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TV/Film “Little Women” is Greta Gerwig’s toast to Louisa May Alcott

Feb. 4, 2020
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Women have minds and souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty. And I’m sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. 

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott’s famous 1868 novel of the same name, remains wonderfully close to the book. The things I read as a child—Meg’s hair being burnt off, Jo and Laurie meeting at a ball, and (the part that makes everyone’s blood boil) Amy burning Jo’s early manuscript—are all in the film, flawlessly translated from text to screen. There are quotes directly from the novel, including the opening dialogue from the first chapter that’s pressed into my memory from years of reading it. Gerwig’s loving attention to detail imbues the movie with a feeling that she cherishes Little Women just as much as I do. But while its adherence to the book makes Little Women feel accurate, it’s the differences that make it both refreshing and resonant. 

One difference is the timeline, which intertwines past and present to keep viewers on their toes. This nonlinear back-and-forth is perhaps what leads to an even sadder goodbye when Beth dies of scarlet fever, and a greater sympathy for Jo, who is left to grieve. Parallels are drawn between youth and adulthood, such as Jo’s first dance with Laurie and her dance with Professor Bhaer years later. The film cleverly balances the somberness of adulthood and the present while retaining the youthful joy of early days. 

Besides the timeline, the greatest difference between Louisa Alcott’s Little Women and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the ending. The scenes in the movie closely reflect the scenes in the book until the last scenes, specifically regarding Jo’s storyline. 

After Beth’s death, Jo (played by a perfectly cast Saoirse Ronan) writes furiously in her attic, laying paper after paper down on the wooden floors, inspired by her sister. She bounds the manuscript up and takes it to her publisher. It won’t sell, the publisher tells her—it’s a story about domestic life and everyday women. At this point it’s clear that Jo has written the story of her life, the one that we’ve been watching for the past hour and a half. In between this crucial moment and the next, Jo is met with the chance of romance. In Alcott’s book, Jo takes it. She meets Professor Bhaer in the rain in a chapter aptly titled “Under The Umbrella,” and their love story is sealed with a romantic kiss. In Greta’s version, Jo and the publisher argue about the heroine’s fate. Jo doesn’t think she should get married, but the publisher insists the final romance is good for sales. She relents, gets her check, and there is a brief “Under The Umbrella” moment between Jo and the professor. The audience can infer that the moment is just a continuation of what Jo put in the book for her character. As far as the movie goes, Jo might not have married the professor—he appears in the final shots, but he may as well be a companion or an employee at her school. More importantly, in what can be viewed as the culmination of the film, we see the book being printed, binded, covered—the exhilarating appearance of Little Women, a novel by Jo March. 

Little Women was largely inspired by Alcott’s life, with Alcott as Jo. The book reflected her life in several ways, including her three sisters, family poverty, and her sister Elizabeth’s death. In Alcott’s own life as in the movie, her publisher insisted that Jo would have to be married off. And so, in Little Women (the novel), Jo March marries Professor Friedrich Bhaer. In the movie, Jo is given an ending beyond getting married. She’s the proud author of her own book, and she’s given a possible ending where she lives in accordance with her earlier declaration: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.'' 

Alcott subscribed to that declaration, remaining unmarried and writing domestic stories such as Little Women for money, even if she wasn’t particularly interested in writing them. Yet Alcott still explored the many different ways in which women could be women, a surprisingly modern sensibility. Meg marries a poor man and has a happy family; Amy intends to become famous and marry rich; Beth remains forever in a sort of innocent childhood; Jo rejects the necessity of marriage and chases a career while providing for her family. Women could marry, they could have children, they could learn, they could love, they could have careers and dreams and disappointments and hard times. 

The modernity of Alcott’s story might not have been glaringly obvious in the book, but it stands out in the movie—from Amy calling marriage an economic proposition to Marmee’s admittance that she is “angry nearly every day of [her] life.” Greta Gerwig offers her own modern commentary by making Jo the writer of Little Women. It’s the small differences she makes that bring loving attention to the true essence of Little Women. The story and sentiment were already there through Alcott’s writing; Gerwig just makes them more apparent. 

“Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo says. “It reflects it.” 

“Writing things,” Amy disagrees, “is what makes them important.” 

While Alcott might have been reluctant to write domestic stories like these, Greta has emphasized Little Women’s importance while giving it a new life. It’s in the slight differences of Gerwig’s rendition that Jo March is given a freedom that wasn’t afforded to her in the 1960s. By giving her a life beyond what’s written in the book, Gerwig creates the ending that Alcott wanted. Greta’s Little Women is really a toast to Jo March, Louisa May Alcott, and the other little women of the world.