Review: Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’

Matilda Blake reviews Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of ‘Little Women’ – a film which is bound to cure those January blues.

‘Little Women’ was the first book that broke my heart. I remember the devastating pre-teen sadness I felt, because I just couldn’t fathom why Jo wouldn’t want to be with (who was at the time) my ideal man: perfect boy-next-door Laurie. Because I, like many girls who have read ‘Little Women’, believed I was Jo. Since then, a lot has changed, years have passed, and I’ve grown up into a less-little-woman. But it remains one of my favourite books and since the 2019 adaptation was announced, well over a year ago now, the excitement that accompanied it has not dipped. A year is a long time to be anticipating something, and I am happy to report that Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ did not disappoint. 

Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ manages to be both faithful and refreshing. It feels extremely contemporary without pedanticism. This is no mean task, to say that the original text continuously wavers between pious conservatism and surprising modernity. Gerwig reads between the lines of the book and tells the story that one can imagine Louisa May Alcott might have wanted to tell. The story itself is not shown to us chronologically as it has been in previous adaptations, of which there are many, but thematically instead. This is the really key difference which allows Gerwig to tell the same story to a completely different effect, compellingly and convincingly. 

The original book was released in two parts, ‘Little Women’ and ‘Good Wives’, comprising of the sister’s childhoods and early adulthoods respectively. This is denoted in the film by clearly distinct colour-grading; a golden glow for the scenes of childhood and a blue tone for those of adulthood. This provides visual clarity for the time-jumps, although I can imagine that if you weren’t already familiar with the story that this might still be a little confusing. Nevertheless, it certainly helps to facilitate the truly beautiful cinematography of both eras in the girls’ lives. The world of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1860’s feels as lived-in, messy and lovely as the rumpled and vivid clothes the characters wear. 

I have mentioned the kinship that is almost always felt by readers for Jo. It makes sense, as she is the most modern of her sisters, the one therefore most relatable to audiences and readers who are increasingly far away from the era in which the book was written. Jo also stands in for Alcott, for whom the book was at least semi-autobiographical, so of course she is the most intimately illustrated of the four. This has resulted in the other girls being somewhat overlooked in the past, by readers and movie adaptors alike. Gerwig however, devotes special attention to each of the characters. They are all fully rendered, with desires and ambitions and quirks that makes it easy to feel affection for all four of them, none more noticeably than Amy.

Amy has always been a hard character to love. As a child she is sulky and superficial: she performs the unforgivable act of burning Jo’s manuscript, and as an adult she suddenly and unexpectedly marries Laurie, the boy whose romance with her sister we have just spent hundreds of pages rooting for. So yes, it is hard to love Amy. But Greta Gerwig deftly counters this, by emphasising the sheer amount and strength of the likenesses between her and Jo. In the book, they are presented as polar opposites, tomboy vs. girly girl. In this movie though, Amy’s ambition and practicality are shown in tandem with Jo’s. We see how much she looks up to and envies her big sister. The thematic story-telling facilitates the rigorous comparisons drawn between the two. It amazes me how differently I feel about Amy now, a character I had always hated. This is not least due to Florence Pugh, who is absolutely a stand-out cast member, masterfully pulling off hilarity, petulance, heartbreak, ambition and self-assurance in turn. 

The problem of Jo’s ending is also dealt with conscientiously. Gerwig acknowledges the difficulty readers have with accepting that Jo neither ends up with Laurie, or on her own as the literary spinster she says she wants to be. Jo’s eventual husband Professor Bhaer is played by Louis Garrel, a good-looking (age appropriate) Frenchman, an alternative to the German, somewhat paternalistic version of the character from the novel. This fact helps us all to invest more in this ending for Jo. More important though, is the scene at the literary agent. Jo confidently negotiating her copyright, defending the prerogative of her heroine to end up alone and ultimately watching her first novel being bound is extremely satisfying. The meta quality of her discussion with the agent about the protagonist’s love story allows Gerwig to effectively have her narrative cake and eat it – she manages to create a sense that any interpretation of the ending is valid. The audience is allowed a kind of choice that the book does not give them. The reality of the ending is therefore made wryly ambiguous, and yet it still feels rewarding. This is also pertinent in the way in which Beth’s illness and death unfolds; two distinct narratives are shown simultaneously, one from earlier in Beth’s illness when she survives, and the second, tragic story of her passing. This gives a sense of an alternate timeline: that audiences can see both versions concurrently means they are both equally valid and real; the sadness of one does not negate the joy of the other. 

‘Little Women’ successfully employs the feeling of nostalgia without relying on its potency. It dares to take risks not only with the way in which the story is told, but with the story itself. It also manages to stand on its own as a film, giving things to the audience that the book could not – in this way it enriches the original text upon which it was based. It does that so beautifully, and with such style and care that it is hard to imagine how the next generation’s ‘Little Women’ could improve upon its predecessor.

Artwork by Izzy Guest

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