That noise you heard earlier this week was a collective sigh of contentment as bookish girls everywhere were delivered a small ray of light in a dark world: The trailer for Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women arrived. I settled in to watch it over and over, headphones on and terrible snacks at hand, as I imagine someone who liked sports would flop onto the sofa to watch the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Like a good game, the trailer was familiar and yet fresh, hitting all the expected beats but carrying just a topnote of 2019: Jo burns Meg’s hair, and dances with Laurie, and proclaims her independence: “I intend to make own way in the world!” Marmee, played by Laura Dern, offers a form of Yankee comfort to her headstrong daughter when she says, “There are some natures too lofty to bend.”
If the preceding paragraph seems like it was written in some alien dialect, I apologize. You may not be part of the cult of Little Women devotees. Although membership in this cult is very widespread, and requires only that you once huddled over a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, perhaps in a heap of blankets under a tree or on your bunk at summer camp while all the other kids were learning archery. It’s never too late to join the cult. An entire episode of Friends was devoted to Joey Tribbiani’s discovery of the novel, ending with the dim, macho actor having to hide the book in the freezer when a certain Very Bad Thing happens.
This is one of the great things about the book: Over the past 150 years, it has lent itself to countless new interpretations. It’s a bit like polenta, lovely on its own but reinvented by clever young chefs every couple of decades. At its heart, Little Women is the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, living with their mother while their father is off ministering to Union troops during the Civil War. But more than that, the main character of Jo, Alcott’s alter ego, has always provided a mirror for young women’s conflicting desires: What did it mean to be a woman and an artist? Could you be both and still marry the cute boy or worldly professor at the end, or was it enough for you and your ambitions to live happily together in a ratty flat with no wedding china?
In 1933, Katharine Hepburn played Jo as a galumphing hoyden, and 16 years later Elizabeth Taylor’s Amy clothes-pegged her nose to such successful dimensions that Laurie noticed, and married her. The 1949 version, imbued with postwar optimism, noted that this family of broke New Englanders were “the happiest people this side of heaven!”
But were they, really? They were also a bunch of hair-burning, book-burning, passive-aggressive freaks, which is what has made them such enduring, delightful companions over the years. In 1994, a trio of women – director Gillian Armstrong, producer Amy Pascal and writer Robin Swicord – managed to create another film version, over the monumental disdain of Hollywood’s male executives. What? No car crashes! No face swaps! No men driving spaceships or race cars into other spaceships or race cars! Only a bunch of women alternately hugging and hissing, wanting to strangle each other sometimes but mostly encouraging each other’s dreams. The movie was a hit. Winona Ryder played Jo, and was nominated for a best-actress Oscar (she probably should have won).
For better or worse, Jo’s marital choices have defined earlier versions of Little Women. In 1994, the character’s decision to marry Gabriel Byrne’s dishy Prof. Bhaer is both true to the novel and, according to its creators, a vote confidence in the have-it-all power feminism of the day. In 1979, Gillian Armstrong had directed a masterpiece, My Brilliant Career, in which the protagonist chooses her writing ambitions over the man who loves her (it is my favourite movie of all time; go seek it out). Fifteen years later, Ms. Armstrong felt she could give her heroine the man and the books.
So what version of Little Women will this complicated moment – the brightness of feminist rage, the darkness of the backlash – bring us? Already in 2019 there’s been an off-Broadway production, adapted from the novel by Kate Hamill, in which Jo is unambiguously queer and wears men’s clothes in defiance of the conventions of the day. In an interview with Broadway Box, Ms. Hamill explained why she left Jo unmarried (except to her books): “She’s going to choose herself, and being true to herself!” Perhaps this decision would have pleased lifelong singleton Louisa May Alcott, who once wrote a defence of old maids and had this to say about her sister’s marriage: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
We can’t know yet the tone or shape of Ms. Gerwig’s version, but the trailer does provide some clues. At one point, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo says, in an emotional outburst, “Women have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!”
If you’ve read the book, you may be wondering where exactly Jo says this. The answer is, she doesn’t. Ms. Gerwig found the passage in one of Alcott’s letters, she told Entertainment Weekly. She was out in the woods, and read the letter, and burst into tears.
Reading that brought me back to my own first encounter with Little Women. I can see the book’s frayed spine. I can feel the electric crackle as the words arced between the page and the place inside me that had been waiting for them. The place that exists inside all bookish girls. I think Ms. Gerwig knows that place. I think all of us, readers and little women alike, are in good hands.
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