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Louisa May Alcott’s two-part novel from 1868 and 69 is a curious beast indeed. What, in this critic’s opinion, makes it such a fascinating read is Alcott’s own ambivalence towards the whole endeavour. The same year that the first volume of Little Women was published, Alcott also wrote an essay entitled, tellingly, “Happy Women,” detailing the lives of four women who avoided the “foolish prejudice” of marriage and instead “remain[ing] single, and devote themselves to some earnest work, […] remaining as faithful to and as happy in their choice as married women with husbands and homes.” Whenever I read Little Women I imagine Alcott’s scorn permeating throughout, highlighting her bitterness at the restrictive roles placed on American women in the mid-nineteenth century even as she replicates them.
Watching Greta Gerwig’s Little Women it seems like the director might just like the text more than Alcott. Still, it’s useful to consider how the most recent adaptation negotiates the compromises Alcott herself made in the original novel regarding female creativity, ambition, and autonomy. As with every adaptation of Little Women, the 2019 iteration makes decisions on how it will interpret, emphasise or ignore aspects of Alcott’s text.
One of the biggest and most fascinating changes found in Gerwig’s Little Women is her decision to disrupt Alcott’s linear narrative, instead moving between the two time periods: the first which follows the March girls as teenagers, and the second which picks up four years later with their experiences of young womanhood. That was a bold move that paid dividends. Alcott’s book is carefully structured into episodes in which the sisters usually learn a lesson which nuances their character: indeed, when teaching Little Women my students often observe that if Alcott was alive today she would probably be writing episodic television shows. While these episodes have certainly worked for previous adaptations, Gerwig’s restructuring introduces a welcome new way of exploring the narrative to those familiar to the story. It also highlights aspects of the family drama that are not so evident otherwise. In particular, I found it fascinating how the relationship between Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) took on nuance that I had not considered before.
As a result, Gerwig’s film never slacks at the midpoint as the book sometimes does, with the audience needing to be reacquainted with the characters four years later. However, there is also a breathlessness to this as viewers also get little down time with these well-liked characters. While scenes of creativity and female bonding in the March household zing along enjoyably with child-like enthusiasm, contrasting well with Marmee’s (Laura Dern) occasional quiet moment of introspection or the sisters’ later returns to a more somber abode, they can also at times frustrate. It’s certainly wonderful to see the girls exploring their interests and expanding their understandings, but as an audience member I would have also enjoyed time to find my bearings, in order to have participated in this matriarchal oasis rather than simply trying to keep pace with the activity.
Considering the big choices Gerwig makes, certain episodes left in stand out like a sore thumb – quite simply because they feel too alien to our modern sensibilities. In particular, Meg’s (Emma Watson) wild weekend as a debutant is rather painful to watch, both because the ball she attends is extremely tame, and because Laurie’s sociopathic disdain for her flamboyant activity is evident in a way that it is stifled elsewhere for the most part. This felt like one place where Timothée Chalamet appeared to be channelling Christian Bale: in the guise of Patrick Bateman, that is.
Indeed, it is extremely telling that in order to update the text Gerwig had to minimise the presence of many of its male characters, particularly Mr. Brooke (James Norton) and Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). It was a huge relief to see Brooke’s controlling actions and condescension towards Meg hugely pared back. Meg and Brooke are instead presented as just-about equals in the running of the household, permitting Norton to excel in the role of charming if somewhat bumbling suitor. Bhaer’s inclusion (beyond a touch of his obnoxious literary negging) is all but not there, and certainly the ending gestures towards a further negating of his presence.
As a result, highlighted is one of the more enjoyable aspects of Little Women: how the male characters come to play second fiddle in the proceedings. Whenever the female characters have exited stage right, leaving Laurie, Mr. Brooke and Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) in their wake, the camera lingers momentarily as the men stand around, all but whistling with their hands in their pockets. There’s something devilishly delicious in seeing a narrative in which the men have so little to say outside the realm of their female counterparts.
However, Gerwig’s Little Women fails in terms of its class and race politics. To claim that a family is struggling financially while having a live-in housekeeper is extremely imperceptive, whether in 1868 or 2019. For Gerwig not to interrogate the role of Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell) within the dynamics of the March family is hugely disappointing, and compounded by the recent discussions of Alcott’s own bigotry towards Irish servants. The inclusion of several characters of colour (many of whom serve to fill out crowd scenes) also falls short of any serious examination of the March family’s privileges. The occasional scene that addresses the civil war does little other than paint the March family as better whites than the bad whites.
The final and most crucial change is the decision to leave Jo’s marriage to Bhaer ambiguous. Alcott unwillingly acquiesced to public pressure to marry Jo off at the novel’s conclusion, but refused to marry her to Laurie, as many fans wanted. Bhaer was in that way a compromise enabling Jo to grow beyond the boundaries of her childhood relationships while eventually conforming to convention. In Gerwig’s Little Women, Bhaer’s inclusion at the end can be read as his agreement to work on at Jo’s school. A power move on Jo’s part which leaves her holding the cards. Or it can be read as marriage as usual. Here Gerwig may herself be compromising in a similar manner: enabling fans to take away the message as they see fit, rather than risking an ending that would disappoint any cohort.
While there are criticism which should not be ignored by any means, there is still much that succeeds in Gerwig’s interpretation. Whether or not the performances strike you as the definitive versions of the characters, they certainly bring new elements and dynamics to the drama. And while watching Saoirse Ronan’s Jo lovingly observe her first copy of Little Women getting sewn together, I thought about how Gerwig similarly sews together the two storylines into one non-linear narrative in a satisfyingly seamless fashion. Further challenging the conventions of marriage for its characters – perhaps not enough, mind you – it’s maybe not quite at the level of “Happy Women” yet, but the March sisters are getting there.