Little Women: Greta Gerwig Brings a Fresh Perspective to a Classic Story
Little Women is a story that has been told and retold over the course of 150 years. It has been adapted for the stage, film, television, and has been performed as a musical and an opera. A modern moviegoer would thus be forgiven for being skeptical that the seventh film adaptation of Little Women, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, could bring something particularly novel to the table. But Gerwig tells the story in a way that not only cleverly emphasizes and reveals the characters’ motivations as they transition from childhood to adulthood, but that also invokes the sexism still present in today’s society. Warning: This review contains discussion of plot details in Little Women. The touchstone of Gerwig’s mark on Little Women is her creative retelling of the story through two parallel linear timelines: one in which the girls are coping with the challenges of adulthood (filmed in a dreary white light), the other following their late childhood (filmed with a golden glow). The film brilliantly transitions between the two timelines, comparing and contrasting the past and the present to highlight each woman’s growth, and using shifts in perspective to explain the motivations and feelings that drive the women in adulthood. While the plot points are largely tracks Louisa May Alcott’s original tale, the story is told in a way that simultaneously makes the plot feel fresh, deepens our understanding of each character, and sheds new light on the challenges facing women in the 1860’s. Throughout her restructured narrative, Gerwig takes care not to linger on emotional moments relating to the girls’ romantic relationships. That approach is reflective of what is arguably the movie’s thesis, summed up poetically by Jo March (Saoirse Ronan):
Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But … I’m so lonely.
Little Women spends much of its time highlighting and developing the minds, souls, ambition, and talent of the four leading ladies -- they are actors, writers, painters, and musicians, respectively, each bringing their own skills to the table. They are spirited and lively, and clearly capable of more than the roles they were pre-ordained to play. We see them write and perform plays for the local children, create their own men’s club, and make sacrifices to help those in need. Little Women gives us the sense that all this matters, that it’s more than just silly childhood games leading up to a life of domesticity. Little Women continues to emphasize those talents in the adulthood timeline, not just suggesting but insisting that each woman’s skills and personality make her unique and worth caring about. The film’s autobiographical twist allows Jo to tell her family’s story, recognizing that writing it down in her own voice will reflect its importance. In doing so, she overcomes many of the obstacles she faces in publishing her own work at the beginning of the movie. Meanwhile, Amy (Florence Pugh) is one of the more talented students in her Parisian painting classes. And in the final scene, Meg (Emma Watson) and Amy (both married) teach acting and painting to students at Jo’s school. Gerwig’s Little Women does not neglect the romantic connections present in the original work, though it spends less time on the scenes that might in another telling capture key climactic moments. There are two scenes in particular that reflect this approach: when Laurie confesses his love to Jo, and when Amy tells Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that she has loved him for her whole life. Each scene is powerfully written and acted, and makes you feel deeply for the characters in that moment; you can empathize with Jo’s desire for freedom and independence at the same time your heart shatters alongside Laurie’s, and you feel Amy’s pain and humiliation in loving someone she thought would never love her back. But then the story quickly moves on, refusing to linger just for an emotional catharsis. Similarly, the tender “umbrella” scene between Jo and Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) is moving and sweet in a rom-com kind of way, but it is not the emotional high point of Jo’s character arc -- and in fact, it’s unclear whether Jo and Bhaer actually end up together or whether that scene existed only in the novel, as a concession to the publisher. Little Women is thus not about moments in which love was won or lost, but of the women living through those life-altering moments. Gerwig’s decision to expose the economics of marriage also breathes new life into the story, providing context for why Meg (Emma Watson), Jo, and Amy could not simultaneously pursue their artistic dreams and have a family. At one point, Amy lectures Laurie on her limited options:
[A]s a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.
That stark reality makes it easy for Amy to convince herself she will be happy marrying Fred Vaughn and supporting her family, even though it is clear that she has never loved him the way she loves Laurie. It also explains why Jo feels compelled to make her short stories marketable rather than write tales she would be proud to publish in her name; she must sacrifice creative liberties to maintain her personal freedom. Every life choice required compromise. The idea of marriage as an economic proposition resonates with modern audiences; women are still paid less than men and are often expected to be homemakers and caretakers. Marriage can be a way for a woman to escape (or remain mired in) poverty and can open the door to new opportunities. While modern women may be dreamers like Meg, economic considerations may lead us to believe, as Amy does, that we have some power over who we love. Gerwig left a mark on Little Women, the same way Little Women will leave a mark on its audience. It deserves a place in film history as one of the great retellings of a classic.