When it was announced that director Greta Gerwig would be following up the success of Lady Bird with a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, there were many that questioned whether we needed it. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version sated most appetites for a faithful film version of the beloved story but, unlike many remakes, the names attached certainly indicated that there was a reason why Gerwig wanted to tell this particular story, and why she wanted to tell it now.
The film follows the March family – Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Amy (Florence Pugh) and their mother aka Marmee (Laura Dern) – as they wrestle with the opportunities and limitations of the years during and after the American Civil War. The privileged but lonely neighbour boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is soon inducted into the household, and Aunt March (Meryl Streep) is on hand to deliver hard truths and comic relief.
Gerwig’s Little Women takes a strikingly different route to its main story checkpoints compared to other adaptations, weaving together the past and present of the sisters’ lives in order to highlight the various beats in each of their stories both together and separately. Thus young Jo and older Jo – who remains at the centre of an otherwise ensemble tale – exist simultaneously, and she becomes an even more vibrant character as a result.
This is some feat, as it’s true that Jo March holds almost mythical significance in many readers’ lives. As someone trapped in an era unsympathetic to her pleas that marriage is a tragedy for independent women, the character has aged strikingly well even without updates made for a modern audience, and this version will surely live in the hearts of newcomers just as Winona Ryder’s has since the ‘90s. Some will no doubt take umbrage with the various moments in which 21st Century ideals begin to exit the mouth of a young woman living in the 19th Century, but it mostly works.
Ronan isn’t the only one to impress, though, with Chalamet born to play Laurie, an adrift but thoughtful orphan who finds his family in the sisters, and Pugh continuing her amazing streak of performances as the youngest March. She adds so much humanity, sadness and, at times, naive hopefulness to Amy that tends to get lost in other interpretations of her. The masterstroke is having Pugh occupy the role across the two time periods, and the actress absolutely nails the difference between an Amy-type who has not met the real world and one who has, and who has found it wanting.
Though the story focuses on the various ambitions and dreams of the characters, it doesn’t skip over the traditionally less prominent Meg and Beth in pursuit of this. While Amy and Jo spend much of the film attempting to self-actualise through their art, frustrated at the continuous pleas from all sides to find a wealthy man and settle down, Meg’s dreams are of a family. The realities of this are no less harsh than those in high society or the male-dominated literary world, and showing this is just one of the film’s major strengths.
The world of Little Women is ultimately one filled with kindness, with people helping each other and allowing those closest to them to grow – whether that’s towards or away from them. Two ways modern adaptations of period stories can go terribly wrong is either by pasting too much of the audience’s own prejudices onto characters who would never have encountered them or by treating characters living in the past as less than human, all pretence and ceremony completely devoid of recognisable compassion. The film thankfully falls into neither of these traps.
It’s a movie bursting at the seams with charm and joy, packed with excellent performances, stunning costuming and cinematography, and a willingness to take risks and be bold in a way that never jars with the bones of Alcott’s original story. Gerwig has given us a Little Women for today, but perhaps also for generations to come.
Little Women is in UK cinemas from 26 December.