Greta Gerwig’s reimagining of Little Women (and why it’s the best)

Greta Gerwig’s reimagining of Little Women (and why it’s the best)

Greta Gerwig's Little Women starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen as the March sisters.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a revelation. Her reinterpretation of the original text, reimagined through modern sensibilities while still framed within the 19th century world of the story, adds depth and nuance to the characters, who are portrayed with sympathy and love. Even those who might have been seen as villains in earlier film versions of this story, like Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and Amy (Florence Pugh), are brought vividly to life with an empathetic eye.

Marmie, who (on film) has previously come across as little more than a saintly, cardboard cut-out of a character, is embodied by Laura Dern as a complete person, loving and eccentric, with hints to a life before our current story, and so much more. After all, Marmie is a woman left to look after her girls, in a world where many of the men who are of age, including her husband (Bob Odenkirk), have left to fight. There was always more to her story, and in this film thanks to Gerwig’s script and Dern’s portrayal, we have a sense of that, if only in little glimpses.

Little Women has always been a story about sisters, and the complex relationships they can sometimes have. This was particularly in the era of the March sisters, when there was so much at stake financially for a family of women. Implicit in their family relationships is the understanding the sisters would have to help support each other in whatever ways they could, through work, or through a good marriage, which, of course, means something very different then and now. These layered sisterly relationships aren’t the main theme of Gerwig’s script, but it’s a constant presence and well-wrought backdrop against which the story is set, showing the intimate moments of sisterhood as the story unfolds, which can be delightful or diabolical and everything in between.

We enter this women’s world, through the character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), introducing us to the March family and the various significant people in their orbit when they have already, mostly entered the world of adults, later taking us back into the past to learn about their younger lives as they are coming of age. Through the course of the film we cut back and forth between these time periods, as different elements of the story play out, a movement which builds the story beautifully in Gerwig’s expert hands. To distinguish between the two periods, she layers the childhood scenes with warm nostalgic tones, while the later narrative is a more naturalistic, cooler tone, and the way she has seamlessly woven the narrative back and forth the movement makes complete sense, revealing just enough in the adult narrative to add depth to our understanding of what has passed when we flashback once more.

Really interesting to note that the cinematographer for this film is Yorick Le Saux, who was also responsible for the cinematography on singularly beautiful films by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love and A Bigger Splash), Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), and more recently Claire Denis (High Life).

I’m going to go into more detail below, but this is an interesting and thoughtful take on a classic story. Gerwig’s skills as a director is clear, and in this film demonstrates those talents, as it does her ability to write a fantastic adapted screenplay. This film, as much as her last, show her ability to beautifully tell a layered and complex story in a creative and compelling way. Much has already been said about the fact she has been mostly overlooked this awards season (along with many other female film makers and artists of colour), and this was a serious oversight. Greta Gerwig deserves to be recognised as a director for this film, every bit as much as any of the directors who have been nominated for the big awards this season, not because she is a woman, but because she is talented and excellent at what she does and specifically what she did with this film. She didn’t get the nominations she deserves, however, because she is a woman telling a women’s stories, outnumbered in director’s chapter of the Academy and living in a culture where those stories are seen as less significant, and are often not seen at all by men. Ironic when you consider the theme of much of this story is about the difficulties of women making their way and making art in a man’s world (also a notable theme in a similarly overlooked French masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire).

More on art, the men of Little Women and other thoughts (with spoilers)…

While this is certainly a film is about women, particularly women in the 19th century as told through the fortunes of the women of the March family, it’s also about so much more. Gerwig described the main male character of Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) as the original ally, and indeed all of the male characters are allies to the women. From the moment Laurie meets Jo, he does so on her terms, and happily. In the later time line, Frederic wants to be invited into Jo’s world, through her work. In doing so he promises to meet her with respect and as an equal by being completely honest with her, and delivers on that promise. Really this is as much a story of the men who surround the March women, who are invited into the women’s world, and are happy to be part of it. The men of Little Women are role models of what it means to not have to take the centre stage.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig's Little Women.
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig’ LITTLE WOMEN.

At its heart Little Women is a story about art, creating art and the compromises that often come with that, the challenges women face working in a man’s world on men’s terms, and also the challenges of being an artist (male of female) in a more general sense as Amy finds and the heartbreak of deciding you are not as good as you need to be to make art your life. A story as valid now as in the 19th century.

The book of Little Women both opens and closes the film. After we see the bound book by Louise May Alcott, we immediately enter the first scene of our story, Jo visiting her publisher, Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) where she offers her work for publication for the first time. Jo takes a lower fee, and agrees to whatever Mr Dashwood wants just to be published. At the end of the film we are back in Mr Dashwood’s office once more, this time the conversation is very different, and intercut with the ending of the story of the March women. Now Jo is more mature, more experienced. She sees things differently to the Jo in the opening scene, and confidently negotiates a better deal long-term for herself (apparently the same deal Louisa May Alcott negotiated for herself with the actual book). Jo has learnt that while she doesn’t need to concede everything, she does need to compromise to some extent. She is both an artist and a pragmatist, and negotiates the book’s (and the film’s) ending, conceding a mercenary romantic finish, because she accepts that in the end art (like marriage) has to be mercenary to some degree. Cut to the negotiated ending of Jo and Frederic in the rain. It doesn’t get more meta than that. There is commentary here for modern artists as much as those of Louisa May Alcott’s day. Artists today have to earn a living as much as they did then, and with that necessarily comes compromise for the majority who aren’t already so wealthy they don’t need to concern themselves with being mercenary. 

This idea of having to be pragmatic, of having to compromise, of course also mirrors the position of women in relation to marriage in this era. This is a point that is made repeatedly in different ways throughout the film, not least by Aunt March, who is delightfully portrayed by Meryl Streep. In this version of the story Aunt March is grumpy and demanding, but she’s also realistic and says what she does because she (not unreasonably) believes what she is advising is in the best interests of the family.

Aunt March is really a misanthrope, she hasn’t anything particularly against her brother and his family, she just doesn’t like anyone much and is rich enough that she can afford to not care very much what people think. A rare position for a woman in that world, and a position she’s only been able to maintain by remaining unmarried. When she lectures the March women, it is her way of showing she cares. This becomes clear particularly after Meg and John’s wedding when Aunt March berates various members of the family, but does so with a twinkle in her eye, and they brush of her criticism with good humour. She cares for them really, she just wishes they’d see the world as she does and sort themselves out.

Women in this story, just as in the real world, are so many different things. As Jo says to Marmie towards the end, women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition as well as beauty, and this is true of all the women in this story. The March women are all ambitious, although not for the same things. One of my favourite moments in the film (I have many), is when Marmie tells Jo that she has been angry every day of her life. Laura Dern delivers this line in such a calm, honest way, this is something we never saw in Marmie before and acknowledges her as the fully developed person she is, with history that we have not been party to but now understand is there.

Gerwig’s Little Women has deliberately and lovingly woven elements of the story of the real Louisa May Alcott with that of her characters. It is more her fiction than her reality, but incorporates the essence of her nonetheless. There’s a lovely article in The Guardian on this if you want to read more on that subject.

What a wonderful film. I’ve never really connected much to earlier versions of Little Women, and not being American, have never read the book, but this film has completely changed my view of the story and the book is next in my reading queue. Thank you Greta Gerwig.