By Stephen Whitty
The new Little Women takes a few liberties with the book. But it is absolutely loyal to its author.
Over the last 150 years — and more than half a dozen other film adaptations — Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel has become a beloved young-adult classic, seen as an Americanized “Dickens Lite” of Victorian Christmases and plucky protagonists.
Yet the real Alcott, like Dickens, was made of sterner stuff. And Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation addresses that, by reemphasizing Alcott’s real passions, and adult concerns.
Of course, they were always there to begin with, which is why the movie adaptations have drawn feminists from Katharine Hepburn to Susan Sarandon. Even as a 19th-century teenager, Jo is the model of a modern woman, an independent girl determined to live her own life.
“Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts,” she exclaims at one point. “And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for!”
Gerwig’s script dramatically underlines Jo’s frustration, while wedding it to her struggle as a writer. When we first meet her, she’s in the shadows, waiting to meet with a dismissive publisher; in the film’s final shot, she’s standing in the sunlight, holding her finished novel in her arms.
It’s still a story about girls growing up. But it’s mostly a story of a woman growing into herself.
Saoirse Ronan, the star of Gerwig’s last film, the lovely Lady Bird, returns and makes a wonderful Jo, full of righteous outrage and explosive excitement. Florence Pugh brings sad shades and shadows to Amy, the spoiled baby of the family, while Laura Dern adds a soft, spiritual presence to their beloved mother, Marmee.
Particularly delicious is Meryl Streep, who plays the girls’ elderly maiden aunt, constantly warning them the only way for a woman to survive is to “marry well.” “But you’re not married, Aunt March!” Jo protests. “That’s because I’m rich,” the dowager smugly replies.
It’s a challenge to take on a period piece, but Gerwig meets it confidently. Only her own scriptwriting occasionally lets her down. Deciding to turn the story into two parallel tales, she cuts back and forth between the March sisters’ childhoods and their adult lives. The interruptions aren’t only confusing, but they also slow down the drama; often, just when we’ve started to become involved in one era, we’re wrenched into another.
Whenever Gerwig relaxes and stops fussing, though, the film kicks back into life. And we look on in wonder at the saintly Marmee; we cheer on the rambunctious Jo; we laugh at the outrageous Aunt March; we wince at Amy’s petty vindictiveness. Just as Little Women fans have for more than a hundred years. Just as they will for hundreds more.
Stephen’s Grade: B+
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh
Director: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho
Director: Nicolas Pesce
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