‘Little Women’ (2019) excels in the eyes of the artiste

Jan. 21, 2020, 8:57 p.m.

Major spoilers for “Little Women” ahead.

The recent cinematic release of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019) is far from the first screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, but is closer than any thus far to realizing the thematic complexity of its titular “Little Women.” Since the book was first published in 1868 to critical acclaim, it has spawned many screen adaptations, including but not limited to an early 20th century silent film (1918), a technicolor MGM film (1949) and a 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder. The novel has also inspired four BBC mini-series, two anime and even a modern-day Indian webseries. Gerwig’s directorial vision has the fiercely independent Jo March’s adult life as a New York serial writer act as a framing narrative for the novel’s plot such that the film starts in media res of its source material. As if that were not risky enough, the film alternates between present and past scenes in Jo’s life, asking viewers to actively engage with meta-commentary on writing and gender norms. The genius of Gerwig’s artistic choices becomes progressively clear as you witness Jo and her artistic and traditionally feminine “little women” sisters struggle with their existential scope throughout the film. 

The novel “Little Women” has a surprisingly meta plot for a story that proposes to tell of diminutive females. The 1868 novel follows the lives of the middle-class March family with the four sisters Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth and their mother Marmee (their father is off fighting with the Union Army in the Civil War). While the plot largely exists within the March domestic sphere, the four sisters gradually venture out into the world in all directions including motherhood, writing in New York, painting in Paris and playing the neighbor’s antique piano. The novel explores the tragedies of the ordinary world including the restricted life of a working-class housewife, relationships ruined by the friend-zone, the 19th-century glass ceiling and premature death from terminal illness. The title of the novel is thus a misnomer, for its women are far from little in the course of their lives. And Gerwig’s unraveling of the linear plot, while potentially confusing audience members less familiar with the source material, allows us to see how girlhood in the March family influences the choices they make when they leave their home. The intentionality with which both Gerwig, as director, and the author, Louisa May Alcott, subvert audience expectations provides a timely case study for today’s media-saturated toxic fanbases. 

For over 150 years, fans of “Little Women” have complained that Jo March does not end up with her charismatic childhood best friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), but instead marries the much older German professor Bhaer. Since the novel had originally been published in two installments (1868-9), the readership of “Little Women” became obsessed with Jo getting together with Laurie contrary to the authorial intent for her heroine to never marry. Saoirse Ronan’s Jo effectively conveys from her first scene with Laurie, dancing on the back porch with abandon, that she does not care for the “friends-to-lovers” trope, her behavior around her “dear Teddy” spontaneous and genuine but never fawning like her sister Amy. Gerwig’s take on the friend-zone scene, shot on a grassy autumnal hill, is one of the most bittersweet scenes in the film for its gorgeous aesthetics and the older Jo’s conviction that “[Laurie and I] could never work. We would fight and ruin everything.” 

Some adaptations have justified Jo’s subsequent left-field marriage to Bhaer by casting a younger actor to make his partnership with the spirited writer less jarring. Playing along with this trend, Gerwig casts young French romance film actor Louis Garrel as the “European” Professor, implicitly making Bhaer a legitimate romantic rival to Laurie due to Timothée Chalamet’s similar presence in European art cinema. The frequent cuts between past and present mean the audience is actually introduced to the attentive Professor well before Laurie, building sympathy for a character whom fans have historically written off as the unfortunate match. Garrel’s Bhaer, however, is given very little screen time, and the scene in which Jo apparently pursues him is almost laughable for its rom-com tropes of the train station and kissing in the rain. While the novel may give a more organic development to their relationship, we can thank Gerwig’s clever mirroring of Louisa May Alcott through Jo as to why we see plot points such as marriage for what they truly are: means of getting a 19th century female-led novel published. Female independence was something male editors, such as the opening scene Volcano Press man Jo meets with to publish her work, had yet to understand. 

