January 24, 2020

For those unfamiliar, Little Women, the 19th Century coming-of-age novel by Louisa May Alcott has been remade into films numerous times. Countless plays, ballets and TV series are based on it as well. Written in 1868, originally in two volumes, Little Women has been heralded as a classic piece of literature for over a century. The novel is semi-autobiographical. And it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to see Alcott as Jo, the writer of the March sisters, since Alcott has three sisters and is the second of the four.

Over the years, many have questioned whether a remake of Little Women is necessary when many other stories about young women have yet to be told. However, a closer look reveals that the various iterations aren’t just the same tale with younger, shinier actresses. Each of them reflects the culture and zeitgeist of the era in which they were produced. The 1949 version emphasises and praises Laurie’s role in the military, connecting to those who went through the Second World War, while the 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder reflects Jo’s desire to find employment (as American women entered the workforce in the 90s).

Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is no different. In a time when women battle for respect and control of their work, her film is a snapshot of our culture. More than just a vignette into the lives of women, this latest version is about their struggle and desire to be brilliant in a society that doesn’t take them seriously. With Saoirse Ronan, as the feisty Jo, Laura Dern as generous Mrs. March, Timothy Chalamet as charming Laurie, and Florence Pugh as the boisterous Amy, Gerwig’s Little Women hones in on the journey of not just young women, but young artists.

The actress-turned-director brings a sentiment that is often expressed in her works—a combination of melancholy, of aching adoration and colourful companionship. In Frances Ha, she played a young dancer who cannot find her way. In Ladybird, she wrote the story of an adolescent who was keen to spread her expressive wings. In Little Women, Gerwig paints an image of four young women who endeavour to achieve authentic artistry amid the cacophony of domestic life. She does this by expertly collapsing the space between the writer and her work, affirming Alcott’s role in the story. Ronan even plays an ambidextrous Jo; a skill Alcott was known for. The film is as much a fresh retelling as it is a love letter to Louisa May Alcott.

Gerwig comments on the difficulty of maintaining artistic integrity in the face of external demands by giving context to the surprises of the original work. There is still hostility towards Alcott’s choice to have Amy and Laurie wed because it doesn’t seem believable. Gerwig, however, crafts the story in a way that makes us understand this union in a more natural way by sharpening the development of Amy and Laurie’s relationship. Readers often root for Jo and Laurie to end up together, but their rapport is held in soft focus like a thing of the past. In doing so, Gerwig justifies the youngest sister’s marriage to the boy next door, with whom everyone was convinced Jo would end up with.

This artful bend also allows Gerwig to better capture the independence and freedom of Jo—although in the books she marries Professor Bhaer, which seems incongruous with her untameable spirit. That is why the film alludes to the protagonist’s union with the (originally German but turned French) professor as an ending forced upon the writer to placate patriarchal values where “the heroine must be married or dead by the end,” according to her editor Mr. Dashwood. The splicing of an overdramatised reunion scene between Bhaer and Jo into her quibbling conversation with her editor hints at the contrived nature of the marriage.

The most unique part of this recent interpretation isn’t the hypothetical ending but the narrative’s complete restructuring. Gerwig weaves together a quilt of two timelines, two starkly different periods of the March sisters’ lives, and evokes nostalgia through the romanticisation of youth. The contrast between the time frames shows not only the loss of that innocence and the harshness of the world, but also the growth that comes from it.

Adding to that, the flashbacks and forwards at the trigger of a memory create a syncopated rhythm to the film. The links to the present and past are at once subtle yet clear, rendering the structure innovative as well as purposeful. The scenes of childhood such as Jo’s first meeting with Laurie, Beth catching scarlet fever, Amy injuring her hand, are all flooded in golden light and drenched in the warmth of their amity and frivolity. The present is told in cold hues; a contrast to the previous shimmering times, lending depth and realism to the characters’ journeys.

Both Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan have been nominated for their performances at the Oscars this year. Part of the lightness of the film can be accredited to how the two sisters, express themselves so earnestly, loudly, and passionately in their various monologues within themselves and between each other. Both the artistic characters (Jo the writer and Amy the painter) are self-aware and frustrated but never cynical. There’s also a dance of intimacy and rivalry in their sibling relationship, which is entertaining to watch.

Pugh has a way of carrying the humour as Amy. She displays a childish temper, a rampant desire for attention and is effortlessly playful in her portrayal. “Tell the servants I want this painting purchased for me immediately,” she mocks while ruffling through Laurie’s books. With her doe eyes and elegant physicality, there is range and complexity in Pugh’s performance. Out of all the sisters, she displays the most evolution, growing from an impatient child to an ambitious young woman. In the present timeline, she tells Laurie, “I want to be great or nothing,” as she cleans her paint brushes.

Little Women is wonderfully wild just like its characters. It’s not a mocking of domestic turbulences, it’s a celebration of them—an ode, even. Gerwig breathes new life into the story with layers and twists. This isn’t just another remake, but a timely interpretation and a piece of art that stands on its own.

Image Credit: CTMG