When Greta Gerwig first announced that her next project would be an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, it seemed like an odd choice. After the success of the vibrant and wonderful Lady Bird and with the world seemingly at her feet, it was unclear why she would want to choose a project that had been adapted for screen no less than eight times before. Fortunately all it takes is the opening scene, where the strong-willed and resilient Jo (Saoirse Ronan) must use all her wits to get her writings accepted by a publisher (who dares edit her work in front of her!), to see that Gerwig not only has a firm grasp of the source material but has something vibrant and new to say.
First, let’s get your chief concern out of the way: this is undoubtedly an adaptation of Little Women. The March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) are still very much the same sisters countless generations have fallen in love with, each of them incredibly unique and complex and yet together very much one. Their Massachusetts home very much feels like the March home of our collective memories (with the rest of the production design similarly feeling like a warm hug). Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is still the original manic pixie dream boy and together, all of them will grow up in moments of joy and sadness, heartache and romance, and through epic events and the beautiful banality of daily life. Alexander Desplat’s wonderful score perfectly skirts the line between sounding timelessly classical and propulsively contemporary. In other words, in just about every major facet this Little Woman faithfully captures the spirit of the novel.
But where Gerwig pushes Little Women into bold and exciting new territory is the way she plays with the story’s timeline. She jettisons the novel’s linear narrative in favor of rearranging the story by theme with two main timelines – one set when the sisters are firmly in adulthood and the other beginning seven years earlier – juxtaposed against each other. Where Alcott’s novel is a melancholy one where the optimistic idealism embodied by the March sisters is slowly depressingly confronted by the realities of a patriarchal and restrictive 19th century New England, here the sisters’ journeys are placed in counterpoint. This creates a movie that frequently asks us to jump between joy and sorrow but in such a way that it magnifies both of those emotional extremes. By adding this narrative complexity to the movie, Gerwig ran the risk of needlessly complicating a simple novel; instead she ends up effortlessly bringing out all the themes of the novel in such a clear and concise way and in the process also reveals her virtuosity as a director and writer (although special mention should go to her go-to editor Nick Huoy). While it may upset the novel’s most purist fans, Gerwig effortlessly manages to breathe new life into the narrative while remaining faithful to the spirit of the novel.
While Gerwig’s bold rearrangement of the narrative may provide the only point of disorientation for those who have read the novel, her pitch-perfect casting functions as a warm and comforting point of familiarity. It takes no time at all for us to recognize the four sisters and very little time after that for the sisters to stop feeling like characters and instead morph into flesh-and-blood individuals, each of them compelling on their own. Meanwhile even side characters like Marmee (Laura Dern), Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and Aunt March (Meryl Streep) instantly fill the screen with their familiar presence every time they enter. Each actor brings so much life and vitality to the screen that the movie cannot help but feel like an overwhelming emotional experience, the joys feeling like the greatest of joys and the sorrows being utterly crushing. While every performance in this movie is great, it is Florence Pugh who (barely) steals the show here, doing what had previously been nearly impossible by tuning Amy – long considered the closest thing to a “villain” in the novel – into a compelling, complex, and likeable character. And while Ronan’s Jo is still our de-facto narrator of the movie, Gerwig successfully creates such three-dimensional characters that her journey that the other sister’s paths to womanhood are not seen as somehow lesser to Jo’s; each sister’s viewpoint is in some way valid in the face of the patriarchal society they are in.
Although the structure of the story is different, Gerwig’s Little Women captures something far more important: she captures the feelings we had when we encountered the story for the first time. By doing so, Gerwig has taken what seems on the surface to be a “safe” and instead turns it into a major flex, firmly establishing Gerwig as one of the most exciting directors working today. Even the climactic finale – long viewed as a overly happy and neat ending in the end – is given an exhilarating twist showing that Gerwig can have her cake and eat it to. From beginning to end, Little Women is a delight.
Runtime: 135 minutes
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Written by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlon, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep