Greta Gerwig’s radiant new adaptation of “Little Women” is for those of us who have tattered, well-loved copies of Louisa May Alcott’s original novel hiding on our bookshelves somewhere.
It is for those who read the book under their bedsheets with a flashlight and those who dogeared pages.
If that audience won’t feel the same sense of discovery that they felt in their first reading of Alcott, the movie provides something even more powerful and potent: a rediscovery and perhaps a new appreciation. Two hundred years after Alcott first wrote her novel in two parts, this story is alive again.
To recount the plot of “Little Women” feels a little perfunctory at this point so I will focus instead on how Gerwig decided to tell this classic tale- a methodology that I imagine is both disorienting for newcomers to the story and unexpectedly rich for those who know it like the backs of their hands.
Gerwig starts two-thirds of the way through the story – specifically on page 463 of my copy of the novel – where Jo (played by Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan) is writing in New York, Meg (Emma Watson) is living the domestic life as a married mother, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Paris with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep, as great as you would expect her to be).
It takes a while to get oriented and, as soon as you do, Gerwig pulls the rug out from under you again and flashes back to seven years earlier. From there, the story alternates between the past and the present.
In any other film, this constant flip-flopping might seem tiresome or pretentious, but in an adaptation of “Little Women”, it is nothing short of exhilarating. By disorienting her viewers, Gerwig forces them to once again experience the story for the first time and to really focus on these characters in a way that they haven’t in years. This is no rote by-the-numbers adaptation, and the film is better for it.
The constant timeline shifts also allow Gerwig to give certain scenes more emotional resonance than Alcott did. The death of poor Beth (Eliza Scanlen) always hits hard, for example, but it hits harder when surrounded by two of the book’s happiest scenes in the return of Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk) and Meg’s wedding day.
The film’s jumbled plotline is just one of the great inventions of Gerwig’s script, which certainly deserves an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay. Gerwig’s script is perhaps the first that truly makes the March sisters’ dialogue sound like the dialogue of sisters – always interrupting, overlapping and trying to get the last word. Gerwig also takes more time than other Alcott adapters to address the economic and social realities of the time- realities that make the accomplishments of Jo (and Alcott herself) all the more noteworthy.
“No one makes their own way, not really, least of all a woman,” Aunt March harrumphs.
Naturally, Gerwig’s script wouldn’t work quite as well without the tremendous cast that she has assembled. All four of the leads are lovely, and the deep bench of talented supporting actors – including, but not limited to Streep, Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet and Laura Dern- prove that great actors can make even the smallest roles memorable.
You may come out of this film thinking that Katharine Hepburn is still the best Jo or Susan Sarandon is still the best Marmee, but it is impossible to deny that everyone on screen gives their all.
The behind-the-scenes team acquit themselves equally well. Cinematographer Yourick Le Saux had the hardest job: finding a way to make that constant timeline switching make sense. He settled on a rather ingenious device in the use of warm autumnal colors in the flashback sequences which contrast with cooler colors in the present-day timeline. (In her script, Gerwig writes the past timeline in red and the present timeline in black, a color scheme that Le Saux seems to have taken quite literally.) Thanks to Le Saux, there are also scenes of true beauty – from a beachside picnic to a countryside proposal to a walk down a New York street where we nearly lose Jo in a sea of men.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is as sweepingly romantic as you’d hope a “Little Women” score would be, and Jacqueline Durran provides some gorgeous costumes.
In the end, this “Little Women” (rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking) is a bundle of contradictions. It is both artistic and commercial. Epic yet intimate. Postmodern and timeless. Disorienting but somehow clearer than ever before.
This film may not convert any new fans and might not even win over all of the old fans. But for this literature lover, it worked beautifully in spite of – or is it because of? – its contradictions.
“Little Women” made me want to re-read Alcott again. And I can think of no nicer compliment that I could give a movie.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.