The conflict between love and independence haunts all of the March women throughout the original novel. The careful detail Gerwig puts into characterizing them allows a plurality of women — beyond the nominated heroine Jo — to shine as protagonists. That Amy, the bratty artiste younger sister enamored with Laurie, is surprisingly likable in the film is a testament to the maturity with which Florence Pugh plays her. Gerwig brilliantly stages a scene between Amy and Laurie with the self-proclaimed “mediocre painter” standing in an artist studio that may at first glance seem her paradise. Rather than returning the affections of a flirtatious Laurie, Amy speaks one of the most iconic lines of the film about marriage being an economic proposition, revealing critical self-awareness of her limited opportunities in life as a middle-class woman. In the following scenes of Amy as a younger girl, though, it is hard to sympathize with her burning Jo’s novel manuscript in retaliation for the former’s teasing. We do sympathize with Amy when spiteful Aunt March (played to perfection by Meryl Streep) explicitly frames her painting passion as an asset for future marriage prospects. Amy’s subsequent outburst that all her life she felt second-best to Jo and did not want Laurie to settle for her because Jo rejected him reveals that, though Amy may get everything Jo wanted (an artistic trip to Paris and being with Laurie), her entire life was crafted within a gilded cage until marriage. 

Gerwig plays off the gentle eldest sister Meg (played by brunette Emma Watson) and Laura Dern’s Mrs. “Marmee” March as foils for each other to elicit the hidden anger and hurt even the most motherly, outwardly-loving woman can experience. Meg takes pride in her motherly treatment of her three sisters, always being the one to soothe hurt feelings or aching bodies given Marmee’s literal absence from the home for much of the plot. The house party featuring Laurie and Jo’s wild antics effectively foreshadows the debutante party where Meg gets dolled up in her friend’s frivolous pink silk dress to indulge in frivolity “one last time” before her impending marriage. Though Aunt March and Jo disagree on most things, they unanimously declare it was a huge mistake for Meg to marry the poor tutor John, not only because he takes Meg away from her family, but also from little things such as pink silk or writing by the light of more than one candle. Through pained smiles and a reserved demeanor that starkly contrasts the aspiring actress she once was as a girl, Watson convincingly sells the quiet suffering and nostalgia of a woman who is the 19th-century version of Betty Friedan’s existentially-bored housewife. Laura Dern likewise plays Marmee like a compassionate but tired middle-aged woman who has seen too much of life from tirelessly serving wounded Union soldiers and her destitute neighbors almost at the expense of her own family. Dern’s mother figure letting out that “she is angry every day of her life” in an otherwise placid living room scene speaks volumes to her frustration with the limited opportunities imposed on both her and her daughters by the outside world. 

In contrast to her romantic sisters, quiet Beth platonically finds beauty and light (quite literally, thanks to Gerwig’s luscious visuals) in playing antique pianos. The smart casting choice of rosy-cheeked, dreamy-eyed Eliza Scanlan plays up Beth’s angelic compassion and tireless service for the local sick and poor that ultimately results in terminal illness. Her music and joy brings delight to everyone who knows her, which is showcased in a gorgeous shot framing Laurie’s grandfather Mr. Laurence peering past the stairwell to see Beth playing the piano in his music room which has sat unused for years. Ronan’s Jo and Scanlan’s Beth co-star in some of the most poignant scenes when they simply sit and talk on the overcast seashore about Jo writing off her “domestic” stories (which Beth loves) and Beth’s stoic acceptance of death, elevating the female gaze that sees beauty in the mundane at both textual and meta-levels. Beth telling Jo that she and others care about the stories of young women at home versus the flashy romances requisite of New York serials foreshadows the emotional climax of the film. 

In Act Three of the film, Gerwig fully realizes Jo as the transfigured Louisa May Alcott drafting the novel “Little Women” itself, using Beth’s death, Laurie’s agonizing marriage to Amy and Jo’s existential crisis of loneliness all as impetus. Writing furiously by candlelight and gradually filling up the entire floorboard of her attic with handwritten pages, Jo’s dual identity as Louisa allows Gerwig to offer a much more satisfying answer to Jo’s love life. The framing narrative features a scene in which her old male Volcano Press editor in New York City tells Jo that she will not be able to get her story published if the heroine never marries. The Volcano Press scene resonates with the convictions of Amy and Aunt March that the only viable paths for women are marriage or moral destitution. Though Jo apparently marries Bhaer, her true marriage has always been to her writing, and this is consummated through the breathtaking final sequence of her book being physically made following her proudly surveying her new schoolhouse. Jo, like her author, has always been about the liberation found in art and narrative, and she gets that in the final shot that shows her family and friends and children learning, living and loving the stories of “Little Women.” If each adaptation of “Little Women” is a mirror for values of its time, then Gerwig’s adaptation reflects not only feminism but, more importantly, that artistic works about women coming of age are fundamental to understanding the modern human condition. 

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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