had been looking forward to Little Women coming out for months, and at one point had plans to see it on Boxing Day, but then life got in the way. I have now finally seen it, and while it certainly didn’t disappoint, it didn’t quite exceed expectations either.
Firstly I should say that the acting is superb. Some characters who get less screen time are perhaps not the most subtle, but the significant performances from Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet are all brilliant. Their humanity shines through, and they bring a real sense of authenticity to roles that sometimes feel all too like adults play-acting as children (for the obvious reason that they usually are!). For once you feel that they are as the characters should be – young people discovering their place in the world. Anyone who has seen Pugh in The Falling and Lady Macbeth will not be surprised that her’s is the best performance, but Ronan brings a vulnerability usually absent from depictions of Jo that only makes her more likeable, and Chalamet imbues Laurie with complexity beneath the boisterous facade. I must admit that I was skeptical of his casting but, again, the realness he brings (the proposal scene, if you can call it that, is a standout) is utterly winning. They are children, having a good time larking around and getting to know each other, growing into adults who learn about the world they are a part of.
The film looks gorgeous. It is tempting to let the whole experience just wash over you. But this is where my problems with it start to creep in. Georgie Carr in her great piece in Another Gaze (‘Little Women, Little Change’) has written about the film’s frustrating depiction of poverty, and I couldn’t help but be struck by just how aesthetically pleasing the March’s so-called poverty is. It was a classic case of being told, not shown (that cardinal sin of film-making). We are told many times that they are poor – they struggle to scrape together money for the train ticket, Meg notes that they can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone help the truly starving Hummels (who are given perhaps less than a cumulative minute of screen time). But there is little material evidence of this – their clothes are made of lush fabrics, their house is thoroughly ornamented, and we see no changes as their poverty supposedly progresses. Their charming Christmas breakfast is full of rich ingredients and delicacies, and of course when they give it up they are rewarded with an even fancier one. Their poverty is name-checked as a moral signifier, but they, and therefore we, are spared of the discomfort of actually seeing it. Meg’s financial struggles are less prettily presented – her house is dark and dingy, but again it is used to present a moral dilemma rather than a material reality. She spends the actually rather large sum of $50 on dress fabric, which she then returns so that she can prove to herself and the viewer that she made the right choice in plumbing for impoverished love over stale riches. The March family home, by contrast, is not used to present a trouble but rather as a refuge from reality, and therefore is fit for a #mydarlinghome Instragram post.
This doesn’t need to be a problem, and in fact ties into the general sense that while Jo, Amy and Laurie are ‘real’, the March home (and Marmie and Beth with it) are more emblems, ideas expressed through symbols and signs, than they are real people. We are as shocked as Jo to learn that Marmie feels angry on a daily basis, as we see no evidence of any layers to her personality. She is, as ever, simply the ideal mother, wise and supportive, and updated for the complicated and corporate feminism of the film’s proposed audience. Beth’s role can hardly be changed without veering from the text, and thus she is as usual a shy, lovable child who rarely leaves the house then dies, to inspire Jo to ‘write her truth’. Eliza Scanlen brings a nuance of quirkiness (purple as the favourite eye colour!) to the role, making her feel more like the girls we know and live with, which is refreshing, but there is little scope for development.
One of the justifiably trumpeted aspects of Gerwig’s adaptation is the step away from chronological storytelling. This is used to great effect for Beth’s story particularly, helping to drive home her significance for Jo. Playing with our, and Jo’s, expectations of her illness (she saved her before, why not again?) really adds to the shock when the inevitable occurs. But, for all the impact, the change in structure also encourages us to view the story in snapshots. This places a heavy burden on the writing to bring a sense of narrative completeness to the characters. Where a character is not seen as our main focus (e.g. Meg), we are given snippets and little real development. Meg is done something of a disservice in the film. She rightly declares that her dreams, though different to Jo’s, are still important. This was given some prominence in the movie’s ad campaigns, but the film doesn’t seem to agree with her. We see her unhappy and envious as an adult, just as she was as a teenager, until a miraculous and unearned realisation that she likes poverty after all because she loves her husband (her children, which are such an important part of her dream, are barely mentioned at all, and we first see them when they are several years old). Once this conclusion (of sorts) has been reached all mention and sign of that poverty disappears, no longer suiting the tenor of the scenes. What the book, and other adaptations, captured is that poverty will never be easy, but can be made bearable by our loved ones. Meg and Marmie are flag-bearers for this. But Gerwig seems to shy away from the implied ugliness of poverty. The arc she wants is from sad, one-dress childhood to an adulthood of full closets.
