Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, published in 1868, has been retold many times. In 1918, the story was adapted into a black-and-white silent film. More than a hundred years later, Greta Gerwig wrote and directed another adaptation of Little Women. Gerwig’s Little Women has been both a financial and critical success, having grossed over a hundred and fifty million dollars and having been nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Oscars. Little Women succeeds as a film by focusing on relevant human quandaries.
Although it is set in the 1860s, Little Women’s characters and world are extremely relatable, sometimes uncomfortably so. The authenticity of the film is only possible because Gerwig treats the characters with respect. Each of the four March sisters, Amy, Meg, Jo and Beth, has a distinct outlook on the world, but through their interactions with each other and the outside world, they change as people.
Jo and Amy’s complicated relationship drives much of the film. Jo is a fantastic writer with unmatched passion and will. Amy wishes to be a painter, but she is nowhere near as talented as her sister. Jo has a close friendship with her handsome neighbor, Laurie, who wishes to be more than friends. Amy is interested in marriage, romance and Laurie, but Amy always feels that she is second to her sister in every way.
In many stories, this love triangle of sorts could become cliche filled or hyper dramatized. Instead, Little Women allows Amy to express her jealousy in a realistic way: by being an asshole. At one point in the film, Amy is excluded by Jo and Laurie so she does something truly cruel to Jo. Gerwig doesn’t sugarcoat anything: Amy was trying to hurt Jo, and she did. However, Amy is only 13-years-old at the time, and she isn’t irredeemable. This exemplifies Gerwig’s strength in character writing. The March sisters all have moments of arrogance, inauthenticity or cruelty. They are all better characters for that.
Little Women takes place over many years, but the story is not told chronologically. The movie regularly switches from the ‘present’ to the past and vice versa. This technique allows for quick pacing and the inclusion of facts about the conclusions of certain storylines, as is done in many notable works such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Ultimately, though, the constant switching of timelines often makes it difficult to know which timeline a scene is taking place in.
Covering a wide span of time and many characters, Little Women is far more focused on the world it takes place in than is Gerwig’s 2017 masterpiece Ladybird, which is dominantly character based. Little Women is, at times, about everything. There is the theme of class, as the March family interacts with both much richer families and far poorer ones. The difficulty women face in society is another central theme. Both Jo and Amy are forced to acknowledge that it will be much harder for them to succeed in art and in life than a man. These themes of Little Women are very relevant today.
Concepts of class, gender, art, love and growing up all come to a head in the characters’ discussions of marriage. In a conversation with the girls’ Aunt March, played by the iconic Meryl Streep, Amy is told she must marry rich. Aunt March says that Amy must support her sisters and family by finding a rich man. Toward the end of the movie, there is a poignant conversation between Laurie and Amy where Laurie argues that love must be passionate and come from the heart. Amy astutely states that it is his privilege as a male to have the poetic perspective on love. For her, marriage is undeniably an economic negotiation, more so than a poetic one. This connection of many smaller themes makes the movie feel very complete once it is over.
Since Little Women tells such a large story, it loses some of the emotional impact that narrower stories can achieve. Still, Gerwig’s take on the classic story is fundamentally modern. It’s a fantastically acted film which builds its world as well as any movie in 2019. Gerwig has proven that Ladybird wasn’t a fluke. Watch her films before everyone has. She’s just begun making must-see movies.
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