Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women”: The beloved 19th-century novel gets a 21st-century remake in film

  • Emma Watson, left, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen play the March sisters in Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal 1868 novel, “Little Women.”  Photo be Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures/TNS

  • Florence Pugh, as Amy March, with Timothée Chalamet, as “Laurie” Laurence, in a scene from “Little Women.” Photo by Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures/TNS

  • From left, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in a scene from “Little Women.” Photo by Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures via AP

  • Greta Gerwig has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Little Women”; the film has also been nominated for a number of other awards. But some critics say Gerwig was slighted in not being nominated for Best Director for the movie.  Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP

For the Gazette
Published: 2/6/2020 9:11:35 AM

Editor’s note: The film “Little Women” has been nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. But director Greta Gerwig did not receive a nod, and many critics, who have given the film high marks, call that an outright snub. With the Oscars nearly upon us, one local writer weighs in on what she thinks Gerwig got right in her film.

During the first half an hour or so of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” I felt as though I was being whirled around in a giant laundry basket. Four nubile young women, the March sisters, scamper about and occasionally wrestle with each other in homely dresses long enough to sweep the floors clean.

They also have tousled bed hair, seemingly untouched by comb or brush, yet still shiny and curly. They run, rather than walk, enjoying the kind of athletic freedom taken for granted by boys, but not by girls who are expected to move at all times with demure grace.

The film is based on Louisa M. Alcott’s famous 1868 novel of the same name and set during the period shortly before the end of the U.S. Civil War. In fact, during much of the book and movie, the father is away, serving as a pastor in the Union Army.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” depicts a unique environment for women: a family living in what might be called genteel poverty, composed of a mother and her four daughters, all enjoying themselves in the absence of controlling men. But they’re also struggling to nurture their dreams and goals in a world that traditionally confines women’s aspirations to the domestic sphere.

Gerwig, who both directed the film and wrote its script, examines the sisters’ struggles to fulfill their ambitions while being mindful of the loving duty they owe to their family. But she also uses current cinematic techniques, including that of scrambled chronology, to tell the story of the old power struggle between men and women in a contemporary way.

The four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their mother live in a typical New England saltbox house, flanked — at a suitable distance — on one side by the sprawling mansion of a wealthy, benevolent neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his grandson, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. On the home’s other side is a ramshackle cabin in which a very poor family live.

Interestingly, the very poor are almost never seen, though we do see the March sisters’ mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), convincing her daughters to give away their Christmas meal to their starving neighbors, though the March household is hardly wealthy. These three very different houses visually represent the American class system, with its emphasis on individual charity rather than systemic, economic reform.

Besides the satisfaction of do-gooding, there is also the frisson afforded by the rich neighbor’s indolent, elegant grandson (played by Timothée Chalamet) and his tutor, John Brooke, who’s in love with Meg. The indigent lives of the March girls are lightened by lots of discreet flirtation. Lots of fun for them and for us, the viewers.

Jo, the aspiring writer, is played by the talented Irish actress Saoirse Ronan; Chalamet brings his lanky, soulful-eyed look to his role as Jo’s would-be suitor. Oh, and Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, is played by James Norton, who closely resembles Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture and can play a priest (“Grantchester”), a serial killer (“Happy Valley”), and a tutor with equal aplomb.

Eye candy, all of them. And why not? In the current political climate, we need all the beauty we can get in order to survive.

What’s particularly impressive about Gerwig’s interpretation of “Little Women” is that she foregrounds’s Jo’s passion for writing and her fight for financial independence. Marriage, Jo proclaims every chance she gets, is an economic proposition: A man has to get himself a wife for sex, housework and offspring who will inherit his wealth.

In the bad old days, there was no blood test to confirm that the child who would inherit your ill-gotten wealth was really yours. Only the marriage bond provided proof of sorts. The persuasive fiction of romantic love, like that of religious belief, casts a rosy glow over the harsh realities of quotidian life and makes them a little easier to endure.

Jo, though, is determined to do things on her own terms and pursues her writing. Yet she’s not immune, at least at first, to the ways men can dictate things to women. In her first interview with her publisher, she is pathetically grateful that the imposing bearded figure in front of her has condescended to take his booted feet off the table and offer a minimal share of royalties — while he retains all the editorial rights to chop and change her novel as he pleases.

But her last interview is a total contrast: The confident Jo calmly haggles for equal authorial rights and profits and wins. The publisher looks gobsmacked.

Jo does marry eventually — a professor, with whom she can at least have interesting conversations, or so one hopes. And in addition to examining the struggles women face in their relationships with men, “Little Women” also considers the conflict between youthful idealism and the inevitable compromises that come with adulthood.

Jo’s sisters also settle for marriage, but not in a romantic haze. They are fully aware it provides a comfortable prison, a marginally better alternative to social ostracism and penury as “spinsters.” Like Jo, they reject the fiction that marriage is the culmination of “romantic” love.

Other reviewers of “Little Women” have also noted that in reworking some of the dialogue and timelines of Alcott’s novel, Gerwig has offered her own take on some of the issues that affected women at that time — from their lack of civil rights, the legal constraints they faced in marriage, to the obstacles they faced in the arts and other fields where they might want to pursue a career.

Let’s face it: religions and social institutions like marriage are useful instruments of control invented by the gender and the class that most benefit from them. Gerwig’s visualization of these problems is not preachy, thank heavens. Instead, the movie is as entertaining as it is instructive.

Meera Tamaya lives in Florence and is a former professor of English at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. She earned her PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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