Full disclosure: Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of Little Women is as perfect an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel as there is ever likely to be. Poised with timeless nostalgia for childhoods lost, and of course for Alcott’s vision of 19th century New England, its unapologetic sentimentality walks hand in hand with its authenticity. So news of Greta Gerwig attempting her own take on Little Women instilled this reviewer with a little skepticism.
It shouldn’t have. Gerwig quite literally makes Little Women her own by honoring Alcott—arguably more so than any other screenwriter since she actively engages with and even critiques the text—while also making a film fascinated by the frequently overlooked second half of the novel. Framing her film as a conversation between the past and present transforms Little Women from a story about growing up to one of being a young woman entering a hostile world for the first time. It’s easy to see how this is in thematic keeping with Gerwig’s earlier screenplays, from Frances Ha to Lady Bird. Yet it also brings fresh eyes to a well-worn American classic that, for whatever the film’s missteps, suggests a different kind of timeliness.
Set some years after the American Civil War, Gerwig’s Little Women begins with writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) already moved out of her family’s home and living in New York City. Childhood friend Theodore “Laurie” Laurence’s (Timothée Chalamet) rejected marriage proposal is a painful memory. And she’s reminded of that fact early on when a publisher (Tracy Letts) condescends to the young author that if she is to write about female protagonists, they must be either wed or dead by the end. This is obviously not Jo’s experience, nor that of her sister half a world away.
As Jo works at her writing career, Amy March (Florence Pugh) is ostensibly studying to become a great painter in Paris. Actually, she is there at Great Aunt March’s (Meryl Streep) behest to ensnare a rich husband. But much to the aunt’s dismay, Amy still has eyes for Laurie, who’s become a bit of a world-traveling cad after Jo broke his heart. What all three young people share though is golden hued memories of sunnier days, even in the midst of the war, when they were growing up in Concord, Massachusetts. It was there that Amy was the baby of a family that also included sisters Meg (Emma Watson), who is the eldest and most passive, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who struggles with ill health all her life, and Marmee (Laura Dern), a mother forced to be the smiling breadwinner while their father fights for the Union. These are idyllic memories of childhood days gone by, which often are contrasted with illuminating results next to the starker present of actual womanhood.
Picking up where Lady Bird left off, with Ronan playing an artiste spreading her wings and reluctantly leaving the nest, Gerwig’s Little Women adjusts this story for a 21st century, millennial gaze in the same way earlier adaptations reflected the values of their eras. To be sure, this most certainly remains Alcott’s March Family, whose domestic lives have been immortalized for over 150 years by each generation discovering the book. But Gerwig shoots and edits their childhood revelries with a liveliness and rapidity that more closely resembles a modern indie comedy than traditional period piece stateliness.
When Jo remembers her first encounter with the Laurence boy, their dance outside a stuffy New England party gels with the spontaneity and excitement of a modern concert, and the joy of frolicking on the beach as children is juxtaposed with an autumnal return to the sands where Jo reads to an ailing Beth, both acting as if summer will never come again.
This approach recontextualizes the novel, and also provides an unsurprising showcase for Ronan. One of the most gifted actors of her generation, she embodies the hotheaded independent streak of Jo March to its notable fault. Ronan devours the role and, along with Gerwig, makes Jo more iconoclastic than ever by putting some of the real-life Alcott’s most subversive personal musings in her mouth, and placing Jo in often male-coded attire that might suggest an abolitionist era Diane Keaton. What’s more surprising, however, is Gerwig also gives new insight into Amy. The most precocious (and antagonistic) of the March sisters, the young one is frequently dismissed by many readers as an envious pest.
Yet in this film, Pugh continues her banner year by turning Amy into a secondary heroine after Jo. While some flashbacks play awkwardly since Gerwig opted for Pugh to play Amy at both ages 12 and 17, it also gives poignancy to the pressure placed on Amy as the only March sister searching for a marriage that will support the free spiritedness of the rest of her family. As a result, Gerwig’s movie is the only version of this story, including the book, that makes a convincing argument for a Laurie-Amy romance.
Nevertheless, Gerwig’s ambitious reworking has drawbacks. Running at a lengthy 134 minutes, the frequent crosscutting between then and now often halts and frustrates narrative momentum. Framing the story with the March Sisters in adulthood stunts the urgency of childish concerns in other scenes. It also causes the less proactive characters in the present to suffer by comparison. While Beth’s relationship with Laurie’s doting grandfather (Chris Cooper) is given heartwarming floor space, Marmee is almost entirely peripheral. Watson’s Meg, meanwhile, feels like wallpaper despite leading many scenes, although this might simply be the result of Watson’s limited range in comparison to Ronan and Pugh.
The film both honors and reimagines Little Women, but as a whole it lacks the majestic sweep of Armstrong’s 1994 film. Yet I suspect that suits Gerwig fine as she isn’t just adapting the novel; she is reframing it for audiences who are unacquainted, as well as for those who knows Alcott’s life story. This leads to one of the most inspired and thought-provoking final shots of the year. And for a story this oft-told, that is saying a lot.
Little Women opens on Christmas Day.