Little Women: Doing Alcott Justice

OWN YOUR STORY. 

There have been many adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. When I wrote the review for the 1933 film version, I called it the most famous. That’s not to say the 1994 adaptation was a loser; on the contrary, that movie made changes to the story that felt discreetly more modern. Produced by Denise Di Novi and written by Robin Swicord, the film looked like a difficult one to top. Still, that’s what Greta Gerwig has done now, ably assisted by Di Novi and Swicord as producers.

Beginning in New York City
Unlike the other adaptations, the film breaks up the story and begins in 1868 when Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is a teacher in New York City. She goes to a publisher with a story, hoping to get his approval. He starts reading and agrees to publish the story, as long as she makes it considerably shorter. She receives much harsher criticism from Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), a professor she’s gotten to know; he thinks that she’s selling out, so Jo leaves him in anger.

At the same time, her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with their aunt (Meryl Streep) and runs into Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), the grandson of a neighbor back in Concord, Massachusetts. She invites him to a party, but he drinks too much that night and gets an earful from Amy. Things were perhaps a bit less complicated for all of them during the Civil War in Massachusetts…

Researching Louisa May Alcott
There is definitely a reason for bookending the story with Jo’s life in New York in 1868. When the chance to adapt the novel landed in Gerwig’s hands, her approach was similar to Emma Thompson’s when she was writing her script for Sense and Sensibility in the early 1990s. Both women are actresses with a talent for writing who took on material written almost 200 years ago in a different way from previous adaptations.

In Gerwig’s case, she started researching Louisa May Alcott herself and found that the writer never married or had children but was told that she had to marry her heroine off in the novel or it wouldn’t sell. Gerwig wanted to honor the classic story, but also the woman behind it, and decided to make a few interesting changes. The scenes set in 1868 show an independent woman who insists on owning the copyright of her work; they also emphasize the printing of her novel ”Little Women” in beautiful fashion, having a much more powerful impact than Jo chasing after her professor in the rain. Here, that famous moment turns out to be merely a compromise to get the novel published. A brilliant solution for our time, done with great respect for the original story.

The film isn’t some cheap deconstruction of the novel’s epic aspects; Gerwig clearly wanted to create a handsome production that could appeal to great masses. There’s Alexandre Desplat’s traditional, engaging music score and Jacqueline Durran’s outstanding costume design; Yorick Le Saux’s wintry but warm cinematography is an invaluable asset when it comes to shaping the memory of the March sisters’ lives in Massachusetts during those long years when the war never seemed to end and their father was constantly away.

Then there’s obviously the cast. Ronan was so good in the director’s Lady Bird (2017) and she’s simply put a perfect choice to do Jo, just as playful as her predecessors, but she also powerfully transcends the new vision that Gerwig created for the character. There are many pros here; Emma Watson as Meg who has more conventional dreams than Jo, Pugh as the headstrong Amy, Chalamet who finds different reasons to fall in love with different March sisters, and Streep as the independently wealthy aunt they’re all trying to keep happy. 

Little Women 2019-U.S. 135 min. Color. Produced by Denise Di Novi, Amy Pascal, Robin Swicord. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Novel: Louisa May Alcott. Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran. Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Josephine ”Jo” March), Emma Watson (Margaret ”Meg” March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet… Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper.

Trivia: Emma Stone was originally considered for a role.

Oscar: Best Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Costume Design.

Last word: “I love my group of female friends, I write movies about not wanting to disrupt that, whether it’s sisterhood or mothers or friends. But in any case, I just knew I could not do the ending just as the book [did] –especially because Louisa didn’t really want to end it that way, and she really did think Jo’s true fate should’ve been as ‘a literary spinster with books for children’. And so I thought, I can’t in good faith do this ending, number one because it’s not in me, number two because she didn’t like it, and if we can’t give her an ending she would like, 150 years later, then what have we done?” (Gerwig, Film Comment)

 

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