“Little Women” is one of the most adapted novels written by a woman. Only the Brontës and Jane Austen can compete with Louisa May Alcott in number of adaptations. Greta Gerwig‘s sophomore film is the tenth known iteration of the classic autobiographical tale first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869.
With so many versions already known and loved, Gerwig faced the challenge of finding something new to tell a modern audience. In some ways, Gerwig’s “Little Women” is successful. In other ways, not as much.
The film opens on a grown up Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), making her way as a writer and governess in New York City. Her older sister Meg (Emma Watson) is married and raising her two children back home in Concord, Massachusetts. Youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is off in Paris studying art. And dear Beth (Eliza Scanlen) lives a quiet life in their parents’ home, not far from Meg.
The story is based on Alcott’s own experiences growing up with her sisters, though it is not exactly a history. Instead of a family constantly relocating with the whims of her father, Alcott’s novel keeps the family in one place, during the Civil War. Her story, and every previous adaptation, follows a linear path from the March family’s first Christmas without their father (he is away, volunteering with the Union army in the Civil War), and concluding when they are grown and moving on with their lives. Gerwig’s script, however, moves back and forth through time, drawing parallels and contrasts between childhood events and how they impact the girls later in their lives. The non-linear telling is an interesting spin on moments we know and tints those beautiful and heartbreaking moments with nostalgia as we visit them as something akin to flashbacks.
The reorganized timeline takes a new look at certain moments, contextualizing them in ways we haven’t seen before. And the way Gerwig does this would be perfect if not for the fact that her fresh look at an old story sacrifices important character moments — and sometimes complete characters — in the process.
Gerwig is clearly determined to give new life to youngest sister Amy, often painted as something of an unwitting villain, a foil to Jo. Four years apart in age, they spend much of their youth quarreling and bickering in between all the happy, playful times. By focusing more of the story on their later years, we see the bright, talented, mature woman Amy becomes before we get to see the silly, childish girl. Amy has long deserved better treatment than she has gotten, and it was a great move for Gerwig.
Florence Pugh’s performance, which has received a lot of praise and nominations from critics, is sometimes perfect and sometimes odd. Gerwig’s decision to allow the 23-year-old actress to play Amy’s 13-year-old self doesn’t work. It feels exactly like a 23-year-old pretending to be a 13-year-old, losing some of the childish nuance of young Amy.
In truth, the casting choices are generally a mix of good to questionable. Saoirse Ronan is a fine Jo March. Ronan long ago proved herself capable of just about anything and, much like Jo, possesses a great deal more maturity than many women her age. And Eliza Scanlen, a new face for many viewers, captures Beth’s innocent sweetness. Chris Cooper is also charming as Mr. Laurence. Meryl Streep is a surprisingly perfect Aunt March, too, the cantankerous, wealthy old aunt everyone fears and tolerates. Emma Watson is passable as eldest sister Meg, although her storyline is so shortchanged that it is hard to know if she would have been better with more room to breathe life into Meg’s character.
But then there is Timothée Chalamet as the boy next door, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Chalamet’s Laurie mumbles and slumps around in clothes that hang off of him, an outward expression of the disappointment he has been to his long-suffering grandfather. Chalamet is a good actor in general, but as Laurie he is too modern and strangely feels too young to be a counterpart to Ronan’s Jo.
In addition to bringing some justice to Amy March, Gerwig’s script also gives new context and a deeper look at the issues plaguing women in 1860s New England. Laura Dern plays Mrs. March, known by everyone as Marmee. She is a giver, devoted to using her time to bless the lives of those less fortunate than herself. Putting the focus on others helps her overlook the fact that all of the family’s troubles and poverty were caused by her well-intentioned but impulsive husband. Marmee gets the chance to express feelings that are often set aside in favor of the girls, but it is every bit Marmee’s story too. Her constant feelings of anger, her ever-so-subtle eye rolls when her husband makes vaguely sexist remarks, all serve to imbue Marmee with a depth rarely seen in other versions.
But the big disappointment in Gerwig’s script comes from the almost total elimination of one of the novel’s most interesting characters: Friedrich Bhaer. The German professor is played by the French actor Louis Garrel and is completely sidelined, only appearing in a few key scenes, and with no background or development. Gerwig is so determined to provide an ending for Jo March that matches Louisa May Alcott’s and the result is the almost complete elimination of the character that helps Jo figure out who she wants to be and how she wants to do it.
It isn’t just Friedrich, though. Jumbling the timeline also makes it hard to really get the sense of what Laurie means to Jo or how significant it really was that he was allowed into the tight knit clan of Marches. We never truly get to see the devastation Jo feels when Aunt March chooses Amy to accompany her to France. And Meg’s budding romance with Laurie’s tutor John Brook is summarized in a few lines here and one scene there. So many meaningful moments are lost to time.
Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is mostly lovely and a decent interpretation for a new generation of girls and boys to discover Alcott’s world. One can only hope, though, that someday a filmmaker will discover Alcott wrote other works too, and some of them even better than this oft revisited story.