Winona Ryder, who played Jo in the 1994 film of Little Women, told The New York Times this fall, “I think every generation deserves their own Little Women.” Judged by that standard, Greta Gerwig’s new film of the Louisa May Alcott novel has been warmly embraced as the Little Women for the 2020s. With six Oscar nominations, including for best picture and best adapted screenplay (the Academy Awards air this Sunday, Feb. 9); a strong box office; enthusiastic reviews and analyses of everything from the role of the March sisters’ mother to the authenticity of the clothes, Little Women hasn’t had so much attention since it burst upon a grateful world in 1868.
I’m happy about all of that. Lest you think I’m a newcomer to the Little Women bandwagon, let me establish my bona fides. The front cover of my copy of the novel parted company from the rest of the book long ago. Midway through the re-reading I have just finished, the back cover also gave up the ghost. On the endpaper, my mother wrote my name as it was when the book was new, Kathie Ashenburg, and my address, and I added in my childish handwriting that my best friend Barbara had given it to me for my birthday. I don’t know why Barbara’s parents thought that a seven-year-old would want a 546-page novel full of allusions to the Civil War, Pilgrim’s Progress and Dickens, but it was an inspired choice. I can still feel the rasp of the living-room rug as I lay on my stomach in the summer of 1952, absorbed in the struggles and romances of the March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. I read every word – I was too new a reader to know how to skim – although long stretches must have been incomprehensible.
For many North American women, and not only those who found an alter ego in Jo and became writers, Little Women is a rite of passage we sign up for again and again. With each re-reading, responses shift. There were a few times when I had to skip The Valley of the Shadow, the achingly sad chapter where Beth dies. Alcott’s glorification of the eternal feminine became increasingly troublesome, but even so, Little Women shaped my idea of romantic love. (I confess that I know large parts of the four proposal scenes by heart.) Now, when I take up my battered copy, I’m not just reading Alcott, I’m reading myself and my previous readings.
As well as re-readings, a life with Little Women involves watching movies. The novel has spawned seven films and at least nine television series, and I’ve seen four. They never entirely satisfy me, including Gerwig’s, but each one of the recent attempts has something to recommend it. The wonderful thing in the 1994 film is Claire Danes’s death scene as Beth, which reveals an unusually strong and original side of the introverted sister. Nineteen-year-old Maya Hawke, in the 2017 BBC series, is the most credible Jo I have seen – teeming with impossible wants, coltish and gangly.
There is much to admire in Gerwig’s Little Women – the cinematography, the balance of strong individual performances within the ensemble cast, the obvious love for the novel. Her version rings many of the usual bells, but with an unmistakably 21st-century sensibility. One of the strengths of this Little Women is the smart attention it pays to money. Lack of money drives the plot and thickens Gerwig’s portrait of 19th-century New England. In the film as well as the book, the Marches’ straitened circumstances mean that Jo writes potboilers rather than serious stories, that Meg’s craving for nice things creates tension with her husband and that Amy feels obliged to marry money. Gerwig amplifies Jo’s struggles with her publisher and writes a deft scene in which she haggles about copyright and royalties. Commercial ambitions were often sugar-coated with sentimentality in the 19th century, and Gerwig captures that when the publisher insists that Jo’s heroine must marry because it will sell books. Jo protests, “It’s mercenary,” and he retorts, “No, it’s romantic.”
Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is winsome (perhaps too winsome), but Florence Pugh’s Amy is the film’s eye-opening figure, in script and performance. Gerwig gives the much-maligned youngest sister a complexity that dovetails with the theme of money and compromise. The most cynical of the Marches, who understands that her charm is more bankable than her artistic talent, Amy matures without losing her realistic edge, and wins the audience’s affection. Near the end of the movie, Amy and Jo are talking about whether books reflect or lead society and, impressed with her sister’s argument, Jo asks, “When did you become so wise?” I was all along, Amy says, but you were too busy concentrating on my faults to notice. The dialogue is Gerwig’s, not Alcott’s, and it’s perfect.
Gerwig’s other attempts to modernize the story are less successful, as she veers between expecting too much knowledge of the book on one hand and fretting that the 19th century may be intimidating on the other. Shuffling the chronology is her boldest move. As it ricochets confusingly between past and present, it underlines the contrast between the girls’ dreams and the compromises they make as adults, but it’s an unnecessary challenge for all but the nerdiest of Alcott fans.
Anachronisms abound in body language and customs. A certain amount of rough-housing might be normal for 19th-century teenagers, but the rambunctiousness here looks excessive. Jo sits in company with her knees wide apart or with her ankle crossed over the other knee – even for tomboyish Jo, this is too much. The Marches and their friends greet one another with kisses, an effete European custom not practised in puritanical 1860s America. And then there’s the dialogue. Among many examples, Amy talks of her obligation to marry someone “obscenely wealthy.” When Professor Bhaer sees that Jo’s dress is burning, he says, “You’re on fire.” Mistaking this for a 21st-century compliment, Jo answers, “Thank you.” It can seem both defiant and apologetic, as if Gerwig worries that she needs to make Alcott’s novel more accessible, more informal, more like us.
As the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That should be intriguing, not off-putting. Do we really want to be deprived of seeing in a film the way people moved, talked, thought and lived 150 years ago? My 16-year-old granddaughter adores the movie, which she has seen twice, and cannot get over my inability to accept Timothée Chalamet as the ideal Laurie. But she would love it just as much if the characters punched each other less, shook hands rather than kissed hello and goodbye, and talked like the free-and-easy 19th-century Americans they were. Too often, Gerwig’s touches look like a failure of nerve; they grate, but do not convince.
I have nothing against reinterpretations of classics that have something new to say, or that highlight something crucial, either in the original work or in our world. The important thing is that it must feel organic, and that’s why I welcome the film’s ending. In the book, Jo and her husband start a school for boys. In the film, Jo wants to start a school for her niece, because schooling for girls is a haphazard business. On second thought, she accepts boys, too. That feels like a natural, even inevitable conclusion to a film that is all about girls and women making their way In the world. I think even Alcott would approve.
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