Did we need another adaptation of Little Women, the oft-staged/oft-filmed novel published (in two parts) by Louisa May Alcott in 1868 and 1869?
That’s the wrong question. The right question, and what all of Hollywood should be asking, is what does Greta Gerwig (the director of the 2019 film) want to film? Because that’s what they should throw their money behind. Maybe that sounds crass, but I find that it’s only appropriate to consider this version of Little Women in dollars and cents.
Maybe you know the story, maybe you don’t. The adaptation differs in various ways from the 750-page novel, as it must, though that’s less interesting to me (for now…ooo, confusing bit of foreshadowing) than what’s actually on the screen. What’s relevant to Gerwig’s adaptation (she has the screenwriting credit) is the agency of Jo March, one of the four March sisters. Jo’s a fiercely independent writer who early in the story’s chronology moves to New York City to sell her work, and the sun from which all other characters orbit. But she’s smart. She knows the score.
In an early scene, she visits with Mr. Dashwood, the publisher, who critiques her work. He slashes and burns his way through her submission as she watches on. (As a writer myself, this scene hurt my soul.) His advice is practical: If you want to sell your writing, write what sells. Art and commerce being necessary bedfellows and all that.
The film wants us to draw parallels between Jo’s writing and personal lives. She’s a talented writer of plays and stories, sure, but what she writes to sell has lost much of the spark from her childhood scripts and scribblings – put simply, she writes what she’s told; in contrast, her personal life is lived specifically, in just the way she wants. Her family is close, she’ll never marry, and she’s free to do as she pleases.
The film disrupts Jo’s status quo, introducing love interests, societal pressures, and matters of dollars and cents that change her. Her sister Beth gets sick, her sister Meg marries poor, her sister Amy marries Laurie – Jo’s first love. She’s known the score, she just thought it could be different for her. But she can’t escape it: she has to marry.
What’s clever about this version of Little Women is how Gerwig inverts narrative tropes at the end: it’s Jo who chases the professor through the rain to his train (to Spain??), it’s Jo who negotiates payment and royalties for her published work. In fact, it’s during the last scene in Mr. Dashwood’s office where Gerwig’s message fully calcifies. Just because Jo must do some things, doesn’t mean she has to sacrifice her agency in the process.
It’s a well-done, well-made film that deserves all the attention it’s been given (and all the attention it hasn’t). Gerwig is one to watch, and though there are scenes and story I found unfulfilling – Amy and Laurie like that? – the moments that impressed far outnumbered those that didn’t. For instance, the scenes where Jo bounds down the stairs to check on a missing Beth – shot as a reveal – work so well. Moments like these make the film.
Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Florence Pugh (Amy) are stars. Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), too, but less so. Then there’s Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, and Chris Cooper. There’s so much talent involved in front of and behind the camera, it’s no wonder this film sings.
Seek it out if you can. But bring tissues.