Much has been said of how Gerwig has rehabilitated Amy. I have to say that I always sided with Amy. As the angry third daughter, I couldn’t help but see something of myself in her (and Jo’s reluctance in my sisters), so I was never going to dislike her. But others have seen her interest in the beautiful as a stain on her character. Gerwig brilliantly lays out the economic motivation, the pragmatic honesty, of Amy’s ideas and ideals, with a helpful (in rather unsubtle) extra prompt from Streep’s Aunt March. She slowly grows into this, alongside a much deeper representation of Amy’s affection for Laurie, only to show that ultimately Amy was choosing economics because she thought she would be denied love. It is handy that in her final choice they coincide. Pugh is brilliant, as we would expect, and few people could leave the theatre not won over by her. There is a sense that Amy is Gerwig’s favourite, and she probably will be your’s too. Less effort is made to explain Laurie’s new-found love of Amy, which is conveyed largely through jealousy and long glances, but perhaps we are left to think ‘who could not love her?’
But as with all favourites, the others suffer. Jo has been a beacon for generations of women; we all feel we are Jo at some point (especially those of us who pick up a pen). The meta-narrative of publication is very clever, and deals with Alcott’s resentful addition of Professor Bhaer with humour and intelligence. Other adaptations try to fob us off with happiness. The use of lighting to show idealised childhood versus grim adulthood is obvious but effective, and it is revealing that the penultimate scene, of Jo and her family in the garden of Plumfield School, with Professor Bhaer, is bathed in this golden glow, which would not be out of place in a Thomas Kinkade painting. The Professor’s presence reveals this ending to be fiction. Real world Jo watches the production of her book with delight, but once it is in her hands, Ronan’s wonderfully subtle performance shows that she may have what she wanted, but she is still alone. The book, inspired by her love of Beth, the only sister who has really left her, will not fill the absence that her other sisters have answered with husbands. Some have seen Jo’s admission of loneliness as slightly post- (or even anti-) Feminist. She is so determinedly independent that it might feel a bit of a volte-face that she suddenly says she is so lonely that she would take Laurie anyway. But though it may slide from her reputation as a feminist icon, I can’t help but feel this adds a much needed sense of reality to Jo’s otherwise hyper-performative characterisation. She is the heroine of her own story, but, after all, her heroines are only human.
Gerwig’s Little Women, like the age it was written in, can feel superficial. It gives us snapshots, glimpses into the lives of its characters, ruled by aesthetics rather than reality. It offers a ‘happy place’ for the modern woman fighting to be seen as an individual. Does it really need to be that clever if it is already giving us everything we think we want? The endorphins are already flowing? But look beyond the apparent artifice and appeals to the familiar, and you will find moments of depth and sincerity. The film asks more of the viewer than other adaptations; you have to try harder to see through it. But if you can overcome the temptation to settle for comfort, and the aesthetics of Instagram hashtagery, you will find a film with subtle and sophisticated things to say about what it means to be a young woman yearning for independence.
Have you seen Little Women yet? How do you feel it compares to other adaptations, and which is your favourite? I’ll always have a soft spot for Winona Ryder’s Jo, but I think Pugh’s Amy may have nudged Gerwig’s adaptation into pole position! Share your thoughts in the comments below.