Many Americans have found themselves encountering Louisa May Alcott’s famous and timeless story, Little Women, at some point in their childhood. Her novel is read in literature classes across the country and even the world, and is just as relevant now as it was in the late 1860s when it was released. Seven film adaptations have already been produced based on Alcott’s work from 1917 to 2018, so when acclaimed director/writer Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) announced her new version of the story, skepticism was natural. How much more can be mined from this story that hasn’t already been portrayed? As Gerwig’s Little Women proves, an infinite amount of new messages and meaning can be interpreted. This film succeeds in every single way a movie can and it isn’t even an original script. Gerwig rises above all expectations with this remake and somehow creates one of the most progressive and poignant films of 2019 with material more than 150 years old.
The first change that Gerwig makes to the original story that sets Little Women apart from all other adaptations is the structure. The very first scene takes place in a publishing office where Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is pitching one of her stories to a very dismissive editor. In the book and other movies, this scene/storyline occurs in the latter half of the narrative, but Gerwig decides to treat the initial story of the March siblings when they are children as a memory to be looked back at. The two timelines progress forward and the events in the future mirror the events of the past perfectly, showing how we often tend to look back on adolescence with fondness, wondering where the time has gone and whether we can get back that innocence and joy that came with younger years. The structure also makes the major events that happen in both past and present hit much harder than if it was linear. One event in the latter half of the movie (no spoilers for those who aren’t familiar with the story) has a devastating emotional impact due to the structure, visual storytelling, and Gerwig’s fantastic direction.
The structure is one of many things that Gerwig improves from the source material, and she stamps her own unique voice on Alcott’s story to enhance the social commentary and characterization. No character in this movie is left without a motivation or backstory because in order for the story to be fully realized, every perspective must be seen. Gerwig adds an extra layer of sympathy for Amy (Florence Pugh), the character who is seen as the bratty little sister in both the book and other film adaptations. She has her own ambitions and desires, and just because those don’t line up with her sister Jo’s, she is often seen as a bad guy for no reason. Gerwig also uses visual storytelling to develop Laurie (Timothèe Chalamet) and his motivation throughout the film. He is stuck in a house without any noise or fun and while he doesn’t hate it, he never gets the family experience that Jo March and the other girls seem to have. A great scene early on shows the busy and pleasant atmosphere that the March girls bring with them while in Laurie’s house, which then juxtaposes with the silent and cold tone when they leave, explaining why Laurie yearns to be a part of the March family without even directly stating why.
Another thing that Gerwig understands more than any filmmaker who has tackled this material before is the writing process, which is essential in portraying Jo March’s struggle to get her works published. All of the scenes involving Jo’s writing feel as if they were pulled from experiences in Gerwig’s life instead of the novel due to the fresh direction and screenplay. One scene near the end even felt like a conversation Gerwig might have had with her producers regarding a cheesy aspect of the book, and the conclusion of this discussion reflects the decision Gerwig makes with her ending.
The ensemble in Little Women is one of the best ones assembled over the past year–every single performance is perfect for what the film is trying to accomplish and no actor steals the movie. Saoirse Ronan plays Jo March in the best manner she’s ever been played, adding an extra dimension regarding the ignorance of women’s artistic talents that is all too true today. Chalamet gives a typically incredible performance as Laurie, nailing the scene where he asks Jo to marry him just as Christian Bale did in the 1993 version. Florence Pugh is currently getting the Oscar buzz for her turn as Amy March and rightly so: she manages to be the comedic relief and the emotional counterweight to Jo at the same time. Meryl Streep is hilariously cynical, Laura Dern is subtle but ever so present, Chris Cooper is underrated–I could go on and on about the fantastic performances this film contains, but there isn’t enough time in the world.
On a technical level, this movie couldn’t be better. It has production design to die for–all of it is filmed around Boston yet they manage to make Paris and New York City come to life in front of viewers’ eyes. Adding to this is the impeccable costume design by Jacqueline Durran, who makes the fancy dresses pop off of the screen in comparison to the rags worn by the family the Marches are helping with their extra supplies. One of the standout technical aspects for me was Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score, which sets the tone with expertise as any great musical soundtrack should. His music echoes the feeling of happiness felt by the March siblings during their joyful childhood years, making it all the more melancholic when he plays the same chords during tougher times.
Little Women has material commenting on many modern issues: class, gender relations, isolation, war, etc. This is what should define remakes in 2020 film culture instead of the mediocre Disney live action remakes. Whenever a studio is considering greenlighting a remake for a project that has been seen before, the question on their minds should be “what new ideas does this remake bring to the table?” and not “how much money will this make?” Unfortunately, because The Lion King made over a billion dollars earlier in 2019, the landscape of film is going to contain far more soulless remakes without a point, which is a shame.
Greta Gerwig solidifies herself as one of the most interesting voices in Hollywood with Little Women, a film that is more modern than most material that takes place in 2019. When people look back on 2019, I hope they will see films of substance and value for all of society like this instead of selfish and boring movies like Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. The fact that the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association can watch this and still not think Gerwig is good enough for a direction nomination is baffling, and frankly proves the point Gerwig makes in the film about women getting no recognition in anything besides getting married and having kids. The talent on display is unmatched, and the fact that Little Women is a retelling doesn’t hold it back in the slightest from soaring above the competition.
I give Little Women an A+.