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The Reinvention of Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel is a triumph of Jo-ness.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

What a cynically crowd-pleasing move it could have been to refocus the arc of Little Women so that it became the story of Jo March, aspiring writer, and how utterly relieved I am to learn how well it works in practice. Greta Gerwig’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s novel is intelligent and fleet, refreshing if not radical, and as organic in its feminist convictions as it is in its depiction of close-knit sororal love. As a girl, I was quite obviously a Jo, the same way all of us who read too much and cared too little about romance novels were; because I happened to be born in 1988, my cinematic Jo was the goth ingénue par excellence Winona Ryder, who in Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation gave the character a kind of delicate determination: a tomboy with the deportment of a saint. To replace Winona Ryder in the hearts and minds of millennial women was always going to take something miraculous, making it fortunate that Gerwig ended up casting Saoirse Ronan, who at 25 years old is already one of the era’s greatest actresses. In her first scene, waiting to meet a publisher, the camera shoots her from behind. Already, before we have even seen her face, we feel her ambition, her electricity: We feel her Jo-ness. Her hands, stained with Indian ink, are rarely still. Her face, long and intelligent, looks loveliest when she is at her most determined.

Gerwig’s timeline, in lieu of the usual jump of seven years from girlhood to adulthood, chops and changes between past and present. Childhood, purer and less tainted by unfortunate concerns like death and marriage, appears rosier than adult life, cast in warmer hues and buoyed by a vision of sisterhood as Eden, minus Adam and the snake. As is always the case with Little Women, its events play out against the dubious backdrop of the Civil War, making the insularity of the March sisters’ joys and tragedies harder to stomach if one thinks too hard about the world outside. 

Still, the story’s specificity—to the experiences of the female members of one poor-but-not-too-poor white family from Massachusetts, both in wartime and in its immediate aftermath—has always been the point: It was at one time considered to be a story not worth telling. To date, there have been 12 televisual adaptations of the novel and six films, suggesting that women’s domestic lives are now a long way from being considered tedious or unworthy of attention. “It’s funny,” Gerwig told Variety last month, recalling how doggedly she pursued the project, “because I have never quite gone after something like that. I felt the confidence I had was, in some ways, the confidence of the character Jo. Then similarly when Saoirse [Ronan] heard I was thinking about making the movie, she just told me she was going to be Jo. It wasn’t like, ‘I’d like to play Jo.’ It was, ‘I’ll be playing Jo.’”

A great deal of the movie’s brilliance springs from its perfect casting. Florence Pugh, a genius crier and a master of the onscreen tantrum, is the novel’s most contentious sister, Amy; Beth, the tragic sister with a penchant for piano-playing, is afforded actual life and liveliness before her death by the relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen; Emma Watson, rounding up the girl-quartet, plays Emma Watson, under the adopted alias of “Meg.” (There can be no more thankless March sister to play than the one whose whole thing is niceness, motherliness, and contentedness to play the wife. Either no girls identify as “a complete Meg,” or the few that do are too well-mannered to speak up.)

Marmee, the planet around which the other Marches orbit, is made less saccharine than in some other adaptations by the fact that she is played by Laura Dern, who adds a note of desperation to her sweetness. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” she tells Jo, a line copied verbatim from the novel that feels so contemporary in its righteousness I had to look it up to be sure it was not a new invention. Friedrich Bhaer, the “not handsome” middle-aged professor whom Jo marries in the book, is played by Louis Garrel, who is not “not handsome” and accordingly does not seem as much of a dull prospect for our heroine as his literary foil. Meryl Streep, as Aunt March, brings an appropriate, appropriately hammy dose of Meryl Streep.

If Ronan’s Jo is extraordinary, it should be noted that Pugh’s Amy is equally revelatory, a reimagining of one of literature’s all-time-greatest brats that makes her not just sympathetic, but appealing. Boy-crazy, smart-mouthed, and wild, her ardor for the male sex cools and curdles with experience into world-weariness, a pragmatism that sees love and cash as interchangeable. “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition,” she tells Laurie, angrily, Pugh’s baby face flickering with grief and fury. Her marzipan cheeks and smoky, quasi-Lohanian voice make Amy—despite being the youngest March—the most obviously and irrefutably womanly of the sisters: little, but extremely fierce. By 20, she is done with love and romance, and by the end of the same year she agrees to marry Laurie even though she is his second choice. When they first kiss, what ought to feel erotic or electric feels instead like the best outcome for a set of unfortunate circumstances.

What is most interesting about Gerwig’s Little Women is not necessarily its structural ingenuity, but its emotional intelligence: It recognizes marriage circa 1860 as an institution that does not necessarily work in tandem with true love. Meg marries happily but poorly and is shown to suffer for it; Amy will not want for anything. Who is the bigger fool? It may be Meg, since although money cannot buy you love, it can buy nearly everything else one might need to lead an easy life.

As for Laurie, I cannot think of an actor better suited to the role at present than Timothée Chalamet. He is the film’s great beauty, and the camera loves him as if it were being wielded by an adolescent girl. Laurie is charming, maddening, and very good at lounging on various kinds of nineteenth-century furniture. He is also, as seen next to Jo and Amy, something of a trifling figure: a rich playboy whose good looks and education have not compensated for a life spent half in stultifying captivity, half in parentless excess. That he flits from one March sister to another, at first loving Jo and then marrying Amy, makes him appear callous, immature, or undiscerning in some versions of the story, giving him the reputation of a literary fuckboy. Gerwig’s answer is to underscore his real desires by ensuring that the movie’s most romantic beat comes not between Laurie and any of the sisters, but between Laurie and all of them, plus Marmee. Delivering Jo and Meg home from a ball, he walks unwittingly into the lion’s den, face to face with five Marches in full flow. There is an air of tenderness, an easiness that radiates like fireside heat. “Just call me mother, or Marmee,” Dern’s matriarch informs the boy. “Everyone does.” 

Here more than anywhere else in the movie, he seems thunderstruck by his own longing: What he wants is to be loved the way the Marches love each other. (Gillian Armstrong’s version, in which Christian Bale plays Laurie, makes this more explicit: “I have always known I should be part of the March family,” he tells Amy gleefully in his proposal, as if he were filling in an application for a job at March Incorporated.) One of the reasons Little Women has been adapted so many times is that the reader or viewer invariably wants this, too. The golden cast Gerwig gives to the Marches’ childhood memories is not only an acknowledgment of the nature of nostalgia, but a tacit nod to the way that whenever we watch Little Women, what we’re really watching for is that halcyon time before Beth dies, before Jo turns down Laurie and he refocuses his campaign on Amy, and before Jo—who has previously said that her dream is to be “a businessman” when she grows up, and who bemoans not being allowed to do “boys’ things”—marries not for love, but because women were supposed to end up married at the end of nineteenth-century novels.

On this last front, Gerwig’s version has its pickled lime and eats it, too. Of all of Little Women’s reinventions, this is the most necessary, and the loveliest, and I am hesitant to spoil it. I will say that it could only have been dreamed up by somebody who has identified since adolescence as a Jo.