The independent news organization of Duke University

Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' breathes new life into the age-old classic

movie review

From left: Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in “Little Women.”
From left: Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in “Little Women.”

Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is a beloved Hollywood mainstay, and it has been adapted into film for nearly as long as the medium has existed. Released two years after the well-received “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s turn at the 19th-century classic confirms the timelessness of the novel’s narrative while turning a fresh eye on its sisterly relationships. “Little Women” is fundamentally a domestic coming-of-age story, but Gerwig’s rendition beckons a feminist commentary out of the original text that informs an alternative reading of its age-old characters. 

Fans of the novel will find comfort in Gerwig’s loyalty to the four March sisters’ original characterizations. Her versions of Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Meg (Emma Watson) and Jo (Saoirse Ronan) are as rambunctious, self-effacing, genteel and zealous, respectively, as their Alcott counterparts. Over the course of the film, they mature into self-contained women of their own right, guided by one another and by their devoted mother, Marmee (Laura Dern). Their wealthy but lonely young neighbor, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), accompanies them on their bildungsroman, falling in love with Jo and later, in adulthood, courting Amy. 

Gerwig’s most appreciable diversion from the classic novel is her warping of the event timeline. Rather than adhering to a linear narrative that loyally tracks its characters from childhood into adulthood (á la “Boyhood” or “Boyz n the Hood”), Gerwig alternates between these two timepoints in order to throw the differences between them into sharp relief. In a director’s roundtable with The Hollywood Reporter, Gerwig noted the stark contrast between the chaotic joy of childhood and the rigidity of adulthood: “Childhood becomes a thing that you go back to because it was the last time that everyone was together, and that you were happy in this way, and that you felt like anything was possible,” she said. “And adults have more limited options.” 

Although discomfiting at first, sticking with the logic of these cuts quickly pays off, as they work to evoke a sense of nostalgia and lay character growth bare. Scenes from childhood harken back to the insular romance of a Seymour Joseph Guy painting, emanating a golden glow that embraces the viewer, in contrast with the reticent pastels of adulthood. Fireside chats and petty arguments overlap, with multiple threads of conversation weaving themselves into a tapestry that is as much a backdrop of the film as the rolling plains of Concord, Massachusetts. 

Of course, there are still childhood moments of clarity and linear growth, as the girls pause to take stock of who they are and actively choose to better themselves. The novel’s decidedly Christian ethos of generosity and forgiveness — part of what makes the film so fitting for the holiday season — is most evident when the girls donate their Christmas breakfast to a hungry neighbor, and when Jo comes to forgive Amy for the transgression of burning pages from her written stories. 

Eventually, however, the warmth of innocence must crystallize into the painful guarantees and settled scores of adulthood. The interchange between these two timepoints conjures up the possibilities that lay beneath the surface in childhood, possibilities that are now deemed lost in the decided reality of adulthood. There are echoes of what was possible in the conclusiveness of the current-day; here’s what the little women could have been, the cuts suggest, and this is who they ended up being. 

There are moments in the film where these points of personal transformation materialize, and characters seem to cross a veritable threshold in time. When Meg fulfills her dream of starting a family with a kind but penniless tutor, she necessarily gives up a life in high society accompanied by the material opulence she craved as a child. She leads the charge into adulthood as the first in the family to get married, and even Jo seems to recognize this as a harbinger of change. She implores her older sister to reject married life, arguing, “You should be an actress, and you should have a life on the stage.” But Meg responds steadfastly, “Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.”

With Meg as their example, the other sisters soon follow suit: On the afternoon of Meg’s wedding, Jo herself asserts the independence she deems necessary for a life well-lived by refusing Laurie’s marriage proposal and later moving to the city to pursue a lonely career in writing. And when the stern Aunt March (Meryl Streep) sits Amy down and encumbers her with the duty of marrying rich and providing for her family, the latter becomes hardened to the reality of her poor upbringing. When Laurie questions her near-decision to marry a wealthy man, she retorts, “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.” 

Gerwig’s “Little Women” shines most brightly in its reinterpretation of the March sisters’ relationships. “Lady Bird” was praised for its complicated and fraught portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship, and the emotional core of “Little Women” is similarly buoyed by the bonds between women. Amy, in particular, is finally given her due, endowed with a level of profundity that rivals that of Jo. Gerwig’s interpretation of the novel suggests that the two sisters have much more in common than a shared interest in Laurie. Amy’s artistic ambition and her commitment to remaining true to herself mirror Jo’s efforts to forge a profitable path as a female writer. The former boldly proclaims to Laurie regarding her painterly pursuits, “I want to be great or nothing.”

The end of the film, in which Jo founds a co-ed children’s school in Concord and settles into a new life with her family following the death of Beth, heralds a return to the golden hues of childhood. At last, Jo is permitted both the writerly ambition she pursued as a young adult and the familial warmth she enjoyed as a girl. Like the real-life Alcott, Jo finally sells her novel “Little Women,” though on the condition that her main character gets married, rather than remaining a spinster as she preferred. As Gerwig noted in Vanity Fair’s “Little Gold Men” podcast, Jo’s romantic ending “is not girl gets boy, it’s girl gets book.” 

The film closes on an image of the March family in communion, gathered around a table in the afternoon light to celebrate Marmee’s birthday. This portrait of familial joy, so similar to the film’s earlier scenes of girlhood, indicate that childlike joy and wonder can still be retained in adulthood, surrounded by those you cherish. Adulthood may lack the freedom of childhood, Gerwig suggests, but it need not suffer from want of love. 

Discussion

Share and discuss “Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' breathes new life into the age-old classic” on social media.