Has there ever been a novel that could match the perennial quality of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”? I think there have been something like seven versions committed to film, between movie and television efforts. The latest, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is well worth your time.
While I have some issues with Gerwig’s choices, there’s no denying the film’s excellence. Let’s jump into the shallow end of the pool first. This is a visually beautiful film. Shot primarily in and near Louisa May Alcott’s home town of Concord, Massachusetts (which I call Disney World for English and History majors), Gerwig takes full advantage of the glorious New England autumn. Even better, the scenes during Laurie’s picnic at the sea shore are incredibly evocative—almost as if Winslow Homer’s “Long Branch, New Jersey” had sprung to life. Best of all, Gerwig never fails to remind us of how young these sisters and their friends are, unlike earlier filmed versions of “Little Women.” The pure magic of Jo and Laurie’s exuberant dance across a candle-lit patio at their first ball is a lovely sight indeed.
Gerwig revitalizes Alcott’s story by playing with time. Shrewdly, she opens the film with Jo’s visit, “for a friend,” to the publisher Mr. Dashwood, in hopes of seeing her short story in print. We’re then taken back seven years to the proper start of the novel on Christmas Day. The to and fro of flashforwards and flashbacks works for the most part, though at times you may have a sense of whiplash. This is particularly apparent when Gerwig alternates between Beth’s bout with scarlet fever and scenes of her on her death bed (Helpful hint: focus on the length of Jo’s hair to determine where you are in the story). Unfortunately this constant back and forth prevents some key story points from landing full force because the build-up is missing. This is particularly apparent when Jo reveals she’s sold her hair to help fund her mother’s trip to Washington to see her father. The full impact of that doesn’t quite register. Yet Gerwig’s presentation of other key elements, such as Jo’s crying over that shorn hair, couldn’t be better. I don’t think I ever really appreciated before what a mean, nasty act it was for Amy to burn Jo’s novel. Or the fright of seeing her fall through the ice, only to be rescued by Laurie’s quick thinking.
I was a bit disappointed in a couple of turns this version of “Little Women” took. I thought Gerwig didn’t quite give Jo her due with respect to her rejection of Laurie’s proposal. In the novel, Laurie is clearly the brother Jo never had, and she realizes this even before he declares his feelings for her. Further, she expresses no regret whatsoever when she learns of Amy and Laurie’s marriage (by letter, contrary to the film), though she does acknowledge to her mother that she might have changed her mind had Laurie proposed again. That business in the film of her putting this in a letter to Laurie irked me somewhat, particularly since she’s subsequently seen to be almost mourning a lost chance. I never got that sense from Louisa May’s Jo, though Gerwig, in emphasizing a rivalry between the sisters, presents it well. Finally, I wish we could have seen Laurie’s proposal to Amy as Alcott had written it, as the two of them row on the lake. Only Lord Peter Wimsey’s proposal to Harriet Vane in the novel “Gaudy Night” tops it for romance.
The casting of this film could not be better, In addition to the three actors pictured above, there’s Eliza Scanlen (Beth), Laura Dern (Marmee), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), Louis Garrel (a very young Friedrich Bhaer) and, most memorably, Meryl Streep as a very tart yet astute Aunt March, and Tracy Letts as Mr. Dashwood, amusingly sparring with Jo over royalties, copyright and whether a happy ending in marriage is essential to the success of her novel. Simply superb performances all around, yet Saorise Ronan as Jo will stay with you the longest. Not just because she plays Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego, but because you simply can’t take your eyes off her. This is star quality, in spades, and I look forward to where she goes next in her career.
Re-read the book, see the movie and enjoy.