Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Tracy Letts, Louis Garrel
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is one of those classic novels that has proven so popular and thought-provoking since its creation that it’s been adapted numerous times, for both stage and screen. At first it may seem like there’s only so much you can do time and again with the same material, prompting concerns of repetition and monotony, but as time passes and society moves on (for better or worse), the themes contained within Alcott’s writing do not change, remaining as relevant as they ever did. As feminism, a decades-old movement, continues to rise and situate itself firmly in our daily conversations, so does the meaning of Little Women and the prominence of the female protagonists, their seemingly insignificant lives and thoughts becoming ever-more important and meaningful. Does Gerwig’s adaptation remain faithful to its source while providing a commentary on the current societal climate, or are we looking at just another disappointing book-to-film money-spinner?
In 1860s New England, North America, the young March family, consisting of the matriarch Mrs. March, known as ‘Marmee’ (Dern), and her four daughters, Jo (Ronan), Meg (Watson), Amy (Pugh) and Beth (Scanlen), live their lives quietly and averagely as the girls each verge on womanhood. Jo is an aspiring writer, keen to live her life how she sees fit rather than do what is expected of her (i.e. marriage and housewifery), expectations that have mostly been set down by the girls’ Aunt March (Streep); Meg, known as the prettiest sister, dreams of the life which Jo rejects, wanting to fill her life with love and luxury but without the arrogance that often comes with such things; Amy, a talented artist, despairs at the family’s new-found poverty and drives herself to ensure a future that consists of the finer things; and Beth is the timid pianist who, despite often finding herself weak and abed with sickness, is the light of everyone’s lives with her positivity and kindness. The family are often visited by their neighbours, the elder Mr. Laurence (Cooper) and his young grandson, Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Chalamet). Along with their acquaintances, the lives of the March sisters aren’t without their trials and tribulations, and as they come of age, we bear witness to their ever-growing minds and personalities.
If you have read ‘Little Women’, you’re probably aware of how much of a gem of a novel it is. Alcott’s story, whilst slightly outdated in occasional parts, is still almost entirely still relevant today, quite unbelievably. The characters are some of the most relatable in fiction, particularly if you are female and have sisters. It’s an important book that should be read by all, male or female or other, with or without siblings. It contains important lessons for us all, most of them coming from the wise maternal offerings of Mrs. March. These lessons and the themes they represent are all-important when adapting the story, and thankfully the wonderous talent that is Greta Gerwig has done a standout job with it. She hits all the marks in the screenplay, from the deep-rooted love and loyalty that runs through the March family and beyond to their neighbours and friends, to the individual personalities and struggles and dreams of the women (older women included) and their unique bonds with each other. A lot of this is recognisable in our own relationships, and it’s this relatability that opens up the film to the audience, allowing us to see everything that Gerwig has achieved with it.
Thanks to strong characters and a solid story, even those viewers who don’t find themselves relating all that much to either will still find themselves entertained. The characters are perfectly cast, performances are incredibly robust and the plot, though there’s little of it in the novel, is more well-rounded than expected. Gerwig helps us jump from event to event in the girls’ story by bridging them with a depth that also depicts each character’s growth. And it’s not just the females – unlike many movies in which the female (if there is one) is usually a supporting character or less and has little to no development, the men have plenty going on for them without overshadowing the female protagonists. For example, Laurie is shown to have his own growing up to do, facing his own problems and learning his own lessons, and Mr. Brooke (Norton) proves himself to be the kind of man all men should aspire to be: supportive and understanding of women without feeling emasculated in any way. There is, in fact, no emasculation to be found in Little Women, showing that Gerwig has achieved a rare balance of sexes in her movie, or allowing one to shine in parts but not discounting the other in any way.
It will be a surprise if there aren’t award nominations aplenty for some of the performances. Ronan already has a best actress nomination for the 2020 Golden Globes and is sure to receive an Academy Award nomination in the same category. She embodies Jo so entirely that one could think the character was originally written for her. Her tomboyish vibe and excellent skill as a performer go hand in hand to portray one of the most popular and strongest women in literature. The way in which the character is linked so closely to Alcott’s own story as an author is also an interesting and thought-provoking angle to take, and gives certain parts of the story a good framework from which to take off. Watson is visually a perfect Meg, and her own placid and virtuous persona is reflected in the character, but she is let down by a fairly weak attempt at an American accent, unfortunately, making some of her dialogue a little off-putting. Pugh is arguably the standout of the cast, with Amy’s development and growth the largest of the four main girls. She easily makes us believe she’s a young teenager but is also able to act like the twenty-something Amy becomes. Pugh’s versatility and natural talents go far in Little Women, and it would have been a travesty to have anyone else in the role. Newcomer Scanlen rounds out the sisters perfectly, effortlessly making us believe in Beth’s pure heart and being the source of much of the film’s emotion. Dern is an excellent Mrs. March; perhaps not quite what many may have imagined the character to be, she is wonderfully matriarchal, though it would have been nice to see her have more of that Marmee wisdom that’s so prevalent in the book. Chalamet is cheeky yet charming as Laurie, a delightful breath of fresh air whenever he pops up, and his chemistry with Ronan is as palpable as it was in Lady Bird, Gerwig’s previous collaboration with them both. Overall, we have an utterly captivating cast, every one of them as unique and spirited as their fictional counterparts, with very successful supporting performances all round.
It feels rather glib to say, but Little Women shines a bright light on the capabilities, individualities and ambitions of women. It should be something we see casually every day, but for someone reason it’s something we’re still talking about whenever it’s represented onscreen, and while we still must talk about it, we/Gerwig absolutely shall. Women are still fighting for our right to be more than just what nature apparently says we should be. Just like Alcott’s novel, Gerwig’s film ought to live in the minds and hearts of audiences for years to come, lovingly bringing to life these fantastic characters based right out of Alcott’s own experiences with her own mother and sisters (hence the relatability for many of us) and reminding us of what we’re capable of when we remember that we DO have a choice, even if we still have to fight for equality and our right to live how we choose. It’s absolutely a must-see movie this season and will make you want to either revisit the book or read it for the first time (though Gerwig has truly been as faithful to the story and its foundations as a filmmaker could possibly be when adapting a beloved novel). It’ll be interesting and exciting to see what future generations, particularly of women, will make of this story.