by SC Reviewer Shelby Larsen
Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth March, whose lives were immortalized in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women, have once again been dramatized. There have been more than 25 different direct adaptations of Little Women—film, television, theatrical, ballet and opera. Jo March, the ambitious writer of the quartet, would be astounded – and proud. As of course would the actual author, Louisa May Alcott, since the work is generally considered to be autobiographical, or at least semi-autobiographical.
Much of the story’s continuing appeal lies in the basic, almost archetypical characters, and their lives. Romance interacts with the societal values that stretch through the years—home, work, the arts, responsibility, economics—all things of concern in 1868, or 1917 (when the first silent movie was made) or 1933, or 1949, or 1994.
So, what differentiates Little Women 2019 from the other versions?
For one thing, this is clearly not a stuffy historical drama. Nor is it a “modern version” of the story. Nor is it soapy or sentimental. The director, Greta Gerwig, has made it a pleasure to watch the ordinary things of life depicted in a way that makes the March family entirely relevant to today.
Another excellent directorial choice is departing from normal chronologically straight storytelling. This version shifts in time, as the “little” women become fully grown women. We see the four as they are grown, and as they are growing in their playful, rambunctious teens.
For those not familiar with the source material, the shifts may be somewhat confusing at first, but as the March girls’ characters are established, it makes it apparent who these women are, and why they are what they are.
Gerwig also emphasizes their strong family bonds. All to often today, families are portrayed as a place where sarcasm and pettiness pass for humor and the ties that bind are truly binding. Pettiness is expected, and hurts are often exploited rather than explored. And, although the March family allows jealousy, sibling rivalry, and differing goals to create some truly hurtful behaviors the family’s essential love keeps them united. As Jo says, “life is too short not to forgive a sister”
At the same time, as each of the girls grow, and develop their own personality, they give the viewer an opportunity to identify with their own paths in life. And, although I have seen only v three of the many adaptations, each iteration seems to choose to emphasize the values and needs of its own time and place.
Whereas in 1933, the March family embodied independence, hard work, and concern for the less fortunate during difficult times, the 2020 version touches only lightly on the family’s economic issues, and compassion towards others is not emphsized in the films boundless energy and optimism.
Although they exist in genteel poverty, there is no sign of true want or need. Charitable deeds are mentioned, but not shown. The economics of male/female relationships as well as social strata, receive more attention here.
All of the actors do excellent work. Saorise Ronan’s depiction of Jo, the writer, reflects the duality of the search for an identity other than society’s defined role. In the book, her father refers to her as “son Jo” and Ronan brings to life the concept that a woman can have abilities and ambitions of a man, and yet keep her essential femaleness. When she marries, it is to a man who appreciates her intellect and accomplishments, Meg, (Emma Watson) who embraces home and children, marries a tutor, a life choice that means limited income opportunities. Amy, (Florence Pugh) realizes the limits of her talents. She turns to marriage, the usual choice for women, stating “don’t tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition”. She marries into wealth, fortunately with affection, to the young man Laurie, (Timothee Chalmet) a childhood companion of the March sisters. Chalmet’s portrayal of Laurie as more like a helpless puppy than a young man about town was for me the only false note. However, whether Gerwig or Chalmet, or both together made this creative choice, Chalmet did it very well.
Little Women, the book, served to establish the idea that there were different possibilities for women, and that women are complex, interesting people, whose lives are worth watching. (The Kardashians, Sex in the City, and many other popular cultural moments owe Louisa May Alcott a debt of gratitude.)
See the film for its joy, for its radiance, for its love, and for its respect for family, for differences, for obligations, and for choices. It’s radically different than anything we’ve seen lately.