Movie review

Little Women


It took two daughters and one trusted Alcott-phile friend to convince me to see this latest screen adaptation by Greta Gerwig of my much-beloved Little Women. And — unlike the 1994 version, during which I finally kicked the back of the chair in front of me, crossed my arms, and said “well okay, FINE,” so betrayed did I feel by the filmmakers’ abandonment of core Alcott messages — Gerwig does get some things very very right, righter than in fact I would have thought possible. But she also makes some questionable choices, jarringly elides several sequences in an effort to cover multiple plot points, and narrows Alcott’s humanist message to simply a feminist one; further, her meta take on the ending broke much of the spell for me.

Some upfront quibbles: Combining Mr. Laurence’s gifting Beth with the piano on the same day she returns from the Hummels with scarlet fever piles on too many emotional notes in too short a span. There are too many similar scenes of Laurie and Amy in Paris; it would have been more useful I think to have substituted a scene or two of their earlier connection when Laurie visited her daily during her exile to Aunt March’s when Beth had scarlet fever. I was frankly shocked when Marmee said she was ashamed of her country while she was volunteering at a soldiers’ charity; such a sentiment would never have occurred to the Alcotts or the Marches, and in fact, in the scene from the book, Marmee says she is ashamed of herself for not properly appreciating her blessings when so many others have lost and given so much during this war. Aunt March is the widow of Mr. March’s uncle, not Mr. March’s sister — which really doesn’t make much sense, generationally or economically speaking — and her character’s needling in the book spurs the others to make more noble choices, whereas in the film she only comes off as nasty, criticizing after the fact. And I missed Meg’s “The first kiss for Marmee!” after “she was fairly married.”

But to savor the good. I spent a long time looking for an image that would capture what I loved about this film: its energy, its hustle and bustle, its zest and vitality, its blunt innocence. Through overlapping dialogue, constant uncoordinated natural movement, and speeches and performances that ring with the unself-conscious confidence of the young, Gerwig makes the scenes of the girls’ youth thrum and throb. Their words, actions, thoughts, hopes, jokes, quarrels tumble delightfully across the screen, as this clip shows when Laurie first meets the family after escorting Meg and Jo home from a party:

Their plays in the attic, their aborted Christmas breakfast, their day at “Camp Laurence” playing on the beach, their visit to the Laurences’ home, and, absolute best of all, the Pickwick Club meeting — these evocations of a happy childhood filled with creativity, comradeship, and laughter are every bit as effective as the book, compensating for their brevity by being note perfect.

And another thing Gerwig — and Florence Pugh — gets dazzlingly right is the character of Amy. Pugh delivers a fully comprehensible, utterly well-realized Amy — with all her little vanities and insecurities and energy and graciousness and charm. I had forgotten, and newly appreciated on hearing today, her ruthless honesty in assessing her artistic gifts: “…talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try any more.” Pugh’s Amy threatens, with her wisdom and charisma, to overshadow Saoirse Ronan’s more dour, less colorful, Jo.

Gerwig’s film, for me, floundered once she left their childhood behind, as the girls struggle to become women. Here, Gerwig diverges from the text — or, more accurately, leaves a big chunk of it behind. What grounds and grows the girls, besides their love for each other and for Marmee, is their earnest desire to become better, to overcome temptations and vanities and selfishnesses. This “Pilgrim’s Progress” aspect of Little Women is its spiritual and moral backbone, stemming from Louisa May Alcott’s transcendentalist upbringing. But it doesn’t fit easily with Gerwig’s message — nor, I daresay, a modern orientation in any wise — of independent self-actualization, which is also, most assuredly, evident from the text, and so it is acknowledged only by Marmee’s confession to Jo of struggling with her temper every day. Tellingly, in the book, Marmee explains that Jo’s father, Mr. March, has been pivotal in helping her become more patient. This is a recurring theme of the book: pairs of people — husbands and wives like John and Meg and Laurie and Amy, sisters like Jo and Amy and Beth and Jo, opposite-sex friends, like Laurie or Mr. Bhaer and Jo, and mentors and disciples like Old Mr. Laurence and Beth — help each other, consciously or unconsciously reinforcing each other’s strengths and gently or sometimes chidingly calling the other to task. Gerwig discounts this dynamic in her eagerness to unmask and extol the independent author herself, Louisa May Alcott — and her long-put-upon mother, Abigail Alcott. Recent scholarship, such as Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, brings to light the tough life Bronson Alcott, wittingly or un-, ensured for his wife and daughters, destabilizing their home life and decimating their savings and credit in his Utopian pursuits. Gerwig’s choice of the affable, and yet somehow ever so slightly off, Bob Odenkirk to portray Mr. March is a very deliberate one. He becomes the genial punchline to Laura Dern’s un-Marmee-ishly acerbic response to his naïve and passing enthusiasm for moving cross country.

That paradigm seems to be Gerwig’s commentary on Alcott’s celebration of pairings: couples and coupling are all very well, but you give up something of yourself when you partner. Meg must swallow her pride to ensure John retains his; Marmee must content herself with the occasional jab at her feckless mate; and Jo must set aside her writing to care for others.

Which is why, I suppose, Gerwig makes her big meta play towards the end of the film, when Little Women the book — the cover of which we saw briefly and a bit mystifyingly at the very beginning of the movie with Louisa May Alcott’s name on it — now is the subject of tense and complex negotiations between Jo and her publisher. So Jo is the author of her own book. After settling on rates and rights and percentages (a thinly veiled analogue, no doubt, of Gerwig’s and other female artists’ own struggles with the money men who stand between their creations and their projected public), Jo is told she must marry her heroine off or the deal is null. This same request was made (by fans as well as publisher) of Alcott; as she wrote a friend: “I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.” But in the movie, Gerwig has it both ways, or maybe even three or four ways. She has already introduced a dashing and glamorous Professor Bhaer (no homely old German this) and now we fade from the publisher’s office to a scene with Professor Bhaer arriving at Jo’s home, charming her family, leaving, them urging her to pursue him, Amy fixing her up, Laurie hitching the horses, and the sisters driving her in the pouring rain to chase down her lover, which she does, and they meet, and they kiss under his umbrella, and we hear the publisher remark that that’s romantic.

A new meaning of an earlier scene came to me at this point: Jo had inherited Plumfield out of sequence from the book. Was Gerwig saying that Jo never married? That she is running the school shown at Marmee’s party at the film’s end on her own? And what about all that agonizing on Jo’s part about turning Laurie down and actually writing a letter to him recanting? How does that fit into this alternative universe of Jo as Louisa? This meta musing took me out of the movie’s reality. What reality am I seeing? Alcott’s? Jo’s? Gerwig’s? Can I trust Gerwig’s respect for Alcott and her creations when she is manipulating them in this way? This did not sit well. If you want to make a movie about Louisa, go right ahead. But if you’re doing Little Women, you need to do Little Women.

Ah well. Steve asked if I liked the movie, and I told him I was about 65 percent satisfied with it. At its best, and I found it very satisfying for long stretches, it made the book and its characters live and breathe. And even in a couple of places where she took liberties with the book, I felt Gerwig made some really good choices. For example, when Jo cries over her cut hair, Gerwig has Amy comfort her, not Meg, as in the book. And that is very fitting, and binds those two sisters tightly together. I loved the sly audacity of having Amy in Paris painting alongside other artists in the open air with models that looked much like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe –– particularly since the model for Amy, May Alcott, did paint with the Impressionists when she was in Paris. And Laura Dern is flawless as Marmee. So there is much much to savor in this adaptation; I will put aside the, for me, problematic 21st century injections.

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