On most Christmases of my somewhat-older childhood, I watched “Little Women,” squished between my own sisters on our family couch. As we jostled for more share of the blanket covering our knees, we visited the familiar scenes of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March being led by their Marmee as they grow up in post-Civil War America.
This Christmas, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” opened in theaters. As families across the country celebrated Christmas, this much-loved family of sisters—who feel like family— appeared with their story in its latest iteration. Gerwig’s “Little Women” stars Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.
Viewers will leaving the theatre feeling as though they’ve lived a lifetime and felt nearly every emotion. (I cried several times.) As always, it’s sad to leave Concord, MA and the New England bygone charm of pastoral, picturesque vistas and simple beauty.
Beyond the cinematic loveliness and period costumes, it is the sisters who are hardest to leave. It always is. It’s why we have versions from George Cukor (1933), Mervin LeRoy (1949), Gillian Armstrong (1994) and Vanessa Caswill’s 2017 three-episode series of PBS, as well as others I’m sure I’ve forgotten.
It is the sisters who are hardest to leave. It always is.
At one point in the film, Jo March remarks to her sisters that no one would want to read her story about domestic life’s joys and struggles. Ah, Jo. But isn’t that what life is—joys and struggles? Isn’t that the exact reason why this story from Alcott has lasted in all of its versions over the years?
We see ourselves in this family or at least we see their shared humanity. Gerwig’s greatest success in this adaptation is the reality she paints of sisterhood and womanhood. These little women have dreams, tempers, jealousies, disappointments, hopes, difficulties and loves. They are different, each their own person, but they are bonded by their sisterhood and their shared struggle in womanhood, but mostly in humanity.
We see ourselves in this family or at least we see their shared humanity.
Gerwig clearly chose to emphasize the economic and occupational plight of women like the March sisters. Throughout the film, this theme returns. More than once, marriage is discussed as being “mercenary,” though Gerwig does nod to those like Meg whose “dreams are different, but not unimportant” and choose to marry and start a family.
Gerwig focuses on the story’s heroine, Jo, as she faces the challenge of trying to publish her writing in a time when women could not work and could not inherit money. Women were property, belonging either to their fathers or their husbands.
Most notably this is seen by the film’s circular beginning and ending. At both places in the movie, Jo visits the publisher Mr. Dashwood, attempting to have her writing published. Rather than end the movie with marriage, as is typical, she returns to this seemingly more significant milestone in Jo’s life—holding her own book.
Although Gerwig’s adaptation captures the spirit of the March sisters well and highlights their individual (and imperfect) attempts at achieving their dreams, its storytelling is decidedly different than others. Viewers who expect Gerwig to be faithful to the book, or to older film versions, will be disappointed. While this “Little Women” deviates from the classic tale, it maintains the original foundation of female friendship that is so unique among sisters.
[This version of “Little Women”] maintains the original foundation of female friendship that is so unique among sisters.
Because the main relationships that Gerwig develops are Jo’s interpersonal relationship with herself and the relationships between the sisters, some of the other characters fall a bit more flat and get less screen time. Meryl Streep’s Aunt March suits her style and conveys the woman’s sharpness with humor. Laura Dern isn’t quite convincing as Marmee, but her best scene is one with Jo, when Marmee tells her that wanting to be loved is not the same thing as loving someone.
Overall, Gerwig’s “Little Women” is not Alcott’s “Little Women,” but it provides a different interpretation of the lives of women like the March sisters and what can still be learned from them in 2020. Alcott and Gerwig both understand that the human experience is rooted in relationship. Viewers who already have a strong connection with these characters will enjoy Gerwig’s take.
If anything, it is a reminder to hold on to what’s truly important in life. As sweet Beth says, “It’s like the tide. It goes out slowly, but it can’t be stopped.”