The new adaptation of Little Women is faithful to the novel while shedding new light on its characters and ideas.
By the time I saw the 2019 adaptation of Louise May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women (thank you Australian release dates), I’d heard so many good things about it that I was concerned it may have been built up too much. It turns out I didn’t need to worry; it was just as excellent as reported. Now that it’s been nominated for several Oscars, it’s clear this film is a standout.
Little Women works as an adaptation because no one is left disappointed by this version not remaining faithful to the novel (although the film has a more open ended conclusion), but it doesn’t let audiences used to high quality productions get bored. Gerwig remained close to the original, but changed the plot from a chronological order to the use of flashbacks. This made me think a bit more about the way the characters changed as they grew up, and added a point of interest to an often-adapted story. One piece of criticism has been that this can make it hard to follow if you aren’t familiar with the story, but there are markers to look for if that is the case: the past uses golden tones and lots of light while the present uses cool, grey tones.
It is a visually beautiful film, even though there weren’t special effects or grand scenery. In fact the set, particularly the March house, looked exactly as expected and was very similar to previous adaptations. This is probably because the Alcott family home (Alcott’s life being the inspiration for Little Women) is still open to visitors today and therefore easy to replicate. But there was something striking about this version, created through moments such as Jo and Laurie dancing outside past the tall, glowing, windows of the Gardiner’s grand house, or the light reflecting off the rain on Friedrich’s umbrella. The use of current film techniques, with creative but realistic additions, felt important in getting the attention of the audience.
The film provides a self-aware commentary on the characters and ideas in Alcott’s novel. It has been revealed that Alcott herself was not thrilled with writing a novel so focused on gender roles (Jo being very much based on herself), or filled with moral lessons. It has also been discovered that her father made several choices that led the family to almost ruin, and her mother bore the brunt of dealing with this. Although the March parents were only ever portrayed in a loving light in the novel, Gerwig’s version provides subtle nods to the reality. Marmee is still the loving, sacrificial mother who expects her girls to give up as much as she does, prevalent from the beginning when she asks them to give their Christmas breakfast to a family living in poverty. This is a move that could be cringe-worthy now we know more about the Alcott’s own struggles, but Marmee is humanised when she tells Jo she struggles with anger too (as in the novel), and even sharply responds to her husband when he dreamily says he should go west (not in the novel). Mr March is portrayed as harmless but naïve. I got the sense that Gerwig’s version was acknowledging his lack of competence without necessarily criticising him.
These subtle changes were applied to several characters. I had assumed casting Meryl Streep as Aunt March meant the character’s comedic side would be emphasised, but it turned out she was excellent as the acerbic but surprisingly insightful great aunt. Laurie is perfectly cast in Timothée Chalamet; it worked to have a Laurie who did look young and somewhat waifish, befitting the original character. Gerwig didn’t hold back on showing him as flawed, but he is the same ‘Teddy’ that Jo and over a century of readers love. This Friederich Baer is also younger, apparently French, and more Jo’s equal than the lighter Laurie. Even John Brooke has more of a personality than past adaptations (or possibly I just love James Norton since recently watching War and Peace). The most insightful changes, though, aptly focus on the four siblings.
The main thing I’d heard about this film was that it changed many people’s view of Amy, and I can see why. Instead of focusing on the vain, often selfish side of Amy, it shows her development into a self-assured woman who stands up to Laurie and is aware of the pressure placed on her to marry well. While Jo is the same beloved protagonist as always, Amy is depicted as her equal in passion, stubbornness and will to support her family. This emphasis on Amy feels like it comes at the cost of the development of the other sisters; Jo was always going to be the standout anyway but Meg and Beth were not given the same focus as her and Amy. However, the quieter characters develop in their own ways. Meg struggles with giving up her dreams of a comfortable life in order to marry John. This starts as a worrisome melancholy, but she soon reconciles with her husband. Beth has some moments of surprising quirkiness. She seems more relatable than previous versions; Eliza Scanlen’s Beth is not as ethereal as Claire Danes in the 1994 version, and her struggle to interact with anyone isn’t as emphasised as in the 2017 BBC version. Instead, as many shy people do, she shows her true nature to her family and loved ones such as the Laurence’s, but becomes nervous around others. Her death, while no less tragic, did not produce the same waterworks it usually does (I fully expected to be a mess halfway through). I think that is mostly due to the change in plot order, so the viewer is prepared for the death earlier, reflecting Beth’s understanding of her future.
Various reviews have used glowing, almost religious, terms to describe this film- The New Yorker called those additional moments of filmic beauty “grace notes,” and The Atlantic called it a “document of hope.” Ironically, this adaptation does not use any of the religious metaphors used by Alcott, such as the girls playing Pilgrims Progress. Given the original source however, I don’t know that it’s ever possible to take out that undercurrent, due to Alcott’s characters and her own background. This is a point I’ve wrestled with in writing this review. Going back to the novel and seeing how intense her writing about faith was, yet knowing how complex her father’s following of transcendentalism made the family’s lives, and how reluctant she was to write about morality, this sat a bit uncomfortably. I wouldn’t change Little Women at all, but the sense that the heavy handed metaphors, such as castles in clouds, may have covered an unhappy childhood bothered me. If Alcott came out of her experiences truly believing what Marmee tells her girls, so much the better, but what if she only wrote what she wanted people to think?
We might not know Alcott’s true intentions in that regard, but we do know that she loved her family and wrote to help them. I’ve read many a Christian novel that is not half as well written and, while Alcott lays on the good little women lines thickly, it was never a sense of guilt for not being the ideal woman that stayed with me after my readings of this novel over the years, but the way the girls change and work to overcome circumstances. Despite not including the references to Christianity in the film, I felt the adaptation also did this. Perhaps I take those themes for granted, however, I don’t really need another pilgrim metaphor but a reminder to do the right thing when it’s difficult, and to work on my own character.
At the end of the film, when Jo is talking to her sisters about the novel she has written about their lives, she says that books are meant to reflect their subject’s importance, but Amy disagrees, saying writing about something makes it more important. Gerwig’s Little Women does both, reflecting the original novel but helping a modern audience appreciate the beauty of the March family’s lives. The family is not depicted as perfect, but loving, with the chaos of family life emphasised, especially in an early scene when Laurie helps Meg home after she sprains her ankle and the women rush around helping her. 2020 has had a chaotic start, to say the least. There is little room for pretending the morals of the Marches are easy to follow, especially now we know they weren’t even easy for the author. This film though, thankfully, doesn’t dismiss them but shows the reality for a family with little resources trying to do right, revealing one of the themes of the novel- that life is not perfect, but good. This and the visual beauty of the film help it work as a modern adaptation.